On April 8, the Cleveland Indians’ first baseman of 2017 will be celebrating his birthday with the Cleveland Indians’ first baseman of 2018. They won’t be in the same building, or on the same team, but Carlos Santana and Yonder Alonso will be celebrating their birthdays on the same day, Santana born a year earlier.
Baseball is ripe with strange coincidences like this, and while birth dates mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, you can bet that Indians’ manager Terry Francona is hoping that there’s a lot more similarity between the two players than just the day they were born. While they both play first base, and will both have worn the Cleveland Indians’ block C cap before their days as Major Leaguers is over, it’s not likely that those similarities will be abundant, and that may not be a bad thing.
When news came out that Santana officially inked a three-year, $60 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, the social media community began analyzing every inch of value that the long-time Indian provided Cleveland. Discussions of “surplus” value and “defensive improvements” and “diminishing skills” and “skills were never good” and “he’s still undervalued” and “he’s the glue that held the team together” took over the day. And while the narrative was understandably all over the place, perhaps the biggest adjustment that Francona will have to make continues to be overlooked.
When news came out that Yonder Alonso officially inked a two-year, $16 million contract with the Cleveland Indians, it became clear that the team would be a lot less flexible in terms of how they will likely utilize Alonso, both in the lineup, and with regards to whether or not he faces both right-handed, and left-handed pitching.
While Santana was an exceptionally skilled offensive player over his career, his biggest asset may not have been his ability to get on base. What made Santana valuable to the Indians was his willingness to move around the diamond, but even more importantly, both his willingness and effectiveness at moving around the lineup.
In 2017 alone, Santana was utilized in eight spots in the line-up, with four of those slots almost equally mixed, and equally effective.
Santana’s most effective slots in the line-up—lead-off, fifth and sixth—were similar in value. And while you can make arguments about which slot suited him best, you can see that he added value to the club at almost all the slots he was placed.
When you combine this with his almost equal splits from the left and right side of the plate, you can see that this malleability allowed the Indians to morph Santana into whatever they happened to need that day. With Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Lonnie Chisenhall missing significant time, Santana was able to fit into whatever slot he was needed.
It’s a unique skill set, that’s hard to value in the grand scheme of things. While tangible stats create the metrics in which we valuate a single player, there are the “grey area” statistics, those statistics that don’t show up on a baseball card, on baseball reference, on Fangraphs, on Statcast, or on Brooks Baseball. Remember Mike Hattery’s story on Jose Ramirez actually being undervalued? Santana was of this mold as well.
In Santana, the Indians didn’t philosophically have a player who could hit anywhere. It was tangible. You can see it in his wRC+, and while he was a slightly better hitter from the right side, he was equally effective from both sides of the plate, even if in different ways. In other words: No platoon was needed.
In Santana, you had a player that was willing to play anywhere, with time, was able to become a gold glove first baseman (at least worthy of one), and could hit everywhere. How do you value that? How do you value a player that doesn’t need a platoon? How do you value a player that can legit hit at any spot in the line-up, and not only that, but is willing to do it?
Think of the domino effect that has on a team that knows they have a player in Santana who can hit from both sides of the plate, has the OBP to hit leadoff, and the power to hit in the three, four, five, or six slot as well? Not only does that add value to Santana, but it also allows the team to utilize other roster spots in different ways rather than making sure you have an extra platoon bat.
Can the Indians utilize Yonder Alonso in the same way? More importantly: Do they have to?
Here is a quick look at Alonso’s overall stats over his career. It’s important to note a couple of things that became extremely interesting last year, and really, over his past couple of seasons at the plate.
First, let’s focus on Alonso’s OBP over his Major League career. Looking at seasons in which he played more than 80 games, his OBP is mostly above average. In his first full season in 2012 it was .348, followed by .341 in 2013, .285 in 2014, .361 in 2015, .316 in 2016 and .365 in 2017. You can see that there’s enough variance there to wonder if it’s something he can maintain over his career, as Carlos Santana did, or whether or not swing changes, injuries, and usage will continue to manipulate those numbers in the roller coaster variety.
