Indians

Carlos Santana and the new leadoff prototype at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

There’s Carlos Santana frustration brewing at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and it’s really starting to get old. This isn’t anything new, as Santana has been the most misunderstood baseball player on the North Coast since the day he was called up to Progressive Field in 2010. This goes far beyond the fact that he’s always the second “Carlos Santana” that shows up on any internet search. Santana isn’t your traditional “power hitter,” as many labeled him immediately after the 2008 trade that brought him to Cleveland. He isn’t your traditional .300 hitter, even though the minor league version of Santana hit .290. It just goes to show you that perception is often the rule, even if it isn’t true.

Instead, Santana has masked his offensive brilliance in a package that makes him hard to define past this: he’s one of the Top 30 hitters in all of baseball. Even Indians’ manager Terry Francona has sometimes struggled with finding a place in the line-up for Carlos. Consider this: while his predominant spot in the line-up has been as the clean-up hitter, he only had 38 PAs there since the start of 2016. Overall, since Francona joined the club as manager prior to the 2013 season, Santana has, dependent on year, spent the majority of time hitting fourth and fifth, with a dalliance at the six-spot… until last year. That’s when Francona, almost begrudgingly, allowed Santana to hit first, but only against righties.

Santana responded with an elite 17% walk rate, a .385 OBP, a .381 wOBA and a 140 wRC+. While some may think this overvalues the walk, remember, the No. 1 priority for the leadoff hitter is to get on base and score runs. Santana scored 57 runs batting first in only 86 games. So check and check.

While Santana split time with Rajai Davis as the lead-off hitter in 2016, many in statistical circles were wondering why Santana didn’t get full-time at bats there. Davis, he of World Series home run heroics, wasn’t a great lead-off hitter, minus his plus speed. While Santana’s power dips from the right side of the plate, he’s still elite in every other category that’s important to a leadoff hitter. His career walk rate is slightly worse as a right-handed hitter (14.6% L versus 15.9% R), but almost all the other important intangibles as a lead-off hitter improve. His career OBP as a right-handed hitter is .383, versus .356 as a lefty. His slugging is nearly identical (.441 as a righty, versus .446 as a lefty). His career wOBA is (.361 as a righty, versus .350 as a lefty), and his career wRC+ is (130 as a righty, versus 122 as a lefty). Minus the home run power, Santana’s numbers as a right-handed hitter better suit leading off.

What’s most impressive about Santana is how he altered his approach hitting from the left side to better suit leading off. All of his numbers improved in the important lead-off categories, as opposed to his career numbers. And to the traditionalists out there, Santana belted 34 total homers, satisfying that mystical shelf that so many “old-school statisticians” have been craving. While Santana’s overall walk rate dropped to a career low of 14.4% (still pretty damn good), his strikeout rate also dropped to a career low 14.4%. Like many Indians in the line-up, his offensive IQ is outstanding. Santana finds a way to mold into every opportunity placed in front of him, regardless of comfort level.

But even with the loss of Rajai Davis, and with the wildly successful 2016 for Santana as the unconventional lead-off hitter, that national media has taken an interesting approach to the 2017 versions of the unconventional lead-off hitters.

Big surprise, right?

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I suppose we have to take a look at the conventional lead-off hitter, before we get to Carlos Santana in 2017. In Cleveland, the prototypical lead-off hitter roamed centerfield for the Indians throughout much of the 1990’s with the speed and grace of a player that was built to be there. Kenny Lofton was exactly what the doctor prescribed, and what every baseball bible predicated.

Lofton was fast, and in the era prior to, well, today, that’s really all you needed. Hell, that’s why Rajai Davis was leading off so much in 2016. But Lofton was more than fast. His career OBP was .372, and in his prime with the Indians, he had three seasons in which it was over .400.1 He hit for average2, and scored a ton of runs. The fact that he played center and was fantastic defensively only helped finish off the stereotypical picture.

Lofton was the dream, and while the Hall of Fame-voting-idiots bounced him out of the voting after one year, you could legitimately make a case that Lofton was a Top 5 lead-off hitter of all time.

But players like Lofton are unicorns. Too often, while speed is enticing, it doesn’t often get to first base to allow it to be effective. When you combine that with metrics, there are other, interesting avenues to consider when pondering hitting first.

You also have to understand that hitting leadoff isn’t always about hitting leadoff. Percentages increase throughout a season regarding how many times in an inning that you hit first. Consider this: of Santana’s 688 plate appearances in 2017, only 228 led off an inning, and 85 of those were the first inning. Francisco Lindor had 106 leadoff innings, Jason Kipnis had 118, and Jose Ramirez had 143. Sure, Santana was afforded more opportunity, but there are other things to consider.

Santana would get more first inning opportunities with the full-time leadoff gig, but what’s especially interesting is how often he’ll actually be able to drive runners in from the bottom of the order. With one of the deepest lineups in baseball, Santana reverts back to his “clean-up” self after that first at-bat.

You see, it’s that out of the box thinking that can alter the Indians’ 2017 fortunes, but could even change the landscape of baseball. So, Santana provided this shift in thinking, right?

