Every player in baseball is having a good year. I mean it! No one’s had time to screw it up yet. Every prospect is going to be a star. The pitchers will all remain healthy. Any veteran whose career took a nosedive last year is on track to regain his old form. All the guys who played over their head have shown no indication they can’t maintain last year’s pace. Spring Training games don’t even count!
And all of the hulking 23-year-olds with tools through the roof and devastating contact problems haven’t swung and missed one time yet! What contact problems?
It’s only natural, as the fake-games begin and the regular season breaches the horizon, that we develop irresponsible fixations upon certain players. The way I see it is this: players have upside, and they have downside. Upside is always present — it’s like this mythological thing that cannot be seen or touched or heard or felt, but we know that it exists. But with the regular season comes meaningful games, and meaningful games present scenarios that remind you of your fixation’s flaws, the very things that will prevent Him from reaching His upside. During the offseason, those flaws cannot be seen; only upside exists, and we dream big.
There was a point in time that the Houston Astros envisioned an outfield of the future in which Santana and Springer played side-by-side. That was supposed to be an integral part of the next good Astros team. But then the Astros got good quicker than everyone anticipated, and they instead envisioned an outfield of the now with Springer flanked by Carlos Gomez, so they traded Santana to Milwaukee to help make that vision a reality, and now here we are.
Santana never possessed Springer’s prospect pedigree, but he was a prospect in his own right, with the aforementioned tools through the roof — those tools were just never as refined as Springer’s. Now, neither player is a prospect, as they’re both in the major leagues, and this year, they’ll each be the starting right fielder for their respective clubs.
When you get excited about Domingo Santana, you get excited because he’s 6-foot-5 and he’s just 23 years old. You get excited because he’s got a plus arm in right field, and enough athleticism to at least fake it in center. You get excited because he absolutely murdered Triple-A pitching last year, and you get excited because he can hit the hell out of the baseball:
And if you want to get more excited, you can keep reading the blog post.
The projections indicate Santana is already an above-average player, entering his first season as an Opening Day starter. Both ZiPS and Steamer see an above-average hitter, one with great power, enough speed, plenty of strikeouts and plenty of walks. The forecasts suggest Santana’s true-talent level at the moment is one capable of producing a .782 OPS and .339 wOBA, which doesn’t seem at all egregious, considering just last year he played one-third of a major league season and ran a .768 OPS with a .336 wOBA. At this level, Santana’s projected offensive ability is no different than Starling Marte‘s or Robinson Cano‘s or Adrian Gonzalez‘s or even Yoenis Cespedes‘.
But the way he goes about that production is unique, and it’s an indicator as to how raw the tools still are. I wanted to gain a sense whether there was anyone in baseball today who goes about their plate appearances quite like Santana, so I can a couple comparison tests, using standard deviations to measure proximity. The first test looked at four fundamental result-based indicators of a player’s ability — power (ISO), discipline and vision (K% and BB%) and production (wOBA). A handful of sluggers fit the bill, but one comp stood out as far stronger than the rest:
Through the lens of the projections, Santana is essentially a Springer clone, with a little less power, a few more strikeouts, and a lot less speed.
But, as evidenced by Domingo Santana, Christian Yelich, and Starling Marte all having the same wOBA projection, there are plenty of ways to go about similar production, and so I wanted to take it a bit further by finding an approach and batted-ball comp for Santana. I decided to look at four more fundamental indicators of a player’s game — swing rate (how aggressive is this player?), contact rate (how often does he put bat to ball?), pull rate (where does he hit the ball?) and ground-ball rate (what is this player’s swing plane like?)
There aren’t projections for these numbers, so I had to use last year’s, and I swear to you that I did not cherry-pick these stats to force this comparison — I went in blind, and came out with a narrative.
Springer is patient, has trouble making contact, has a lower average launch angle than most sluggers, and prefers to go the opposite way. All of the same is true for Santana.
Look at it all. Look at position, frame, power, strikeouts, walks, projected production, swing rate, contact rate, ground ball/fly ball ratio, the spray charts, hell even the team that developed them: Domingo Santana is nearly indistinguishable from George Springer, except that Santana is three years younger. Springer is seen as one of the most exciting young players in baseball, Santana is seen as an intriguing right fielder on a bad team.
Now for the caveats. I put a few up there in the top, to make it clear that I’m not being totally consumed by my fixation, and that I understand Santana’s limitations.
Arcia had among the most disappointing seasons in all of baseball last year, and his prospect status has essentially been put on hold until further notice.
- Caveat No. 2: Springer was the only real comp in either of the comp tests.
While being unique is interesting from the writer’s prospective, it also means that essentially nobody else is succeeding in the way Santana is attempting to, and that’s not exactly optimistic. It’s hard to be a big league player making as little contact as Santana does, and it’s hard to see Santana being able to put this all together and keep it up without making some adjustments to increase the contact rate, just like Springer did last year.
From Santana, specifically, you’d like to see him turn on the inside pitch more. Even though he’s got plus bat speed, he’s got a long swing that’s geared toward the opposite field, and he hasn’t yet been able to tap into his pull power like Springer has. You’d also like to see more contact against breaking pitches — he has a great eye, and it’s what helps him draw enough walks to keep up the OBP, but there’s way too much swing and miss on breaking stuff, and that’s always been a problem.
Domingo Santana’s got flaws in his game and holes in his swing, yet so does George Springer, and he’s sure making it work. Santana isn’t Springer, and never has been, but the core of who they are couldn’t be much more similar, and if that’s not enticing, I don’t know what is. Of course, adjustments are necessary. But for now, Domingo Santana might just have the highest upside of any player who isn’t being talked about.
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