Carlos Santana’s Gameplay Looks Better Than His Numbers Indicate
Though Carlos Santana has seen a somewhat dramatic breakout in recent weeks, his early-season struggles have been well-documented (and well-noted by angry fans), but has he really been hitting the ball any worse than last season? My argument is that Santana hasn’t declined at all, but that the game has in fact changed around him, putting him at a disadvantage he’s never had to deal with before.
We all assume that Santana’s change in defensive position likely contributed to his struggles at the plate early on in 2014, but is it really the entire cause of his drastic drop-off in production during those months? It may have affected his ability to find his power stroke, but I think that an increase in defensive shifts throughout baseball are the reason for his decline in batting average. Santana has always been more of a pull hitter, as indicated by the graphs in this article I posted a few days ago. In that article I went on to explain that the league has pretty much figured out his hitting patterns, and has started to play him accordingly. It’s rare nowadays that Santana comes to the plate without three players on his pull side of the infield. But his hitting hasn’t been any worse, aside from his power numbers being a touch lower.
Consider the following. Santana currently has 71 walks on the year, more than anyone else in baseball. His plate discipline has actually improved significantly from last season. Those 71 walks give him a 17.3% walk rate, up 2.8% from last year’s 14.5% rate. It’s worth noting that his strikeout rate has also increased, but that’s likely due to to a few patches in which he started to get desperate for power swings (possibly due to internal pressure to come up with more hits) and saw his chase rate balloon for a week or two at a time. Overall, his outside the zone chase rate (around 20% this year) has dropped 5% from last year’s 25%, which is a significant difference for those familiar with how that statistic works. However, his outside the zone contact rate has dropped about 5% as well. This might be a fluke, or it might be due to the fact that Santana has been trying to pull the ball an awful lot and saw his swing get quite a bit longer during some stretches of the year (another sign of him getting desperate for a power swing).
So if his plate discipline has actually improved, perhaps the problem is his lack of power? Well, that’s not likely, either. Although Santana’s batting average has dropped, his 80 Total Extra Bases (total bases minus number of hits) is on pace to top last year’s 102 by quite a bit. Correspondingly, his Isolated Power stat has actually increased from .187 to .208 this year; an increase of over 20 points. So he’s actually been hitting for more power, and would probably have more doubles on the year if it weren’t for a decline in his already-poor speed (2.3 speed rating this year, down from last year’s 2.7).
So if Santana is actually hitting for more power with better plate discipline, does that mean he’s changed his swing? Like I mentioned earlier, it has gotten a bit long at times, but the most likely reason is that defensive shifts are taking away an alarming percentage of his singles and doubles. Last year, Carlos Santana had about 13 singles and 6 doubles per 100 plate appearances. So far in 2014, he only has 10 singles and 4 doubles per 100 plate appearances. That may not seem like much at first glance, but a closer look at those numbers reveals that he had 33% more singles and 50% more doubles per plate appearance last year. Considering his ground ball rate is the exact same this year as it was last year, we can infer that that Santana probably hit a similar number of ground ball singles and doubles last year and this year. The difference is, this year there have almost always been three players on his pull side waiting to grab those ground balls (no matter how hard they were hit), and throw them to first base in time for an out. Furthermore, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has dropped from .301 last year to .250 this year, quite similar to his drop in batting average: .268 to .225. That’s probably not a coincidence.
So now we come to some interesting hypothetical postulates. If other teams had played Santana defensively in a similar way they did last year, what might have happened? Let’s take a look at his BABIP. What if the defensive shifts had not taken so many hits away from Santana, and his current .250 BABIP was about .300, where it was last year? Well, those balls in play would have become base hits. If we make a projection in line with Santana’s numbers from 2013 and 2014, about two-thirds of those hits would have been singles, a third would have become doubles. Those extra singles and doubles would increase Santana’s batting average and OBP by 50 points each, and drive his slugging percentage up by 67 points. If we add those increases to his current .226/.363/.433 batting line, it would look like this: .276/.413/.500. His OPS would be about .913, which would rank 12th in baseball, right above Miguel Cabrera and just below Anthony Rizzo.
Now of course this is just a “what if” based on a number of factors that are pretty volatile in the game of baseball, but the point stands that if it weren’t for an increase in defensive shifts, Santana’s numbers would be much better than they are right now. Unfortunately for Santana, however, the way the game is played changes from year to year, and even the best of players are forced to either adapt or fall in the rankings. Santana’s recent play suggests that he’s doing just that, but my overall point is that it would be foolish to assume Santana was ever playing the game any worse than he did last year. His poor numbers were simply a reflection of the game changing around him, a period in which he simply needed to adapt and make adjustments. He’s on one of the most team-friendly deals in baseball, and Indians fans should be ecstatic that we have him for another 3 years after 2014.