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Bullish on Carlos Santana

Posted By Michael Barr On June 14, 2011 @ 12:15 pm In Catchers | 13 Comments

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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