Domingo Santana Is Making the George Springer Adjustment

If George Springer’s rookie season was like a breath of fresh air, then last year represented a sigh of relief. The breath of fresh air, because Springer was not only great, but great in such a unique way. The sigh of relief because Springer’s uncommon profile made him an outlier in some potentially worrisome areas, and last year, he patched up his most glaring weaknesses. Namely, he made more contact, and while that didn’t boost his production, it didn’t hurt his production either, and it also made him feel like a much more certain thing. George Springer comes with fewer caveats now. His production is easier to explain.

I’ve compared Domingo Santana to Springer before. That comparison comes with the important disclaimer that Santana isn’t nearly as fast as Springer, nor does he appear to be as useful a defender, and so he’s never likely to be as valuable a package as Springer. But at the plate, they sure look similar, and Springer at the plate is one hell of a threat, as is. They’re both massive, freak athletes who swing and miss a ton but have enough power to where pitchers feel compelled to work around the zone, and both have good enough eyes to take their walks. They’re nearly identical in their aggression, swing plane, and penchant for going the other way.

And now, 2016 Santana is furthering the comp by making the same adjustment made by 2015 Springer. When I wrote that comparison piece last month, I included this paragraph near the end:

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.

And now, for a few relevant statistics, comparing players with at least 50 plate appearances in each of the last two years to themselves:

Largest improvement in contact rate

  1. John Jaso, +14%
  2. Domingo Santana, +11%
  3. Joe Mauer, +10%

Largest improvement in chase rate

  1. Domingo Santana, -15%
  2. Starling Marte, -13%
  3. David Freese, -11%

Largest improvement in strikeout rate

  1. Nelson Cruz, -14%
  2. Domingo Santana, -13%
  3. Brandon Belt, -12%

Santana has been far more patient at the plate this year — it seems like a new team philosophy — though Santana’s aggression inside the zone is unchanged. Instead, all the swings he’s cut out of his games are the bad ones — the swings at would-be balls. The swings that would result in whiffs or poor contact. In other words, he’s swinging less overall, but a higher percentage of those swings are going toward pitches on which he can do damage. He’s currently running the lowest O-Swing% in baseball by a significant margin while remaining in attack mode by swinging at a higher-than-average rate of pitches inside the zone. His swing rate against fastballs has remain unchanged — 43% last year, 43% this year. It’s the offspeed and breaking pitches he’s laying off — 46% last year, down to just 28% this year.

All of this got me thinking about a way to quantify pitch selection, with the most simple method being to calculate the difference between the z-scores of each player’s O-Swing% and Z-Swing%.

Pitch selection score

  1. Domingo Santana, +2.8
  2. Bryce Harper, +2.8
  3. Yunel Escobar, +2.5

Santana has distributed his swings as well as Bryce Harper this season, and no one else has done it as well as those two. Don’t let Yunel Escobar throw cold water on this list — he’s always controlled the strike zone well, and is killing it in the early goings this year.

I know I just threw a bunch of numbers at you at once. Apologies if that was a bit overwhelming. Let’s summarize them briefly: Santana is swinging at all the good pitches and none of the bad ones. That means more contact on his swings, and that means better contact on his swings. Santana’s average exit velocity is 96 mph, fifth-best in the major leagues, between Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz. He’s hit more baseballs 100-plus mph than anyone, and he’s also hit into more 100-plus mph outs than anyone. Santana’s always had the obvious strength to punish fastballs and mistakes. By cutting out the swings on tough breaking pitches and offerings outside the zone, he’s simply allowing himself more opportunities to punish the fastballs and mistakes.

A lot of this probably comes down to approach, and preparation, and repetitions. Santana’s going to the plate more in control of what he wants to do. But the swing looks like its more in control, also.

Take this swing against Craig Kimbrel from 2015:

It had to have been at least a decent swing, seeing how hard it came off the bat. But even that swing — a swing against a 98 mph Kimbrel fastball that made Kimbrel react like he just gave up a homer — even that swing wasn’t pretty. The hips flew open early, the back shoulder looked like it dropped too much; Santana looks off-balance throughout the course of the swing.

Compare that to a similarly located fastball from this year:

It looks easier. He’s closed up his stance, and he’s cut down on the leg kick. The hips didn’t fly open, and the upper half was more fluid. Just as the numbers painted a picture of a player more in control of himself, the visual of the swings does the same. From the start of the swing to contact, Santana is just more direct to the ball:

The only thing that hasn’t been there so far is the plus power; Santana’s got four doubles and just one home run, and the isolated power has been league-average. But the power is the only thing that’s never been doubted. It was the rest of the profile that was in doubt, and Santana’s been doing his best to quell those doubts. The pitch selection has been unparalleled, and the hard contact’s still there. Even if a shorter swing costs him some lift, it’s not like he doesn’t have the raw strength to drive the ball out of the yard. This Brewers’ season is all about seeing what the future may hold. Domingo Santana could be going from enticing to promising.

We hoped you liked reading Domingo Santana Is Making the George Springer Adjustment by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Um, is there any reason to suspect that Springer’s .342 BABIP last year wasn’t a fluke?