Successful athletes who break into professional sports with the local team and remain with them six years (and counting) tend to be beloved. Sure, there are times when the promise of a young athlete is dashed by injury such as with Grady Sizemore or those highly drafted players who never pan out such as Dion Waiters or Trent Richardson. And, there are some players who take a few seasons to figure out their strengths and place in a league such as Tristan Thompson. But, the players who prove themselves to be consistent, above-average players are rarely hated. That is, unless that player happens to be Carlos Santana.1
Cleveland should be embracing Santana. He is a patient hitter, has had an above average bat each season, has been willing to do whatever the team has needed from him, and has been an engaging player to the fans. Yet, when one dares mention something positive about Santana, derision and snark are sure to follow.
So, let’s investigate the potential origin story for how Indians fans have arrived at such a strange place to see if these reasons have any merit, see where he currently stands in the league, and project where he might end up at the end of his current contract among all-time Cleveland Indians hitters.
Replacing beloved players
While Santana was obtained in a trade for Casey Blake, who had a strong following amongst fans despite a mediocre skillset, Scout’s Jeff Ellis believes fans have not allowed Carlos Santana to enter their hearts due to his failure to replace Victor Martinez. A year after Martinez was traded at the 2009 MLB trade deadline, Santana made his debut. Both players started as catchers, both were moved to first base and designated hitter due to their abilities hitting as much as their inabilities at being defensive catchers.
Martinez was the heart and soul of the Indian teams that came as close as one game from a World Series berth in 2007. Sure, the trades of back-to-back Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee hurt, but the trade of Martinez destroyed the psyche. His son asking “Are we still an Indian?” still pulls on my heart strings. And, Martinez has continued to have success since leaving Cleveland including a second place AL MVP finish in 2014 despite advancing in age.2
So, it would take quite the player to replace Martinez, and, on first glance, Santana is no Vic-the-Stik. Martinez was the .300 hitter who made three All-Star teams. Santana was the patient but low average hitter whose slow starts and initially poor teams kept him out of the mid-summer classic.
However, a closer look reveals the two hitters have much more in common. Martinez struggled his first two seasons in MLB (2002 and 2003), but the hitter fans remember is closer to the 2004-2009 V-Mart. Comparing Santana’s six seasons with the best six Indians years for Martinez shows similar value in OPS+, wRC+, and WAR. Martinez hit more doubles, but Santana more home runs and triples. Also, given their nearly identical OBP, the main difference between the hitters was Martinez hitting more singles, while Santana drew more walks. Yes, Martinez was a slightly better hitter as an Indian3 but not by much.
So, if Indians fans were hoping for a replacement to Victor Martinez statistically, then Santana has fulfilled that request adequately. He is not the fiery leader V-Mart was for those mid-decade teams, but it hardly seems a reason to hate on him.
Hot rookie streak offset expectations
Upon his initial call up, there was not nearly so much hatred for Santana. At the time, Russell Branyan was the lightning rod for fan scorn, while Santana impressed in his initial 46 games. In just 150 at bats, Santana hit .260/.401/.467 with six home runs, 13 doubles, and a 143 OPS+. Those are near MVP consideration numbers. Even Michael Brantley would happily take those numbers.
However, his second year began to demonstrate his rookie glimpse was an outlier. While still putting up good numbers, they were a step back from the dominant hot streak of those first 46 games. Then, in August of 2010, Boston Red Sox rookie Ryan Kalish collided with Santana at the plate. Santana held onto the rocket throw from Shin-Soo Choo to complete the out, but seriously hurt his knee. The injury happened a year before Buster Posey’s home plate collision injury forced MLB to change the rules on such plays.
While Santana hurried back from injury to play 143 games the next year, the initial hitter did not resemble the old Santana at all. He struggled mightily early with no power in the first half before turning it on with an outstanding second half performance. But, alas, Santana never was able to complete an entire MVP-level year, and it seems many fans still hold him to those rookie standards.4
This chart adjusts Santana’s rookie year to a full season and compares those adjusted numbers against what he had done on average in his other five seasons with the Indians.
Defense and shifting around
Carlos Santana is in MLB as a hitter first. No question there. He came up as a catcher and his numbers looked even better for those comparing him against other catchers, but the knee injury along with baseball having a better understanding of catcher framing (and that guys like Martinez and Santana were poor at it) led to a move from behind the plate. Santana embraced the Indians ill-fated attempt to have him fill the black hole at third base, but he was not suited for the position (-5 DRS in just 225 innings, -39.5 UZR/150).
Santana also accepted the move across the diamond to first base. At first, he struggled there too. He did improve though and made some fantastic plays such as two that helped preserve Carlos Carrasco’s no-hitter before Joey Butler eventually ended the bid with one out remaining. 2015 saw him obtain a 5.3 UZR/150 though still a -4 DRS in over 1100 innings of defensive play. He is not a good defensive player, nor is it likely he ever will be. But, he has been willing to accept whatever role has been given to him and his progression there indicates he works on improving in that role.
What do other people say about Carlos Santana?
So, how do we demonstrate that Carlos Santana is the above average hitter and not being properly appreciated enough by Cleveland Indians fans? Well, he has been a popular topic recently, so let’s see what others have said
WFNY’s own Jacob Rosen wrote in 2015 he believes Carlos Santana is under-appreciated in Cleveland based on arbitrary milestones. Of course, he has been attempting to convince fans to love Santana since at least 2013.
