There are a lot of arguments from fans that Carlos Santana’s season thus far has been a failure. If you look at the stats, you can see where they are coming from. Through Sunday’s game, Santana’s slash line sits at .221/.342/.432 with 10 home runs, an OPS+ of 111 and a wRC+ of 110. Most of these numbers are within shouting distance of his career averages, but still come in as being below them. What they may not have noticed is that he has recovered after an absolutely brutal March/April, having hit .274/.381/.556 since May 1 with nine of those home runs from when the calendar changed to May. We could all see that he was the victim of some brutal luck in the beginning of the season and that things would even out as they tend to do during the long season.
Yet fans still direct a lot of their scorn towards him since he was the big free agent signing of the offseason, signing a huge deal while also defensively displacing their young star in Rhys Hoskins. He was supposed to be good with the glove as well, but a few ill timed gaffes have directly led to Phillies losses. Combining that with the “poor” offensive output means that Philadelphia isn’t happy with “El Oso”.
When you take a deeper dive into Santana’s season, though, there are some things to feel positive about. You can begin to understand why he has actually been having a good overall season, even if you don’t want to admit it.
Santana is actually doing really, really well with the stick...
When Santana was signed, many were quick to point out that he wasn’t exactly the prototype for a hulking, power hitting first baseman. He had never had a season in which he slugged .500 (though his 2016 was close with .498), so he wasn’t exactly known for over the fence power. Knowing what we know about the Phillies and their offensive approach, it became immediately clear what the draw was: his ability to get on base. His .365 on base percentage from 2010-2017 was one of the top numbers for players at his position during this time and it was something that the Phillies were interested in adding to their lineup. Unfortunately, his awful start to this season has jaded many fans who wanted something more from Santana.
What fans haven’t noticed too much is how he has hit since then. You saw his numbers from May 1 on, but what is really interesting is the stuff that lays underneath. In that first month of games, Santana struck out 17.2%, a smidge above his career average. Since then, he’s only struck out 10.8% of the time, a startling contrast from where he was before. He didn’t walk as much in May as he did April, but so far this month, he’s walking almost a quarter of the time. By collecting 15 extra base hits in May as compared to eight in April, we see that the power returned as well.
By using his extraordinary batting eye to get on base and hitting for more power than in March/April, he’s gotten right back to the player he was in his years with Cleveland, the one the Phillies paid their millions for. To me, it demonstrates the hold batting average still has over the typical fan. Because they see his BA still below .230, they assume he’s been a bust. While I will grant that he was terrible during that first month, there’s really no denying that he has been very good since May hit.
...but he’s been worse this year when the defense is “shifty”.
Now that you’ve seen some of the positives, we have to flip the coin and see if there is anything else that might show why Santana struggled. While there isn’t much, there are some things that don’t seem right about Santana.
We’ve all seen that when Santana is up, the opposition shifts against him. However, since he’s a switch hitter, the amount of time the team shifts varies. When he bats left handed, teams are shifting a whopping 83% of the time, 6th most in baseball. He’s been alright hitting as a lefty against the shift, sporting a .333 wOBA when fielders are shifting against him as opposed to a .422 wOBA against a non-shift. Naturally, you’d expect a hitter to hit better when teams are where they’re supposed to be since there are fewer fielders to catch the baseball. It’s what happens when Santana hits as a righty that catches people off guard.
When Santana bats as a righty, teams shift 17.5% of the time. When he hits into a non-shifted infield, he’s got a .342 wOBA, right around his career average. When the opposition does shift: .201 wOBA. That is almost impossibly low, so low that it makes your head spin. While his career averages in this situation vary from the high .420’s to the mid-.270’s, it’s safe to assume that his numbers in this situation will bounce back, bringing his overall numbers back up with it.
Where will he go from here?
Back in April, Mike Petriello wrote a piece about how good Santana was even though he was terrible. He was hitting the ball hard, just into some bad luck (defensive placement, weather, etc.) Since then, his numbers, as we’ve seen, have begun to bounce back to their career averages. His “luck” has gotten better, the weather has warmed up and so has Santana’s bat. Even if you wanted to talk about his defense, we can safely assume that Santana was going through a defensive slump as well, since history has shown him to be an above average first baseman. His UZR numbers have been good, staying on the positive side the past three seasons. It’s something he recognized as well, since we had reports of his taking extra defensive practice during the series in St. Louis to help snap out of whatever funk he was in.
In short, Santana has been pretty good this summer. It just takes looking past the “back of the baseball card” stats that we have grown accustomed to. If he keeps on the trajectory he is currently on, we can safely assume that we’ll look back on his season in October and be quite satisfied with what he produced this season.