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In case you haven’t heard, Kyle Schwarber is Major League Baseball’s new prototype for a leadoff hitter. The World Series media darling, and Joe Buck’s man-crush, has gotten the nod in Chicago at the top of the order. Since then, every quirky outlet, from Ringer, to ESPN, to CBS Sports have jumped on the “Joe Maddon-is-brilliant” bandwagon, for thinking so outside the box.3

This experiment has been tried a variety of times over the years, but Maddon is given credit for creating the 2017 leadoff model.

Except he didn’t create it. He watched it.

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Santana wasn’t a major factor as a lead-off hitter in the World Series, but his overall .380 OBP, and Maddon’s Santana fascination likely was a motivator for the Schwarber move this year. The Cubs roster is loaded, and while a guy like Ben Zobrist might be a good fit there (Maddon has used him in the lead-off role in previous seasons with the Rays, and the Cubs) as well, Schwarber does get on base a lot.

But he’s no Santana.

Santana’s walk rate has historically been 15% or better, and while he does strike out, it’s not at Schwarber’s near 30% in his rookie season.4 Sure, Schwarber possesses perhaps more home run power, but Santana is just a smarter hitter. As I mentioned already, his offensive IQ is substantial, and his extra base power is unquestioned. When you combine it with a career .365 OBP, you have something pretty special.

In Cleveland, Terry Francona was ahead of the curve, whether he wanted to be or not.

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Carlos Santana can’t buy a break. In Cleveland, he’s been somewhat of a media-pariah throughout the duration of his career. The Indians stole him in a trade for Casey Blake in 2009, which was a heralded move at the time, but since then, he’s had to overcome some odd stereotypes at every step of the way.

  1. He wasn’t Victor Martinez behind the plate, even though his offensive numbers were every bit as good.
  2. Yan Gomes supplanted him at catcher, so Santana volunteered to try playing third base, because he wanted to play in the field badly. Instead of being heralded as a team player, he was criticized for “having to play at a primary position.”
  3. He’s played hurt, because he figured playing was more beneficial to the team, rather than sitting. He was then somewhat chastised by manager Terry Francona, who said, “I don’t quite know how to respond to that (Santana playing hurt). I think he’s had some back tightness for sure. He just didn’t want me to tell anybody. I guess he took care of that.”
  4. There have been rumblings that Santana doesn’t want to DH, that he’d rather play in the field. This stems a bit from his run at third base, but also coexists with his desire to play first base. While other players are heralded as gamers, it’s been insinuated by various sources that he can be a malcontent. This has also tied together with his leading off. While some comments have come from Santana about “having to learn how to hit first,” much of it is simply an ‘I’ll do whatever it takes’ mentality.

But enter Santana in 2017. Joining the Indians’ line-up is good friend Edwin Encarnacion, who will lock up the clean-up spot for the duration of the year. Re-joining the line-up is arguably the Indians best overall hitter in Michael Brantley, who missed the entire 2016 season.

With Rajai Davis gone, the line-up depth locked Santana in as the full-time, 2017 leadoff hitter. Santana currently leads the league with three doubles, and also has a home run. He’s scored five runs in six games, and hasn’t yet kicked into full gear regarding walks (super-small sample size alert… 10.3% BB rate). But still, Santana feels like a game-changer at the position, even if the rest of the mainstream media is focusing on the darling Chicago Cubs, and Kyle Schwarber.

How many games will the Indians start off with the lead, if Santana hits 30-plus homers?5 How many games will a runner start off in scoring position, without Santana having to steal a base?6 And what if he does pick up his stolen base game?7

With Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion and Jason Kipnis having chances to drive him home, it could revolutionize the game. Yet hitters like Santana are every bit as unicorn as the Kenny Loftons of this world, so perhaps Santana is less a prototype, and more a singular force of nature. And with Jason Kipnis returning soon from rehab, and with Austin Jackson playing solid early on, Francona could begin to get itchy to go traditional again.

Kipnis has hit lead-off before, and so has Brantley. JRam’s OBP was up as well, and Lindor may be the future lead-off hitter, since he has more of those “traditional” skills that people love so much.

But Santana’s career has been a study in perseverance, and breaking traditional stereotypes is something that he’s become accustomed to, even if Kyle Schwarber gets all the credit.

  1. Four times, if you include his lost season with the Atlanta Braves []
  2. over .300 during five of his Indians’ seasons, and .300 for his career with the Indians []
  3. Joe Maddon is brilliant in many ways, and he did try John Jaso there a few years back, followed by Matt Joyce. But in the end, he continued to utilize speed guys, such as Demond Jennings and B.J. Upton. []
  4. It’s 40% this year, in a super small sample size []
  5. Well, somewhere in the realm of 30, duh []
  6. Santana had 68 extra base hits, for what it’s worth []
  7. While not speedy, Santana is one of the smartest baserunners in the game. []

  • Hopwin
  • Slippery Cripple

    I love it! Give me a player that will get on base, and I’ll give my pitching staff an early lead.

  • JNeids

    Surprised you didn’t lead with a line from the Hambino, so if someone responded with the above, you could end it by saying Santana plays like a girl.

  • Hopwin

    I embraced Santana as lead-off/designated walker once I realized it limited his ability to kill rallies with a GIDP hit directly into the defensive shift they’ve been playing against him for 3 years 😀

  • JNeids

    Addition by subtraction, if you will.

  • scripty

    My formative years Mike Hargrove was batting leadoff. This is nothing for me.