25 home run seasons aren’t as common as they were during my youth, during the run of those great Indians offenses. And that combinations of 25 home runs along with a .300 batting average and/or 100 RBI are quite rare too. Again, this shouldn’t be surprising! We’ve all been lamenting about the Great Offensive Recession for years. This isn’t just a macro issue, it’s also a micro one in player comparisons.
From 2011-14, Santana ranked 34th with a 127 wRC+. Sure, he might not be the best hitter on any given team. But out of the 286 qualified hitters, he was a dang good one and worthy of All-Star consideration almost every single year from his bat alone.
Meanwhile, Fangraphs August Fagerstrom created a handy Carlos Santana narrative buster:
I've created a Carlos Santana Narrative Buster. Your one-stop shop for shooting down all bad Carlos Santana takes: pic.twitter.com/DpWMdO8TCP
— August Fagerstrom (@AugustFG_) February 23, 2016
MLB.com’s Andrew Simon projected Santana to be one of the 2016 bounceback candidates based on his examination of Statcast data:
Santana hit into 49 outs when generating triple-digit exit velocity, coming up empty on eight of his 19 hardest-struck balls in play. Among the 100 players with the most 100-mph contact, Santana sat in the middle of the pack in both average exit velocity (53rd) and launch angle (57th) but fared a bit worst in batting average (75th) and slugging (63rd).
Place in franchise history
In baseball, there tend to be two ways to be revered. Either to be ridiculously outstanding for a short stretch of time such as Albert Belle or Ken Griffey Jr. Or, be consistently above average for a ridiculous period of time such as Julio Franco or Cal Ripken Jr. Carlos Santana did not have the short stretch of ridiculousness, but he certainly has had an extended stretch of being quite good.
Years from now, when fans look back on Santana’s time in Cleveland, many will be surprised at just how often Santana’s name shows up in the franchise record books. And, yes, those leaderboards include the counting statistics often cited as negatives about Carlos Santana. How high he climbs the ladder will depend on injury, fighting off any decline, and if the Indians pick up what appears to be a team-friendly 2017 option, but he already is among the 30 best hitters in franchise history with a legit chance to make an argument for being a Top 20 Indians hitter after the next two seasons.
Santana is often chided for not hitting enough home runs. However, looking at the franchise annals, he is currently sitting in 17th place with 117 ahead of Carlos Baerga (among others). If he continues to average 24 home runs a season, then he will move up to 11th place, which pushes him ahead of Indian legends such as Joe Carter and Grady Sizemore.
The power of Santana extends past home runs as he also is 38th in doubles and 34th in total extra base hits. If he continues his averages per season, then after the next two years he can move into 16th and 14th place respectively. How many people realize Santana has a real chance to finish ahead of Albert Belle and Jack Graney in doubles?
So, if Santana is hitting for more extra base hits than fans give him credit, then where are all the runs scored and batted in? Well, despite playing for an offensively deficient team during an era of decreased run scoring, Santana is still showing up on those lists too. He is currently 38th with 421 RBIs and has scored 394 runs (Michael Brantley’s 402 runs scored is tied for 49th on the all-time Indians leaderboard). With two more average Santana seasons though, he would make the board in runs scored around 30th past Shoeless Joe Jackson. And, in RBIs, he would rocket up the board to 16th. Carlos Santana would finish ahead of Rocky Colavito, Omar Vizquel, and Carlos Baerga among other Indian legends.
Think of it this way. Fans tend to have warm thoughts when thinking about players such as Joe Carter, but was Carter a better hitter as an Indian than Santana? For now, the case could be made for either as Carter’s .269/.309/.472 slash is a bit better in BA and SLG% than Santana’s .245/.365/.433. Santana has the superior OBP, WAR (18.1 to 14.7), OPS+ (122 to 112), and wRC+ (124 to 109). Carter leads most counting statistic categories, but Santana projects to overcome most of those deficits as he is still 415 AB behind Carter.
Regardless of your feelings towards Carlos Santana, he is going to be prominent on many of the franchise leaderboards once his Cleveland tenure is complete.
So, do you love Carlos Santana yet?
All is not perfect with Carlos Santana. It would be better if he morphed into Joey Votto and hit for a high average to complement his OBP. In a 2015 Bode Plot, there were some warning signs of age (or general) fall off such as an increase in soft% as he suffered through an uncharacteristically bad season. But, Simon (above) and Baseball Prospectus, and other projection tools see Santana having a bounceback year based on their models.
The thing is, will most Indians fans appreciate a good season from Carlos Santana?
Statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com unless otherwise noted.
- Pre-publication I heard arguments for Kyrie Irving. He certainly has a curious throng of hatred, but I maintain to believe it is a very small minority who are vocal whereas Santana’s seem to have a vocal minority who love him. I could be wrong. [↩]
- Sure, he has had his struggles too, but his successes have been amplified and his failures muted. [↩]
- in those six seasons [↩]
- Warrants mentioning Francisco Lindor just had a rookie year that does not line up with his MiLB career. He hit much, much better and with more power than anyone thought he would. So, while Lindor has always been a better prospect than Santana, Indians fans should also expect some regression on those offensive stats. [↩]