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Carlos Santana and the Middle Ground

Detractors and defenders alike have strong words when it comes to the first baseman’s first season in Philadelphia. Can both sides see eye-to-eye?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Debating baseball is tough. Debating Carlos Santana this year? That’s really tough.

Santana is the kind of player that puts fans at odds with one another. Everything about his season sparks some sort of contention: His contract, his batting average, his displacing of Rhys Hoskins to the outfield. There’s friction at every turn as far as Santana is concerned.

It doesn’t have to be that way!

Every week, I feel some sort of pull to mount some defense of Carlos Santana. I won’t sit here and say he’s deserving of MVP votes, but there’s a lot to his season that often gets overlooked, and many of the arguments against him don’t consider the big picture.

Here are some pure, objective numbers from Santana’s season, after Sunday’s 8-3 win over Toronto:

  • .221/.349/.408
  • 19 home runs
  • 73 RBI
  • 9 errors (career-high)
  • More walks (91) than strikeouts (80)
  • $18,333,333 in salary

For a while now, a number of us have been preaching patience with regard to Santana, or (in my case) trying to re-frame his season. If you’re critical of Santana’s season or contract (or both), that probably comes off as apologia, because nuance is dead. What we’re trying to do with Santana is not excuse what is, objectively, a down year for the first baseman, but instead to show that he’s hardly been as bad as...some of the mentions the Twitter account receives would have you believe.

So let’s meet in the middle. Let’s take a look at Santana - five months into a three-plus-year contract - and try to come to as many universally acceptable conclusions as we can. It’ll be tough! But there’s a middle ground between success and failure that Santana currently inhabits here in 2018. As for 2019 and beyond? That’s an entirely different animal altogether.

Without exhausting everyone with an excess of numbers (though I’m gonna need to use a few!), let’s try and work through the myriad talking points surrounding Santana.

The Batting Average

Santana went 1-for-4 with a home run Sunday, raising ::ahem:: his average from .220720 to .220982. Among every hitter who’s had enough trips to the plate to qualify for the batting title, that AVG entering Sunday ranked tied for 7th-lowest in baseball with the MarinersKyle Seager, 7 points below Justin Bour and 8 points below Scott Kingery. Put another way: He’s tied for 146th of 152.

Usually, players hitting under .230 aren’t considered to be having “good” seasons. In fact, the only two players in the modern era to hit under .230 and still OPS over .850 are Carlos Pena in 2009 (.227/.356/.537) and Joey Gallo last season (.209/.333/.537). The former hit 41 homers, the latter 39.

Santana, with his current numbers, is almost 100 points below that (admittedly arbitrarily-selected) mark, and he won’t hit 39 homers. His plate appearances are often unexciting, stretching out over four-plus pitches and (as we see) infrequently ending with a hit. His 4.15 pitches per plate appearance tie him with new Phillies Justin Bour and divisionmate Michael Conforto for 21st among qualified hitters. Other Phils teammates Rhys Hoskins (4.39, 1st) and Cesar Hernandez (4.24, 10th) slot in above.

A guy who draws a lot of walks can be boring as hell. It’s unsexy, especially if it doesn’t come complemented with a whole lot of power spread throughout those non-walking PAs. But entertainment value aside, this is the crux of Santana’s value in 2018: In spite of a weak percentage of his trips to the plate ending in hits, he’s still really good at not making an out, which is the most basic goal of hitting imaginable.

Even in the face of that low batting average, Santana’s .349 OBP now ranks tied for 51st among that same group of 152 qualified hitters as of Sunday evening. That’s not elite, sure, but it’s 3rd-best on the Phillies and ahead of numerous guys on other teams with higher averages. And that’s really important, because getting on base is about more than just getting hits. Hits are better than walks, but both have one crucial thing in common: They’re not outs, and that’s why OBP (the combination of hits and all the other ways you can not make an out) is so much more important.

Do you want an entire lineup full of 2018 Carlos Santanas? Maybe not. But that’s not what the Phillies have; one is fine, and that’s why we can live with a low average.

The Power

There’s less to positively spin in this department. Santana is putting up numbers that bear a strong resemblance to his 2015 season, where he finished hitting .231/.357/.395 with 19 homers. It’s his worst full season by a decent amount.

In looking at his batted ball data, it looks like Santana should have a few more hits to show for his efforts...”should” being the operative word here. People are right to care less about what should have happened and more about what’s actually happened, and probability isn’t certainty when it comes to being hopeful that some numbers will fix themselves as we head into September. This season won’t be Santana’s lowest homer output of his career, and he only needs two doubles to avoid setting a career low there, but the overall lack of falling hits is definitely dragging the SLG down.

