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Carlos Santana’s Patient Approach

When you’re sitting on top of the world, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the flaws. The Cleveland Indians, at 14-8, currently own the AL’s best record and lead their division by 2.5 games. While we’re a long way from anointing them 2011’s surprise team, they certainly have impressed to this point. Their 5.18 runs per game actually ranks second in the AL (though only a hundredth of a point ahead of Texas). Yet amid all that, they haven’t yet clicked on all cylinders. That’s because Carlos Santana has gotten off to something of a slow start. But there are plenty of indications that his approach will pay off in the long run.

It’s easier said than done: lay off pitches out of the zone, temper yourself with pitches in the zone, wait for the pitcher to make a mistake, and then swing away. Yet if anyone did execute this approach, it’s easy to see how they’d succeed. Laying off pitches out of the zone is important, since it’s harder to make good contact with them. Every hitter, even the best, will also have trouble with certain parts of the strike zone. You can’t lay off everything there, but with less than two strikes you can still wait for your pitch. It appears that Santana is doing that so far this season.

In avoiding pitches outside the zone Santana has done a phenomenal job. He has swung at just 14.5% of those pitches, which puts him right near the top of the league. He has also held off on many pitches within the zone, swinging at 48.7% of them, which is tied for the lowest rate in the league. That might lead to a few strikeouts looking — unsurprisingly, he’s been punched out for half of his 14 strikeouts this season. But the negative of those looking strikeouts is more than balanced by the positive that can come from this approach.

The most obvious benefit comes from the base on balls. Santana has drawn 14 of them this season, giving him a 15.7% walk rate. That puts him near the top of the league. By not swinging at pitches out of the zone not only is he creating more situations where he’ll get a pitch he likes, but he’s also making fewer outs. That seems like a win-win proposition, and it speaks to Santana’s immense talent. Clearly, not everyone can do this. That he can gives an indication of his potential as a major league hitter.

The results aren’t there yet, which is certainly of some concern. Santana has just 14 hits this season in 74 AB, meaning he sits below the Mendoza Line at this point. Part of the problem is that he’s just not squaring up the ball. So far this year he has hit 34 balls on the ground, for a 55.7% rate. That’s far higher than we saw last year. They don’t appear to be screaming grounders, either, as he’s hitting just .176 off them. Further evidence is in his line drive rate, 8.2%, one of the lowest in the league. Combine that with a 22.7% infield fly rate — that is, five of the 22 flies he’s hit — and you have the appearances of a guy who just hasn’t found his rhythm yet.

For that we won’t blame Santana. At least not yet. He did miss the last two months of the 2010 season after incurring a nasty knee injury. That can make it harder to get back into a groove. Additionally, Santana might be the type of hitter that absolutely needs that steady rhythm in order to hit well. He has, by nearly two points, the lowest swing rate in the league. I don’t want to invent a false narrative here, so I’ll leave it as speculation. But after watching Jason Giambi for seven years in New York, it’s clear that guys with low swing rates do require that rhythm — lest we forget Giambi’s slow start to 2005, after missing most of 2004. We could certainly be seeing something along the same lines right now with Santana.

There are no guarantees, of course. Santana is a young player who has plenty to prove at the major league level. Yet his approach appears ideal. Even as he struggles he’s not swinging at pitches out of the zone, and is also selective on pitches within the zone. He’s swinging at what he wants to swing at, but he isn’t yet making the powerful contact needed to make the approach work. As long as he sticks with it, he should find his rhythm, and therefore break out of this slump. And when he does, that Indians offense could become even more dangerous.