What’s also interesting about those overarching numbers is that in 2017, Alonso’s BB% took a massive jump to 13.1 percent, and while his K% took an almost 10% jump, from 13.9% in 2016, t0 22.6% in 2017, his K% still isn’t near an alarming rate, and most definitely has to do with his altered, fly-ball swing, as mentioned in great detail via fangraphs Travis Sawchick. Contextually, Santana’s discipline at the plate was elite, averaging a 15% BB%, and a 17% K% over his career.
While a one-year outlook from Alonso is promising, that lack of body-of-work is a little concerning, especially considering what Santana has provided over the years. But that’s going to be the general theme here. Can Alonso continue down the path that his “fly ball revolution” provided him in 2017, or will that lack of career repetition be a roadblock going forward? Will it be enough of a roadblock to make the supposed surplus we’re receiving in Alonso worthwhile?
In 2017, the Oakland A’s utilized Alonso in several spots in the order, providing a similar type of usage as Santana. Note though that the A’s started Alonso off in the bottom of the order, before the bat, and injuries to other players, allowed him to move up in the order. It’s also important to note that once traded from the A’s to the Mariners, that the Mariners started using him every day as their No. 2 hitter, before moving him down in the order to fifth, where he became a strict platoon with friend Danny Valencia, a right-handed hitter.
Here are his 2017 numbers.
Just taking a quick perusal of Alonso’s offensive numbers, you can see that he provided value in almost every slot in which he took measurable stats. Obviously, the body of work over a singular season in which there were massive swing changes, as well as multiple offensive slots of usage are hard to gauge, but the A’s in particular were able to use him in many different spots, as his bat dictated it.
In other words, he was doing enough offensively to be as flexible as he’s ever been in his career. But to be clear, the body of work just isn’t there, as compared to Carlos Santana, which is as much to notate Santana’s elite skill-set and flexibility, as it is to notate the unknown of Yonder Alonso.
Carlos Santana’s traditional line-up splits over his career:
Here, you can see that Santana, over his career, has been a valuable offensive tool to both Manny Acta and Terry Francona.
Alonso hasn’t had as many at bats over his career, but again, he’s only a year younger. Injuries over the years, and inexact performances are a concern.
The bulk of Alonso’s career has been in the fifth and sixth slot of almost every line-up he’s ever played in. Last year, he earned his way up to the top of the order, but you can see that in almost every other year, he ends up hitting in the mid-to-bottom half of the order.
Here’s a quick look at Alonso’s splits from both sides of the plate, in 2017, which has been his career year.
There’s a clear difference between Alonso’s splits, and one that’s concerning enough, even when he’s hitting the ball well, to consider utilizing him as a platoon bat. And the Indians are really good at utilizing platoon bats, as long as the manager isn’t being stubborn about it.
Platooning Alonso isn’t too much of an issue in and of itself, other than to provide you with the type of value that Santana provided. Sure, Alonso will get the predominant at bats against most teams, but boy, you never really worried about Carlos if you know the game of baseball. He was a player that took thinking out of the game.
Anyone can sit by any number they want to, and provide value, but in Santana, you had a player who could literally hit anywhere in the lineup, from the lead-off spot, to the nine-hole, and you didn’t have to worry. You didn’t have to worry if he was hitting left-handed or right, and you didn’t have to worry if you needed power, or just a guy to get on base. Santana provided it all, and in doing so, allowed the rest of the line-up the ease of whatever they needed to do, and wherever they needed to hit.
How do you value that, especially over the years?
