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Redefining Carlos Santana

His low batting average is frustrating a lot of fans, but Santana’s season looks a lot better if we think differently about the Phillies lineup

Philadelphia Phillies v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Carlos Santana is not an ordinary hitter. His approach is one of patience taken to the extreme, extending every plate appearance for as long as he possibly can in order to get his pitch. His 4.21 pitches per PA ties him with Shin-Soo Choo for 18th in MLB, trailing only Major League leader Rhys Hoskins (4.46) and Cesar Hernandez (4.33) among qualified hitters on the Phillies. He will wait and wait and wait, even if it means taking two strikes every time up in a game. This has, simply put, always been his style.

The Phils signed Santana this offseason to do what he’s done, process-wise. To be sure, there was hope he’d hit a tick above the current .215/.352/.395 line you see before you as of Sunday, and in a conventional lineup, a guy regularly hitting fourth while slugging under .400 would be the sign of a team heading in the wrong direction.

But the 2018 Phillies don’t have a conventional lineup. They have a prototypical leadoff hitter in Cesar - high on-base, good speed, modest power - but the prototyping stops abruptly with Hoskins batting second.

In the last era of lineup construction, you’d typically find types of hitters assigned to certain spots in the batting order. The National League more or less stuck to these characteristics, with a little room for improv, depending on who needed a day off or how feisty a manager was feeling with matchups on a given day:

  1. Fastest runner
  2. Guy who makes contact, also probably a little fast
  3. Best blend of contact and power
  5. Plan B for DINGERS
  6. Guy
  7. Guy
  8. Catcher

Everything about that was fine. It worked for a long time! Look at the peak years of the Phillies during their Golden Age, and you’ll find the best examples of each of those characteristics: Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard, Burrell/Ibanez, respectively, all fit those molds.

These 2018 Phillies are not building their lineup that way. If they were, Santana’s season would look like an outright disappointment. Sure, he’s got some RBI as a result of hitting so closely behind Hernandez and Hoskins, but 17 home runs in mid-August from a guy who hasn’t missed time would feel light by recent standards.

But what if, instead, we thought about the Phillies lineup differently? What if Carlos Santana’s job isn’t to be like Ryan Howard, but instead be another Cesar? And is that a sustainable way to deploy an offense?

Bear with me for a minute.

I get that a lot of fans are frustrated with Santana this season. Part of me was hoping for something closer to his career averages, but even now, I still see the same hitter in 2018 that the Phillies obviously liked, from 2017 on back, enough to sign to a multi-year contract.

Santana’s place in this lineup is defining some expectations for how he should perform. We see him as batting fourth, and so we want him to be our “cleanup” guy, the hitter who pokes in the runners who’d be on base ahead of him. We want the player in that fourth spot to hit, and so a .215 average with a homer total in the teens messes with our sensibilities. It makes us a little uncomfortable.

I’m not saying the Phillies necessarily intended for this to happen when they signed Santana, but what if this 2018 version of Carlos is actually a perfect fit for the fourth spot in the order? What if the fourth spot isn’t for “cleanup,” but for a “restart,” acting as a second leadoff hitter in the middle of the order?

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies - Game 2 Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Think of it this way. The usual top three in the Phils’ order these days goes Hernandez, Hoskins, Nick Williams. If everything goes according to plan, Cesar gets on base, Hoskins has both power and the discipline to walk his way out of a tough spot, and Williams comes up with an eye toward driving the ball. A simplification, sure, especially in light of Williams’s improved approach, but basic truths hold.

When Santana’s turn comes, he may have runners on ahead of him. And he still possesses the power in his swing to drop an extra-base hit and clean up the bases. But he also has the third-best OBP in the lineup despite his low average. He gets on base as if he already were batting leadoff regularly, which is probably why he made so many starts there for Cleveland, plus three additional starts there for the Phils on days when Cesar was not in the lineup.

Apart from those three first innings when he came up first by default, Santana has led off an inning 113 times this season. His performance in 2018 does not immediately validate this concept - .216/.310/.461 doesn’t exactly scream “justification,” but hang on - but his previous three seasons in Cleveland most certainly do. Here is how Santana performed when leading off an inning, as a leadoff hitter and otherwise:

  • 2015: .270/.377/.468, 130 PA
  • 2016: .264/.364/.569, 228 PA
  • 2017: .271/.347/.523, 173 PA

That track record, for my money, stands up against 2018’s .771 OPS with some sturdiness. Now, as Santana continues to age into his thirties, his offensive skillset may continue to erode. He’s taken a half-step back already this year, yes, but his batted ball numbers show he’s not quite cooked, despite the less-than-stellar results: While his line drive rate is off his career norm (14.5% vs. 18.2%), he’s hitting to all fields more and maintaining a good hard-hit rate (34.7%, above his 33.1% career mark). His career-low .217 BABIP does, in fact, look like the result of some hard luck, given those supporting numbers.

And if Santana functions as this second leadoff hitter, he would provide extra RBI opportunities for Maikel Franco behind him; Franco has responded in kind by driving Santana in 11 times thus far this season. Something about this feels like it’s working.

Some fans simply will not accept this concept, and that’s okay.

This thought exercise requires a bit of mental gymnastics, but there is at least some evidence to back it up. It’s another convention to buck and mindset to adopt that is piling on to an already long list; from pitcher use to defensive alignment, the first year of the Gabe Kapler Era has not shorted us on new and different things to consider.

The Phillies are on track to score more than 700 runs in a season for the first time since 2011. Despite the recent ups and downs on offense, this team is scoring runs without having to be overly reliant on home runs. They are walk-dependent, not homer-dependent, at the top of the order, and as long as Santana maintains his approach, he’s all but certain to fulfill his part of that quota.

I won’t pretend to say that this is probably all going according to preseason plans. But it does look, to me, like the Phillies have adjusted on the fly by letting Santana stay mostly entrenched in the four-spot and moving other parts around him. He’s not the lineup’s focal point, but he does provide something of an anchor by being the hitter that he is, even if that style doesn’t really fit in with our old notions of what a player who bats fourth should be.