In a series of three GIFs from Friday night’s baseballing match between the Indians of Cleveland and the Royals of Kansas City, I’ll attempt to visually encapsulate Carlos Santana‘s 2014 season to date:
In the second inning, Santana hit his team-leading 18th home run. Later in that very long second inning, Santana drew his MLB-leading 72nd walk. In the ninth, he struck out for the 87th time. Thus became the sixth game this season in which Carlos Santana had at-bats end in all three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, home run). Only Giancarlo Stanton, with eight, has had more TTO games than Santana.
The next day, Santana hit two more bombs and drew another walk. He didn’t strike out, but he did raise his TTO percentage to 43%. That is to say, nearly half the time Carlos Santana has come to the plate this season, he’s either struck out, walked or hit a dinger. That’s quickly approaching Adam Dunn territory, and Adam Dunn is the King of the TTO. In fact, only Dunn, Stanton, George Springer, Chris Davis, Chris Carter and Mike Napoli have a higher TTO% than Santana this year. Difference is, these are all notorious TTO guys. Dunn’s career TTO% is 51%. Everyone knew Springer was going to be a TTO guy. Davis, Carter, Napoli and Stanton all sit between 44-46% for their careers. Prior to this season, 36% of Carlos Santana’s plate appearances ended in a strikeout, walk or homer, which is still high, but not extraordinary high like it is now. This is somewhat of a new thing for Carlos Santana.
Then again, the whole season has been somewhat of a strange one for Carlos Santana.
It was announced in Spring Training that Santana would take over as the Indians everyday third baseman. Not only did that not work out (kind of), Santana struggled mightily at the plate (kind of).
On April 11, in just the 11th game of the season, Santana’s average dipped below .200. A month later, it was at .148. A month after that, it was .178. It wasn’t until June 21 that Santana got his average back above .200. Yet he remained hovering around league-average production thanks to his rare combination of discipline and power. During this slump, some wanted him benched. Others wondered if he should be demoted to Triple-A. His name started to pop up as an expendable piece in trade rumors.
Over the last month or so, Santana has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball, but still his average rests at just .232. He’s still striking out more than ever. Yet, thanks to a career-high .224 isolated slugging percentage and .371 on-base percentage, Santana is having the best offensive season of his career. His .368 wOBA and 138 wRC+ would both be single-season highs since becoming an everyday player in 2010. He’s hitting for more power than ever while also getting on base as often as ever. That’s the best possible combination of outcomes for a hitter, regardless of what batting average might lead you to believe.
Not only is Santana having the best offensive season of his career while hitting under .235, he might finish with one of the best offensive seasons of all-time under .235. According to ZiPS, Santana is projected to finish the season with a batting average of .233 and an OPS+ of 131. Since the liva ball era began nearly a hundred years ago in 1920, only five different players have posted an OPS+ north of 130 with a batting average south of .235. Carlos Pena did it most recently in 2009. Jack Cust did it in 2008. Before that, you have to go back 18 years to Mark McGwire‘s 1990 season. Gene Tenace did it three times in the 70’s. Harmon Killebrew did it in 1972 and Mel Ott in 1943. Even if Santana doesn’t end up quite meeting the exact criteria, it’s clear he’s in bizarrely historic company this season.
Even stranger is that there doesn’t appear to be much else out of line with Santana at the plate. There’s nothing different in the way he’s being pitched. He’s hitting both fastballs and offspeed pitches about the same as ever. He’s swinging at the same amount of pitches within the strike zone. He’s making contact at career levels. His batted ball mix has stayed consistent. The only real noticeable differences that sticks out is his career-high HR/FB%, backed by an average fly ball distance of 285 feet, up 11 feet from last season. If anything, given Santana’s spike in homers and strikeouts with no other significant changes, it seems like Santana might just be selling out for power. And selling out for power would make sense given Santana’s situation – the way he’s played defensively and the result it’s had on his batting average. Santana hits into the shift more often than most players in baseball and, as a result, is hitting just .200 on ground balls, well below the league average. Hitting home runs is one way to negate the effect of a shift, and Santana has helped make up for the lack of singles with an increase in his already-elite walk rate.
“But guys who walk a lot don’t drive anyone in!” Well first, two of Santana’s walks this season actually have driven runners in, so it’s not like it’s impossible. But if you’re really of the crowd that places the value of driving in runs over creating runs, Santana’s spike in power has allowed him to drive in runs as often as ever, with his projected 74 RBI falling right in line with totals of 74, 76 and 79 from years past.
Engaging Twitter user Nick W. Schaller also pointed out to me that Santana has improved his baserunning this season by five runs already, becoming an above-league average baserunner after being one of the very worst in the league the last two years. Most notably, Santana is scoring from second base on singles 86% of the time after doing so just 45% of the time prior.
Despite a batting average below .240, Carlos Santana is undoubtedly putting together the best season of his already-impressive young offensive career. His career-high power output is coupled with a league-best walk rate that gives him an elite on-base percentage. His spike in power production has him driving in runs as often as ever while a more aggressive and efficient approach on the bases has him scoring runs as often as ever. He’s creating, driving in and manufacturing runs in every facet of the game. There’s really no arguing with the production Santana has brought to the Indians lineup this season.
If you really needed more proof that batting average doesn’t mean a thing, look no further than what Carlos Santana is doing this year.