David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

What's Really Wrong with Carlos Santana (and How to Fix It)

Anyone who has watched the Indians of late is sure to have noticed how badly the offense is struggling to score runs (Baltimore series excepted). Yes, injuries are partly to blame for the lackluster production, but it’s not as if the entire lineup has been sidelined. Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Asdrubal Cabrera are all still in the lineup on an almost daily basis, yet the bats continue to struggle.

Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

So what gives? What’s changed from the beginning of the year until now? The biggest reason for the Tribe’s underwhelming offensive output is Carlos Santana.

This was supposed to be the breakout year for Santana, who was coming off of a very impressive rookie debut in 2010 and an eye-popping 2011. Entering this season, Santana was widely regarded as the best-hitting catcher in baseball and the premier hitter in the Indians lineup, and was already being pencilled for the first of what was to be several All-Star games.

The predictions were wholly warranted. Looking at his numbers from the last two years, you could see Santana’s immense potential and understand why there was so much excitement surrounding him.

Batting average aside, Santana put up impressive numbers in his first 200 career games. With a little more experience and better understanding of major league pitching, he was expected to get even better. Understandably, Santana was the least of the Indians’ worries heading into 2012. But now, as the All-Star Break draws near, Santana may become priority number one. Here are his stats entering Monday’s action.

That’s not what anyone expected from Carlos Santana when 2012 began. As the centerpiece of the Tribe’s lineup he was expected to be knocking in runs left and right. Five home runs through 63 games? What happened to his power? Is Santana everything the Indians and the fans expected him to be, or was his previous success simply smoke and mirrors? Have his concussion and back problems affected him more than we know? Put bluntly, is Carlos Santana broken?

Fear not—the answer is no. Carlos Santana isn’t broken. Anything but, actually. Take a look at Santana’s numbers through the first 63 games of 2011 and you’ll see something stand out.

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Through the first 63 games of 2011, Carlos Santana was almost the exact same player as the one we have seen through the first 63 games of 2012. He homered two extra times and struck out a bit less, but while his 2012 line is slightly worse, he’s basically on the same track he was on last year.

Stats aside, though, Santana just doesn’t look like himself at the plate. How can we explain this? How is it possible that the same player who looked so good in our memories last year could look lost at the plate in 2012? To be honest, it’s not as simple as fixing this, that or the other. There are a number of reasons for Santana’s poor production and each of them is playing a part in this. Some of them are very much Santana’s own doing, and others are completely out of his control. But the issues present have had a cascading type of effect.

Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

The biggest factor in fans’ minds is Santana’s health; his concussion in May didn’t help anything, and the nagging problem in his back and side area could have hampered him for longer than we knew—I’m willing to guess it’s been bothering Santana longer than the Indians are letting on. As a result, it’s significantly slowed down his bat speed. That would also help explain the less-than-impressive numbers Santana has put up this year and his problems with off-speed pitches.

In an effort either not to further tweak the injury or to avoid any type of sharp shooting pain that tends to exist with a back injury, Santana isn’t swinging a quick bat like a 26-year old. Instead, he’s swinging it more like a 36-year old. Rather than seeing the ball and relying on his bat speed to react and drive the ball, Santana is starting his swing early to try and get ahead of fastballs—only pitchers have figured that out so now he’s not seeing fastballs. Anyone who has watched the Indians this year can see that changeups have become Santana’s kryptonite. The end result: Santana is swinging and flailing at changeups and hitting weak groundballs and popups.

Injuries to the rest of the lineup have hurt him too as they’ve placed added emphasis and pressure on Santana to perform. Whatever your opinion of Travis Hafner, he is the biggest power threat the Indians have to protect Santana. Michael Brantley, who has been hitting behind Santana most frequently in recent weeks, simply isn’t going to affect opposing pitchers the same way Pronk does. This is also partly why Santana’s numbers this year mirror last year’s so closely—this lack of protection isn’t a new trend.

That lack of protection also exacerbates his problems with breaking balls. Opposing pitchers don’t have to be aggressive in going after Santana, regardless of the situation, so he’s seeing significantly more off-speed pitches. Knowing he struggles with those types of pitches, why would any pitcher risk throwing him a fastball? If he walks (which he will) then the opposition is forced to square off against the likes of Johnny Damon, Casey Kotchman, and Jack Hannahan among others. That’s not exactly a murderer’s row.

Right now Santana has shown an unwillingness to use the entire field when he is at bat. He’s trying to get out in front and yank everything out to either left or right, depending on which side of the plate he’s batting from. Again, because he’s the lone power threat in the middle, he feels he has to hit home runs. This more than apparent because he’s hitting a career’s worth of long foul balls, fouling balls off the inside of his front leg, and swinging way to early on off speed and breaking stuff. That’s another reason why he’s seeing so many changeups and looping curves right now.

So what can the Indians and Santana do to fix this? Radio broadcaster Tom Hamilton frequently mentions that the Indians are trying to get Santana to make adjustments, but he’s being stubborn. They want him to quiet his mechanics at the plate—in other words, tone down all the movement before the pitch and ease up on the leg kick. They feel like all the moving parts are throwing him out of whack. The logic behind this is simple: All of that movement is changing his eye level and causing him to swing and miss at pitches he would normally hit or it forces him into weak contact. By quieting his body at the plate, he’ll be able to make better contact and better drive the ball, thus lessening the strike outs and increasing his power.

But that’s only part of the problem, and it won’t solve his zealousness for pulling the ball. Instead of forcing him to change his stance and swing (this is basically what they’re asking him to do so his resistance to change is understandable on some level— good hitters don’t like to tinker too much), the Indians should be helping Santana to change his mental approach at the plate. He should be concentrating on trying to hit the inner half of the ball, which would force him to let the ball enter further into the strike zone and make better use of the entire field, especially up the middle. It would also help Santana stay back on off-speed and breaking pitches. It’s the same basic approach utilized by Joey Votto and it seems to be working wonders for him.

So yes, Santana is in a slump, but we’ve seen this movie before. The Indians can talk all they want about how Santana has to work on quieting his mechanics at the plate, but it’s all going to start with him getting healthy and then getting his mind right. If they can let him do that, his swing will follow. Then and only then will we begin to see the Santana we fell in love with the last couple years.

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