The Domingo Santana Experiment Comes to Houston

I’ve written about the Houston Astros an awful lot recently. Between Lance McCullers, Vincent Velasquez, and of course, Carlos Correa, they’ve had more than their share of impact prospects arrive in the majors this year. Today, I’m back to analyze yet another Astro who was recently called up the big club: Domingo Santana.

You might have missed Santana’s call up among the flurry of blue-chip prospects who got the call this week. I almost missed it, and I monitor these things about as closely as anyone. But while Santana’s upside is nowhere close to that of a Byron Buxton or Francisco Lindor, he’s someone worthy of our attention.

Before the Astros called him up to replace Colby Rasmus, who’s currently on the bereavement list, Santana was absolutely mashing in Triple-A. His 176 wRC+ was the highest of all qualified hitters at the level. He also lead Triple-A in walks and slugging percentage. Sounds great, right? What’s not to like about a 22-year-old who’s hitting .320/.444/.584 in Triple-A?

Well, Santana has a bit of a contact problem. Although you’d never know it from his .320 batting average, the 6-foot-5 slugger ran a 29% strikeout rate in Triple-A this year, matching his mark from the same level last year. Now, on its own, a 29% strikeout rate isn’t terrible. It certainly isn’t good, but in an era where Joey Gallo’s flirting with a 40% strikeout rate, 29% doesn’t seem so bad.

However, a player’s strikeout rate isn’t always a perfect indicator of his contact ability. The two are certainly strongly correlated, but other factors, such as a player’s plate discipline, also play a role in determining how often a hitter strikes out. And using the data that’s available to us, it seems as though Santana’s strikeout rate doesn’t do justice to his swing-and-miss.

According to Minor League Central, Santana’s made contact on just 71.6% of his swings on pitches in the zone this year — the pitches that are theoretically the easiest to connect on. Santana’s clip is the second-lowest figure among qualified Triple-A hitters. Only Rymer Liriano has whiffed more often, and his mark edges out Santana’s by a mere 0.1 percentage points.

Last year? Same story. Santana’s 71.2% zone-contact rate was the third lowest in Triple-A, behind a couple of minor-league lifers — Matt Fields and Cody Decker. Keep in mind that publicly-available zone data for minor leaguers isn’t super-reliable, but Santana’s ranked at the very bottom of these lists two years in a row. It’s probably safe to conclude that he’s pretty bad at making contact.

Some research I did a few weeks ago suggests that this might pose a serious problem for Santana as he transitions to the big leagues. I found that hitters who swing and miss on pitches in the zone in Triple-A have rougher-than-normal transitions to the big leagues, on average.

wOBA

With an in-zone contact rate of 71.6%, Santana would check in on the far left side of the above graphic. He’s not quite Brandon Hicks or George Springer, but he’s close. According to my data, a hitter at that end of the spectrum can be expected to under-perform his Triple-A wOBA performance by nearly .100 points. That’s about .025 points more than the average player.

It’s even more concerning that we’ve already seen Santana look lost against big-league pitching. He went 0-for-18 in a big-league cup of coffee last year, and struck out in 78% — 14 of 18 — trips to the plate. That’s a small sample size, but it’s also about as bad as it gets.

Here’s a clip of him looking lost against the unspectacular Tommy Milone.

K

And here he is looking even more lost against the soft-tossing righty, Chris Young.

K2

Santana’s inability to make contact is concerning, but the 22-year-old has plenty of other things going for him. He has a ton of power, draws walks and runs well for his size. Based on his 2014 numbers, KATOH forecasted him for 8.2 WAR through age-28 heading into the year — good for 18th in baseball. Here’s a look at that power in action, in the form of last night’s pinch-hit, opposite-field big fly.

HR

To get a sense of how players with Santana’s skill set have fared in years past, let’s get some comps up in here. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis Distance between Santana’s 2015 performance and every Triple-A season since 1990 in which a batter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Santana’s, ranked from most to least similar.

Rank Mah Distance Hitter PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 1.74 Rob Maurer 29 0.0
2 3.43 Jason Botts 326 0.5
3 3.71 Nate Rolison 16 0.0
4 3.85 Jim Thome 3,782 28.7
5 5.31 Josh Whitesell 142 0.0
6 5.32 Russ Canzler 102 0.0
7 5.33 Monty Fariss 259 0.0
8 5.54 Joe Vitiello 597 0.0
9 5.68 Brent Brede 473 0.0
10 5.74 Mark Leonard 334 0.7
11 5.86 Bobby Abreu 3,554 30.8
12 6.14 Jack Cust 676 2.4
13 6.17 Warren Newson 382 1.2
14 6.38 Vince Belnome* 14 0.0
15 6.40 John Vander Wal 671 0.5
16 6.60 Travis Hafner 1,548 10.1
17 6.83 Terrell Lowery 241 0.0
18 6.89 Jack Hannahan 680 1.7
19 7.20 Ryan Langerhans 1,141 3.4
20 7.27 Melvin Nieves 1,392 0.0

*Batters who have yet to play their age-28 season.

This list paints a real boom-or-bust scenario for Santana. Both Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu were essentially Hall of Famers through age 28, but just about everyone else who shows up at the top of Santana’s list of comps turned into a Quad-A player.

Santana’s lack of contact in worth fretting over, but even if he falls something like .100 points short of his Triple-A wOBA, as my research suggests he might, that would still give him a .350 wOBA. That’s still a pretty productive player, even coming from a corner outfielder. Although, it’s also worth noting that his .408 BABIP almost certainly artificially inflated his Triple-A batting line, which muddies the calculus a bit.

Kiley McDaniel placed Santana in the 143-200 section of his top 200 list last winter. In his write up of the Astros organization, Kiley noted that, even after talking to several scouts, he still wasn’t sure what to make of him.

Santana is an enigma that every scout I talked to ended their report with some version of: “I saw him enough to have a strong opinion, but I still don’t have one.”

After poring through the data, I share the same sentiment. His traditional stat line suggests he could have a pretty bright future ahead of him, but his inability to make contact threatens to render him a Quad-A slugger or platoon bat. We’ll see if Santana sticks around once Rasmus rejoins the Astros. But even if he is optioned to Triple-A, he’ll almost certainly be back in majors at some point this season. Regardless of how things shake out, Santana should be fun to watch. He represents yet another young, exciting player on a team that’s already chock full of with young, exciting players.

We hoped you liked reading The Domingo Santana Experiment Comes to Houston by Chris Mitchell!

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Miles
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Miles

In 2014, he played 6 games, struck out 14 times in 18 PA, and had 0 hits. In case you’re wondering, that was good enough for a -92 RC+. A great all-around performance from Mr. Santana.