How important was it to Francisco Lindor’s career, in that he had to earn that lead-off spot, while Santana mostly held it down in one capacity or another over the past two seasons? How important was it to Edwin Encarnacion’s surge in 2017, that Santana was able to take over hitting fourth for a bit? How important was it the rest of the line-up, that Santana was fine dropping to seventh, to allow Jason Kipnis a spot hitting lead-off? How about when Lonnie Chisenhall got hurt, and Santana easily bumped up to sixth in the line-up?
I know there are some folks out there that thinks moves like this are easy on the psyche, and perhaps over Santana’s career, this has become true. Manager Terry Francona has moved around Santana like this on a what seems to be weekly basis, and it just makes me think of a quote from Santana, from way back in 2014, after he’d been moved out of the clean-up spot.
“It doesn’t matter if I hit fourth or seventh,” said Santana. “The pitcher is thinking about me, not where I’m hitting in the lineup.”
This has been the Santana mentality from the start. While I’m not saying he’s never been discontented regarding where he’s playing, or where he’s hitting (I can guarantee you, he HAS been irritated, many times), it’s definitively true that he’s always made the move, and always performed to his best.
And I’m not sure what type of value you place on that.
In 2018, Carlos Santana will make $11,333,333 more than Yonder Alonso, and I’m fairly certain it’s not worth that much, and where this gets really interesting, is that I’m pretty sure that in 2018, that flexibility is worth a lot less than it was in 2017 and before. Sure, any team can utilize such a player. Sure, the Indians would be more valuable a team with that player filling in the gaps in 2017.
But you have to wonder: If Carlos Santana didn’t prepare the Indians for their future without him? Santana hit lead-off over the past two seasons, because the Indians didn’t seem to have anyone ready. This year, Francisco Lindor seems entrenched in the lead-off spot—at least until Bradley Zimmer figures things out. Jose Ramirez has found himself hitting in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth spots last year. Jason Kipnis is likely returning, and usually finds a spot in the top five or six, and if Michael Brantley returns at all the offensive player that he’s been, there’s a slot there as well.
You know you lock Edwin Encarnacion into that four slot in the line-up, or if he’s struggling, he’ll be hitting fifth, and of course Yonder Alonso will be factored into the equation as well, If you’re a betting man, you’ll likely find Alonso hitting fifth against righties on most nights, and maybe against lefties as well. But it’s equally likely that the value of Alonso isn’t hitting every night at all.
Perhaps Carlos Santana bought the Indians enough time to lock in the rest of the line-up, so that a guy like Yonder Alonso can provide a HUGE bat against right handed pitching, while allowing a player like Yandy Diaz to become the new flex-player in the line-up. Diaz, a right-handed hitter who hits about the same from both sides of the plate.1
Might the Indians have saved $11 million, while allowing a new version of Carlos into the line-up, perhaps to platoon with Alonso at first, while also playing predominantly at third?
In the end, was Carlos Santana worth $20 million a year? To the Philadelphia Phillies, and really anyone, you bet he was. Would you spend $20 million on a player with elite plate discipline, with a career 123 wRC+, a career 196 ISO, and a lock for 3 fWAR or better? Would you spend $20 million on a player that can and will hit anywhere in your line-up, and create an atmosphere in the locker room that you can build on for years to come?
You bet you do.
But, did the Indians have to, or is that atmosphere already in place? Were the Indians able to capitalize on Santana’s years with the Indians, which now allows them to utilize that $11.3 million elsewhere, and take a flier on Yonder Alonso?
You bet they did.
In baseball, and in life, it’s hard to say goodbye to a player that has brought both an elite skill-set on the field, as well as a pure joy of the game, and life, off of it. But in the end, Santana provided the Indians and their fans a skill-set that is as unique as it is hard-to-define. His malleable play in the line-up and in the field is like nothing that’s been seen in this era of Indians baseball.
Yonder Alonso isn’t that player, and that’s OK, as long as the 2017 Alonso turns out to be the 2018 Alonso, and beyond.
- And by “same,” I really mean rakes against lefties, and kinda rakes against righties. [↩]