A couple weeks ago, I tried to reimagine the concept of the Phillies’ lineup with Santana batting fourth. With the season Nick Williams was having to that point while batting fifth most nights, it seemed not-ridiculous to look at Santana’s spot as a reset button, a second lead-off option. That’s a little bit of a stretch, and clearly not something people expect when they think of a typical lineup’s fourth hitter. I tried.

Time is running out for the slugging percentage to look more in line with Santana’s norm, but a hot month would bring his numbers right up against his career averages. I’ll keep holding out hope, but I’ll admit that the power numbers today are probably not exactly what the team was hoping for.

The Defense

In a surprising twist, Santana long ago set a new career high in errors at first base, a position he’s played at least semi-regularly since 2014 and had improved at over the past few seasons.

This one...I don’t really have an explanation for this one. It’s unfortunate. I don’t find myself discouraged or thinking Santana is a sieve all of a sudden, but his own defensive lapses have done little to steady what was made an unstable defensive alignment when he was signed.

I wasn’t in the room when this move was made, but I imagine the thought process behind it extended beyond Santana and onto Hoskins, whom the club presumably thought would take to left field a bit better. He could be moved off his most suitable position because the team (rightly) felt it was worth taking that chance in order to keep his bat in the lineup with Santana’s each day. I’m personally not sure they can let the experiment continue in 2019, but I won’t resign myself to the thought of Hoskins not making extra strides out there. It could happen, but it’d be more risk, and would keep the pressure on the pitching staff fairly high. Different conversation for a different day.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Contract

Knocking Santana for his production relative to the money he’s being paid, given the Phillies’ current finances and commitments, is an incomplete criticism.

The question is a simple one: Why do we care what dollar amount the team’s paying him?

With so little guaranteed money on this roster, the Phillies had near-term wiggle room for 2018-2020 like you couldn’t believe. With a luxury tax threshold of $197 million this season and less than $50 million on the books, the Phillies had all the tax space in the world to make moves of any kind.

In Santana, they saw a consistent hitter who could add patience to a lineup that, prior to this season, didn’t really have a ton of it. Sure, the positional fit was a bit strange, but like we just covered above, the team probably felt it would work out a bit better than it has.

In order to make that lineup improvement and add one of the free agent class’s best options, the Phillies committed to $18 million, $20 million, and $20 million, plus a fourth-year option. Now, with all of the additions and extra moves, the Phillies still sit somewhere around $80 million below the tax threshold this year, and will start 2019’s shopping roughly $120 million below the elevated threshold of $209 million.

That amount of money could get you two elite free agents (ahem), plus new contracts for cornerstone guys like Hoskins and Aaron Nola, and still leave you with breathing room under that $209 million cap. Call it a hunch, but it’s incredibly likely that, say, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado combined (wherever they land, separate or together) will not take up more than $80-85 million in 2019 salary. For a team like the Phillies, even with Santana’s money on the books, that’s an incredible spot to be in.

All of this is to say that it doesn’t matter what the Phillies are paying Santana; it matters how long they’re paying him for, and that they were able to get him at all. Dollar number is not a factor here unless you’re weighing things like $/WAR and, honestly, it’s not our job as fans to be economists. This team had the dough to burn, needed the upgrades, and has sacrificed little to no flexibility for the biggest shopping spree of our generation. Fine by me.

That Santana will be guaranteed money for 2019 and 2020 is what this argument stands on strongest. With Hoskins below average in left and the team looking to make, potentially, a significant outfield addition this coming offseason, things could stand to get weird quickly. The team could move Santana this winter, even if it leaves a lot of boxes on the Ideal Trade Scenario Checklist unchecked. There’s really almost no two-year deal that can’t somehow be moved.

The Gist

As I see it, Santana has had a disappointing 2018, but a lot of ire directed his way is misplaced. He doesn’t look like a perfect fit for this team after 2018, but moving him would likely require absorbing a loss monetarily, in return prospect value, and in league optics. It’s typically not awesome for player relations to trade a guy one season after signing him to a multi-year deal, all other arguments aside.

Doing things like calling for Justin Bour - a break-even hitter against RHP but a platoon liability and worse defender - to start because Santana has a low batting average does everyone a disservice (although Bour is definitely part of the string of roster decisions the team will have to make soon, as he’s arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons).

The rationalizing and re-framing of Santana’s season are exercises in pleading for patience. That’s kind of a tough thing to ask for in late August, but I’d hope you’d trust a Santana defender’s rationale, just as I hope I’ve properly acknowledged some of the biggest criticisms of Carlos’s year.

Let’s hang in there. We can all get through another month and change without going to pieces at each other over a season that’s simultaneously not as great and not as bad as it seems. Meet you in the middle.