Bullish on Carlos Santana

Just moments ago, Howard put on his eviscerating goggles and made his best stab at informing us why we should all be disappointed in Carlos Santana this season. I understand this perspective, I really do. A cursory glance at his counting stats doesn’t conjure up images of Mike Piazza nor do they inspire much confidence in Santana going forward. But I think the genesis of the grousing about Santana is wrapped up in expectations of what kind of player people thought he would be rather than the one that he ought to be.

2010 was widely considered to be a pretty big success for Carlos Santana, 25, and people had general expectations that what he did in his brief tenure in the majors would be repeatable over the course of the season in 2011. Should he do so, it would make him an awfully valuable commodity at a relatively thin position and his high draft position reflected as much. We’re just roughly 60 plate appearances ahead of his performance in 2010 (at the time this was composed), and the comparison is rather interesting:

2010: 46 games, 192 PA, .260/.401/.467, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 23 R

2011: 59 games, 249 PA, .223/.353/.386, 7 HR, 26 RBI, 29 R

So practically speaking, his production isn’t a country mile from what he demonstrated in 2010 in terms of home runs, RBI and runs. The big changes are of course in that triple slash line, lowlighted by the batting average, which is enough to make most standard format managers pretty irritated. His pace is to hit 18 home runs, drive in 66, and score 74 runs. Interestingly, in November, ZiPS predicted 18 home runs, 77 RBI, and 77 runs. So were we simply expecting too much from the young backstop? Hard to say, but again, I think there’s a chasm between the player that Carlos Santana ought to be and what owners thought he should be.

Baseball America rated Santana as the #10 prospect in all of baseball headed into the 2010 season and he forced Cleveland’s hand by posting a .316/.447/.597 line with 13 home runs and 51 RBI in just 57 games at Columbus. But on his minor league career, Santana has never been a Goliath home run hitter. In fact, in his minor league career, he averaged right around one home run per 30 plate appearances. As he got a little older, that number shrunk a bit, but if you drafted Santana expecting him to hit 30-plus home runs then you simply had your head in the clouds. Carlos Santana was typically pitched as a high contact, high OBP hitter with gap power, decent speed, and a plus home run hitter for his position and what you have is a high contact, high OBP, gap-hitting, plus-home run catcher.

But what of the giant rough skinned pachyderm in the room — that odious batting average? He’s currently carrying a .236 BABIP and his expected BABIP is an even .250, so while he has perhaps not gotten the benefit of a lucky hop or two, it isn’t terribly significant. His hit trajectory this year is downright head-scratching, with his infield flies almost doubling over last season from 11.1% to 20.3% (third highest in all of baseball). In many ways, he barely resembles the 2011 Santana relative to his hit trajectory, with far more ground balls and far fewer line drives this season overall. But while the direction the ball is going seems to have changed, he’s swinging and missing less this season (6.5% vs. 8.7% SwStr%), swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone (a stingy 16% O-Swing%) and overall, making contact with a higher percentage of pitches compared to 2011. So why, oh why the terrible batting average?

Here’s the problem with Santana: we don’t know what a good batting average looks like for Carlos Santana. Yes you can scream and holler that you drafted him to hit .300, but consider that Carlos Santana has fewer than 450 plate appearances in his major league career. Based on the great work by Pizza Cutter here on Fangraphs, we know that batting average doesn’t even stabilize after 650 plate appearances. The K rate, walk rate, HR rate, OBP all are fairly reliable at this point – but those aren’t the things we’re really concerned with on Santana right now. The fact is, we need more information before we can call Carlos Santana a batting average bust (Pizza Cutter hypothesizes that batting average may stabilize somewhere around 1000 plate appearances).

That Carlos Santana still has some work to do shouldn’t surprise you. He’s young, relatively inexperienced, and still learning. And it turns out, from a fan perspective, we’re still learning who Carlos Santana is too. With every plate appearance we get a larger vat of data sludge to poke at, and the bigger the vat, the closer we’re going to come to understanding what kind of major league hitter he will be going forward. But there’s little debate that he’s one of the most talented catchers in the league and he has the pedigree to be force at the dish. The fact is that right now, he’s producing home runs, RBI, and runs within a range of what you should reasonably expect, and he really hasn’t even begun to warm up. That’s a player that ought to pique your interest.

Sure, make all the comparisons to guys like John Buck and Miguel Olivo, and others of similar ilk. It’s what we do when you want to scream “you’re a bum” from the stands but all we have is the flashing cursor of a computer screen to look at. But stand back and use objectivity when considering who will be a better producing catcher for the remainder of the season, and you’ll probably still accept that Carlos Santana is the more talented and unique player at his position. It’s my expectation that Santana’s production will increase across the board as the pendulum swings towards the player we saw last season, and while what we’re left with may not be what you expected from Carlos Santana, he’s likely to have a second half as good as any other catcher in the league.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

13 Responses to “Bullish on Carlos Santana”

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  1. Frankie says:

    The real meat of this debate is how many C Santana owners would DROP him right now to waivers. I’m guessing the answer is close to nil. I play in a 10 team and a 6 team league. I wouldn’t drop him in my 6 team (granted, we each have 2 catchers) but still he is without a doubt a top 10 catcher.

    If you are a fantasy owner that has actually dumped Santana at this point please speak up and give us the logic.

