Carlos Santana’s Struggles And The Eventual Reward

How Can the Indians Save Santana’s Season?

Since the start of his first full season, 2011, Carlos Santana has been the most valuable offensive threat on the Cleveland Indians. He has amassed a 10.2 WAR (Fangraphs), leading the club in home runs, runs scored, and RBI, while posting a .244/.360/.430 line over this time period. Jason Kipnis, with his breakout 2013, was approaching Santana’s value quickly prior to his injury this season, but Santana certainly hasn’t done anything to separate himself during the 2014 season. Everyone is aware of his struggles at this point, but, just in case, these are the damning statistics for the Tribes’ most valuable offensive weapon:

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Generated 5/27/2014.

Those statistics are deflated heavily by a .177 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a career worst 20.9 strikeout rate, and a career-low .142 ISO (SLG-AVG). After 220 plate appearances, it is easy to get wrapped up in what Santana hasn’t done, but the fact that he is still getting on base is encouraging, as he currently leads Major League Baseball in walks. For all of his struggles, Santana is still on base more often than the likes of Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Yan Gomes, Mike Aviles, and Ryan Raburn, each of whom have lower on-base percentages than Santana.

For shame on Santana for his low average, but it isn’t new. Santana has been a notoriously slow starter in his career:

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May 17, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Carlos Santana (41) reacts after a failed double play during the seventh inning against the Oakland Athletics at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Certainly, those numbers aren’t as low as his current production, but it is obvious that Santana’s struggles aren’t all that different from his typical early season production, outside of the lack of extra-base hits. So what are the real reasons that Santana is not hitting as well in 2014?

I went to a couple of the world’s top baseball writers, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus and Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated, and asked them this:

How long can they keep running Santana out there? Is it just bad luck considering the unimaginably low BABIP (which is typically low, but not like this)? Is he talented enough to say that he’ll hit himself out of this, or is he just not as talented as we all assumed he was? 

Ben Lindbergh replied:

Zachary Levine was asked about this in a BP chat last week. He said, Just like with Gyorko, the thing that’s missing is the doubles. He had 39 last year and 5 this year. There’s definitely a power element there, but the home runs are still at the same level. He’s still walking a ton. He’s not striking out an overwhelming amount. I’m not all that concerned.” I’m sure you’ve seen Santana more than I have and might have some insight that I don’t, but the stats we have sure make it seem like lousy luck, maybe exacerbated by the shift (as I noted here, he’s one of the most extreme groundball pull hitters, which makes him easier to defend). I’d have to watch all his at-bats to know how many likely hits he’s had robbed, but the plate discipline certainly still seems to be there; if anything, it appears to be improved. This is a case where having access to HITf/x data (as the Indians do) and knowing whether he’s hitting the ball less hard would help us say whether it might be that his mechanics are screwed up or that he’s hiding an injury. In the absence of that information (or maybe some in-depth swing/pitch-level analysis), the best best is that his results will start looking more like the old Santana’s soon

Jay Jaffe said:

Short answer: I’d play Chisenhall at 3B (except vs lefties) and DH Santana, maybe after giving him a few days to sit and mentally reset/shore up his mechanics (TBH I haven’t looked closely to see what’s changed for him). He’s too talented a hitter to bury, but I suspect the 3B thing is taking a toll on him. 

Jaffe’s long answer can be found here, as he started his own take on Santana just after our email conversation, and I highly recommend reading it.

Lindbergh’s take on”the shift” is really interesting. In Cincinnati, we’ve seen Joey Votto attempt a bunt recently to overcome the shift. Is that something that is within reason for Santana to bring to his game? He is certainly capable of putting the bat on the ball, waiting for the right pitch to take on that approach. Is it worth taking the bat out of his hand, though, is the bigger question. He has his offensive issues, but he has been a threat for extra-base hits for three years leading up to this season, but it is fair to wonder if “the shift” and other defensive measurements will continue to take away from Santana’s ability to find a hole.

As far as what Jaffe said regarding putting Santana at DH – I couldn’t agree more, at least in agreeing with the move off of third base. Everyone is aware of Lonnie Chisenhall‘s impressive numbers to this point, so he should be in the lineup more often, even against left-handed pitchers – to an extent. Chisenhall could do well against the Tom Milone’s, Mark Buehrle‘s, and John Danks‘ of the world, while sitting against David Price, Scott Kazmir, and other hard-throwing southpaws. Santana, however, should get a break from this third base nonsense. He has an atrocious .909 fielding percentage (six errors in 66 chances) and, perhaps, he just needs to focus on hitting. For his career, this is Santana’s production based on his position:

as C32513411100152265731431569215228.241.364.426.790469.26298
as 1B118481403671102922164274103.273.385.511.896206.316124
as 3B2611393912302722026.
as LF12100000011.000.500.000.500037
as DH903773254883162104034861.255.353.409.762133.28591
as PH774120011030.500.7141.2501.9645.333385
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Generated 5/27/2014.

It is quite obvious that Santana is at his best as a first baseman or DH, and the struggles that he has shown offensively could easily be blamed on his position change in 2014.

May 14, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Cleveland Indians third baseman Carlos Santana hits a second inning single against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The easiest way to fix this issue is to move Santana to be strictly a first baseman or DH, play Lonnie Chisenhall at third base while platooning him with Mike Aviles against tough left-handed pitchers. The Indians could then utilize Nick Swisher in a first base and DH rotation with Santana, which would leave little to no value in the Indians maintaining a working relationship with the ageless wonder, Jason Giambi. The Indians could get serious about carrying a second catcher on the Major League roster, which would be a good role for George Kottaras, or the club could sign Kelly Shoppach, still a free agent, to a deal.

This is a tricky situation for the Indians to deal with. You can’t give up on a 28-year-old who is signed through 2016 for $15.45 million (guaranteed, including the 2017 buyout) with a $12 million option for 2017. Santana’s best years are still ahead of him, and with the proper patience and usage of their talented, switch-hitting offensive weapon, they can not only limit the showcasing of his lack of defensive prowess, but they can also get him back on track to becoming a legitimate MVP contender in coming seasons.

All of the hatred and mocking that Santana has faced due to his struggles will eventually become an afterthought when he gets it going, and he most certainly will.