Carlos Santana and the Batting Order Quagmire

Sep 16, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Cleveland Indians first baseman Carlos Santana (41) drives in a run with a fielders choice during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Where Should Carlos Santana Hit?

Last season, former catcher and current first baseman Carlos Santana served as the Tribe’s cleanup hitter for much of the year.  Although the first half of his season was somewhat of a disaster, he drove in plenty of runs from the four-hole after the All-Star break and made great use of his spot in the lineup.

However, aside from Michael Brantley racking up more hits than a Buzzfeed slideshow, Santana was often left wanting for more baserunners to drive in.  Part of the problem is that leadoff hitter Michael Bourn’s OBP was at an all-time low.  Making matters worse was the fact that rookie Jose Ramirez was still getting the hang of major-league plate discipline despite hitting in the number two spot.  With Asdrubal Cabrera not faring much better in the first half of the season in the on-base department, the Cleveland Indians finished in the bottom half of MLB despite finishing in the top third in total runs scored.

You could make a very strong argument that, outside of the obvious strategy of grouping all your best hitters together, lineup construction does very little in the way of helping a team manufacture additional wins.  However, it seems that Santana’s spot in the lineup holds the key to batting order optimization.  Last year, Santana did two things better than any other player on the team:  draw walks and smash the ball out of the park.  Some might argue that such skills simultaneously make him the Tribe’s best option both as a leadoff hitter and cleanup hitter.  The question we should be asking is not “Which does he do better?”, but rather, “Where is he needed the most?”

Leadoff:  Santana finished the 2014 season with a staggering 113 walks.  That number is nine more than any other player in baseball, and more than double the total for any of his teammates (Brantley was the closest with just 52).  In spite of a massive first-half hitting slump, he still managed a very respectable .365 OBP, trailing only Brantley and his video game numbers for the team lead.  Point being:  Santana gets on base.  Often.  And although leadoff hitters are sometimes known for their speed (and, consequently, their ability to steal bases), the only real thing your leadoff hitter needs to do is get on base.  Santana’s patience at the plate makes him a perfect table setter for Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes.

Sep 16, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes (10) runs to first with a hit during the fourth inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Second:  Batting from the second spot in the order gives Santana and his skill set some awesome run-scoring opportunities.  Although his batting average was only .230 for the season last year (.260 in the second half, post-slump), his slugging percentage ranked among the best on the team.  And of course, as I stated earlier, he drew more walks than anyone else in baseball.  So, if the Indians were to stick with a more traditional speedster in the leadoff spot, Santana’s skills could have some fantastic advantages batting second.  For example, if a speedy slap-hitter like Bourn were to single (or walk) himself to first base, a walk by Santana would put him in scoring position with nobody out; a great time to have Brantley at the plate.  This is particularly good for Bourn considering he wasn’t all that great at stealing bases last year (for every two bases he stole he was thrown out about once; not such a good ratio), but still has the speed to score from second on shallow singles.  Then there’s the power.  Hitting in the leadoff spot, Santana’s homers are more likely to be solo shots.  But hitting second, there’s a better chance that there’ll be a runner on base when he goes deep.  Even his doubles are likely to score Bourn from first, meaning that with Bourn on the bases, any extra-base hit from Santana is nearly a guaranteed RBI.  Also worth mentioning is the fact that Santana can hit from either side of the plate, meaning he’ll split up lefties Bourn and Brantley batting first and third.  This could make for a major disruption to the matchup relief strategy that some managers try to employ later in the game.

Third:  While a good case could be made for Santana’s power being useful in the three-hole, it’d be tough to make pushing Brantley out of that spot seem like a good idea.  The third spot in the order should probably be the team’s best all-around hitter, and right now that’s Dr. Smooth.  Moving on.

Cleanup:  Santana has more raw power than anyone else in the Tribe’s lineup.  He has the potential for 30+ home runs and boasted an isolated power stat of .196 last season; better than any qualifier on the team.  With Brantley on base half the time, along with whoever may have reached before him, Santana’s home runs have the chance to do some serious damage from the fourth spot in the lineup.  With strikeouts up and power numbers down across the league, the chance to instantly put a crooked number up on the board is more valuable than ever, and nobody on the team has a better chance to smack one out of the park than Santana.  And again, his ability to hit from either side of the plate means that the strategy of bringing a left-hander in to face Brantley is somewhat short-sighted and less viable, particularly if Gomes is batting fifth.  Having him in the heart of the order is also an opportunity to split up the Tribe’s wealth of power-hitting lefties in Brantley, Brandon Moss and Jason Kipnis.

Oct 5, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (41) at bat against the Baltimore Orioles during game three of the 2014 ALDS baseball playoff game at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Fifth:  In the second half of 2013, Victor Martinez was perhaps the best form of lineup protection in all of baseball.  With Prince Fielder batting fourth and Martinez batting fifth, opposing pitchers were less likely to pitch around Cabrera in the three-hole; putting him on base meant there was a good chance he’d be driven home by one of the two studs behind him.  His ability to switch-hit meant that bringing in a LOOGY to face Fielder was a more difficult and less effective choice, and his fantastic plate discipline meant that pitchers would have a tough time getting out of jams with a strikeout.  Santana has the chance to fill that role for the Indians in 2015, particularly if OPS studs Moss or Kipnis heat up early in the season.  Having Santana batting behind Brantley and Moss/Kipnis means that pitchers will probably be less willing to pitch around the three and four hitters, giving them more opportunities to drive in runs with a big swing.

Sixth:  You could make a case that having a switch-hitting power guy in the sixth spot could help split up Moss in the five-hole and Kipnis batting seventh.  Admittedly, this is reaching a bit, and any higher than sixth in the order seems like an outright wasteful place to use Santana.

Upon reflection, it’s my personal opinion that Santana would be most useful batting second in the lineup.  Gomes has the power potential to be a useful cleanup hitter, but Santana is the only player on the team who has proven that he can hit right-handed while racking up monster OBP numbers.  The Indians should probably split up the lefties batting first and third somehow, and as an added bonus, Santana’s ability to also hit left-handed means that the right-handed starters that make up 75% of baseball are going to have a tough time against the top of the Indians’ lineup.  Furthermore, pure numbers and logic say that he’ll get more total at-bats here over the course of the season than in the cleanup spot.

What do you think?  Where should Santana bat in the lineup?

Where in the Lineup Should Carlos Santana Hit?

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