Carlos Santana Looks Backward and Moves Forward

Detroit was supposed to run away with the 2013 American League Central. It may still happen, but at the moment, Cleveland is right there with them. The revitalization of Justin Masterson and the emergence of Zach MacAllister have kept the pitching afloat, and free-agent signings Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Mark Reynolds have been a big boost to the offense. Other factors could be mentioned, but Carlos Santana becoming perhaps the best hitter on the team seems significant both for this season and beyond.

Santana was the big prize of the 2008 trade that sent Casey Blake to the Dodgers. Santana has always hit well, particularly for a catcher, since coming up to the majors in 2010. While it was enough to cover for his deficiencies behind the plate, in 2012 his drop in power was troubling. In 2013, the 27-year-old Santana might be becoming the superstar that some envisioned when he was a prospect. Despite having a poor May at the plate, his overall season line still stands at .294/.396/.503 (147 wRC+, second-best among qualified catchers, just behind Joe Mauer‘s 148). While it is still early, after 202 plate appearances, Santana’s better performance seems to be based primarily on two things: the return of his pre-2012 power, and a significantly higher BABIP. One or both may be an early-season blip, but there are at least some signs that Santana has made some important and perhaps long-term improvements.

Santana has had good plate discipline from the moment he came up, and has a career 15.4 percent walk rate. He is no three-true outcomes hitter, though, as his strikeout rate has usually been right around league average or a bit better. Despite waiting for his pitch and having decent contact skills, Santana has never hit for average prior to this year, putting up batting averages of .260, .239, and .252 from 2010-2012, respectively. So far this season, Santana’s strikeout rate is actually the highest of his career at 20.8 percent (a bit below league average), but his batting average sits at .284. The reason, to the surprise of no one, is that his 2013 sits at .333 after never having one .280 or better in any previous sesons. FanGraphs reader should know the story with BABIP by now — it is a skill for hitters, but it is subject to far more random fluctuation that stuff like home runs rates, strikeouts, and walks. That general notion may lead one to think Santana is just getting lucky in that respect so far this season, which may very well be the case.

I am not ruling definitively on the issue, as if anyone could after even a full season, let alone a third of a season. I do want to introduce a wrinkle, however. While one has to be cautious using batted ball data, at least one thing might indicate that Santana’s true-talent BABIP might have improved. While his ground ball, line drive, and fly ball rates this year are all basically in line with his recent performance, his number of infield flys stands out. After having 29 infield flys in 2011 and 18 in 2012, so far this season, he has only one. Pop-up rate is subject to random variation like everything else, but they do seem to be a skill on par with, say, slugging percentage. Pop-ups rarely become hits, and hitting a lot of them can kill a player’s average on balls in play. Avoiding them, however, can allow a player to sustain a higher BABIP than one would usually expect, just ask Joey Votto.

This is not to say that Santana has become anything like Votto or that he is even a .333 BABIP hitter. Rather, it is something to watch as the year goes on — I would not bet on him having a .333 BABIP, but he might be at or closer to league acverage rather than below .280 as he was in the past.

Santana has improved his BABIP without turning himself into a slap-hitter in the process. It is not as if his current power (.219 ISO) is unprecendented: he had a .207 ISO in 2010 and a .217 in 2011. However, he dropped off to .168 in 2012. It was not just his rate of home runs (6.3 percent on contact in 2011 to 4..4 percent in 2012) that dropped, but also his rate of doubles and triples on hits in play (3.5 percent in 2011, 2.6 in 2012). In 2013 so far, the rates are back to about 2011 levels: 6.3 percent for home runs, 3.3 for doubles and triples.

This, too, might be random variation, but there is some evidence something else may have been going on in 2012 that hindered Santana’s ability hit for the power he had previously. It seems that in 2012, then-manager Manny Acta tried to get Santana to get rid of his leg lift in order to cut down on the movement in his swing. Acta is gone now, and Terry Francona and his staff are letting Santana kick if he wants. I am not going to pretend to know anything useful about swing mechanics, and while it may be bit of a correlation-causation leap, it is hard to dismiss a connection between Santana’s power decrease in 2012 and his being asked to change his swing, particularly when his power is back so far this year when he has apparently gone back to his old ways.

It is early, but both trends are worth watching. Santana’s seasonal line is likely due for smoe regression, but if he retains his always-good plate discipline, his pre-2012 power, and avoids the pop-ups that have hurt his average on balls in pay, Cleveland may have a superstar on their hands.

Now they just need to put him in the top half of the batting order.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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