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  2. Herbstr8t says:

    Interesting that neither article mentioned that his knee was savaged last season. I know it’s been a while and he looks healthy, but as a Santana owner I wonder if that knee is affecting his swing mechanics at all and causing him to hit less LDs and FBs. Like Frankie said, I’m not dropping the guy, especially because we count AVG and OPS in my league.

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  3. Drew says:

    But his OPS stinks. I’d be better off not playing anyone.

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  4. Drew says:

    I guess if his average came up to .260-ish, it’d be a respectable .800, which wouldn’t be awful.

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  5. tenags says:

    Whats the bigger aberration: Carlos Santana or Alex Avila?

    I own both in a super deep dynasty league (20 teams, 40 man rosters) and just want to assess what I should do with either of them…

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  6. That Guy says:

    I’m bullish about this article.

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  7. Chris says:

    Comparing Santana to either Buck or Olivo is a huge error. The BB:K ratio for Santana is really staggering (43:42), while Buck and Olivo have NEVER walked more than 38 (Buck) or 27 (Olivo) in a single season. The discipline of Santana should be enough to show that he’s going to become better with time.

    So far, only five players (yes, that’s right FIVE) have walked more than Santana, and they go by the names of: Pedroia, Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, Votto and Bautista. That’s some pretty good company to in, especially for a guy who’s so young and yet to become the feared hitter that many thought he would be.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      just so we’re clear Chris – I wasn’t comparing him to Olivo and Buck, just relaying that there are many that are saying such options are better ones right now, to which I throw up a little in my mouth…

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      • Chris says:

        I realize that you weren’t making the comparisons, but that others have been, which is still disgusting. Santana deserves more respect than that.

        I just wanted to make sure that anyone claiming that Buck or Olivo would be better options, for even just this year, were aware of the underlying stats that may not be tracked in their leagues which point in favor of a Santana bounce back.

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  8. cs3 says:

    His problem this year has been that as a Left handed batter, he hasnt got the hits to fall at all vs RHP.

    The power is there, but his BABIP batting Lefty is just .208, and his avg is an equally abysmal .194

    Yes i know these samples are tiny, but last year he actually hit better Left handed.
    Anyone think the injury might really be affecting his swing from the left side?
    He hurt his left knee, which would be his back leg used to drive off of, and also endures a tremendous amount of torgue when the hips rotate.
    Perhaps the strength is just not there yet in the left knee?

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  9. mgonzo777 says:

    Carlos obviously has eagle eyes and impeccable hand eye coordination to take so many walks and make so much contact. What’s holding Carlos back from hitting for a high average is his low line drive and high popup and ground out rates. There is nothing wrong with his power. When he starts making better quality contact with the ball his ISO will go back up. I think you have to look outside the stats to understand the stats sometimes. I have the MLB extra innings package and I like to watch guys play as much as possible because stats can be so deceiving.
    The book on Carlos is he crushes the fastball and man does he ever. You can really hear that special crack off his bat when he squares it up and he usually does. So the scouting report says to feed Santana a steady diet of junk. He really has no protection in the lineup since Hafner went to the DL so pitchers are ok with letting him take the walk if they can’t throw offspeed for strikes. Carlos is in the process of making the adjustment to off speed and breaking pitches.
    You can see that he was struggling with his timing to adjust. Offspeed and breaking balls really drop when they go through the strike zone so if you’re out ahead of the pitch you are going to hit the top half of the ball and beat it into the ground. This is where I think Santana’s ridiculous ground ball percentage is coming from. He still hits it hard which unfortunately leads to a lot of double plays I’ve noticed as well. Initially, Carlos laid off the off speed stuff as he tried to make his adjustment. Some of the better pitchers, who are able to throw secondary pitches for strikes, took advantage of this and pitched him backwards putting him behind in the count. Then they would give him the fastball up in the zone and he would be late and underneath the ball, hence the pop ups. I read last week that he has gotten rid of toe tap and excessive movement in his swing.
    This adjustment to the league is a process but I’ve seen a lot better at bats lately and I think he’s going to be ok. I’m confident that when Santana gets comfortable with his new mechanics and makes better contact with the garbage he’s seeing lately, he’ll get better pitches to hit and fulfill his lofty expectations. Hafner coming back will help out tremendously because no one is scared of anyone in the Cleveland lineup except Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, and Grady Sizemore. It’s not good to clog up the bases for Cabrera by hitting Santana in front of him but I’d like to see Cleveland bat Sizemore in the 5 hole after Santana since Grady can’t run much anymore.

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  10. Oye Como Va says:

    I’m a triple owner of Santana, in two A.L. only rotisserie leagues and my Strat-O-Matic team, so I’m cheered by the optimism.

    I have benched him a few times in favor of J.P. Arencibia, Hank Conger, and even Miguel Olivo, when they have seemed on hot streaks and Santana seemed cold, but won’t cut him.

    One league uses OBP, one BA, and of course in Strat OBP is key (as are splits). And though he has a .416 OBP vs. LHP, his triple slash line is only .197/.322/.367 vs. RHP.

    Since I also have Geovany Soto in Strat, who is even better against lefties (.387/.513/.645), while even worse against righties (.175/.244/.325), I’m still not sure I have the answer for next season unless one of them gets markedly better vs. RHP.

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