Santana’s versatility or Encarnacion’s power?
In order to make any educated guesses as to the future, we need to ask ourselves why the Indians pulled the trigger on this deal in the present. It seems to come down to maximizing salary obligations.
Like any full-time designated hitter, Encarnacion provides lucrative returns in the home run and RBI categories, but his value outside of that is minimal. He has seen a steady uptick in his strikeout rate in each of the last five seasons dating back to his days in Toronto.
In 2018, that number topped out at 22.8 percent, his highest in a full season in the majors. This trend is compounded by his walk rate coming in below 15 percent in four of his last five seasons, and an alarmingly low 10.9 percent in 2018.
Conversely, Santana has done well to decrease his strikeout numbers over the last five seasons, having brought his 18.8 percent clip in 2014 down to 13.7 percent in 2018. Since 2016, Santana has averaged 99 walks per year compared to Encarnacion’s 85.
Additionally, Santana can immediately slot back into the Indians’ defensive alignment at first base, whereas Encarnacion has been largely limited to DH duties in his time with the Tribe. Santana also brings some defensive flexibility with him, as he has proven he can play third base or the outfield in a pinch. Quite simply, he affords the Indians the luxury of shifting other pieces around to ensure they all fit, a luxury Encarnacion did not provide.
While strikeout percentages, walk rates and defensive versatility are not the most obvious ways to evaluate a player, they are important when a small market franchise is trying to determine the best way to spend its money.
The Indians could have paid Encarnacion $20 million to hit more home runs in 2019, but they elected to take on more money overall in return for a player who can help the team when he’s not hitting home runs.