General, Indians

Carlos Santana Is Cooking Up Something Good

(Carlos Osorio, Associated Press)

At the end of last week, Fangraphs wunderkind Devan Fink dropped a piece regarding Jose Ramirez’s lengthy slump that may interest some WFNY readers.  I’ve linked to it here, and those who feel inclined should give it a readthrough. For the less proactive reader, the article is a textbook use of creating a theory and testing it with analytics in a compelling manner, and its conclusion is both concerning and reassuring. Fink exposed that Jose Ramirez, especially as a left-handed hitter, has essentially responded to infield shifts by unsuccessfully attempting to hit the ball to the opposite field. A return to his old approach, therefore, could lead to a return to his old form. One reassuring note, by the way, is that Jose went through a slump of similar length and depth in 2017, which was otherwise a banner year. Anyway, the moral here is that even as one of the most productive hitters of the last two seasons, he probably just lacks the ability to hit to the opposite field as his primary approach. Some guys can do it, but some guys can’t, and that the Tribe third baseman falls into the latter group is somewhat surprising. I’m no swing expert, but it’s intuitive to me that Ramirez’s short, quick swing should be conducive all-fields hitting, while, say, Carlos Santana’s long, violent swing would be limited as a pull-only one. Yet, in either case, I couldn’t be more wrong.

Carlos Santana’s start to the season has been in sharp contrast to Ramirez’s, both in terms of broad success and specific approach. Indeed, Santana must think it’s autumn because he’s currently raking,1 but that’s not particularly surprising: the former catcher has always been a good hitter, albeit one that usually begins seasons slowly. What is surprising is the manner in which he’s achieved this success. Namely, he’s carrying out the feat at which Fink surmised Jose Ramirez has failed. Carlos Santana’s hitting the ball to the opposite field, he’s doing it often, and he’s doing it well.

Generally, this early in the season, stats are fairly useless. Baseball has enough noisy randomness that a few lucky, broken-bat bloopers can disguise poor hitting with strong-looking batting averages, for example. I don’t have to tell you this; we all know White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson is not a .560 hitter (obviously, there’s no such thing as a .560 hitter). There simply haven’t been enough games to draw any conclusions, even from more advanced or granular statistics that I favor.

And yet, here I am, attempting to draw conclusions from a nine-game sample. See below, Santana’s year-by-year pull- and opposite field-rates:

Year Pull% Oppo% PAs
2010 58.4 13.6 192
2011 50.7 18.8 658
2012 48.1 20.8 609
2013 52.2 14.5 642
2014 60.5 16.4 660
2015 53.6 17.8 666
2016 52.9 16.4 688
2017 51.1 16.5 667
2018 48 22.1 679
2019 28.6 39.3 35
Pull%=percentage of batted balls hit to the pull side; Oppo%=percentage of batted balls hit to the opposite field

Santana has clearly employed a pull-happy approach, but without context, those numbers do not really tell the whole story. Indeed, among players who have accrued at least 1000 plate appearances since 2010, Carlos Santana ranks third in the Majors in pull-rate at 51.9%, just trailing Mark Teixeira and Chris Young. So it’s odd to see one of the game’s premiere pull hitters, with that long, violent swing, increase his Oppo% by 200% in two years. Even nine games into the season, that has to mean something. The only question is what.

I confess, I’m not being completely honest with you, treasured reader. Last season, Carlos Santana signed with Philadelphia, was immediately plagued by low BABIP, and didn’t regain any of his power from 2016. By the end of the season, likely sick of rolling into the shift, Santana began to look for alternative strategies, and thereafter embarked on his opposite field quest. As you can see below, the opposite field trend began at the end of last year. It only looks so crazy in 2019 because there aren’t five months of pulling the ball to wash out the effect.

Quick aside: before we go on, I’m going to make a crucial assumption here, one that merits a brief explanation. Unlike quality of contact, or whether a batted ball is a fly, liner, or grounder, my assumption is that hitters have substantial control as to what part of the field to which they deflect the ball off the bat. Thus, should Santana’s grounder rate have been elevated after nine games, it could have been due to a variety of things: a mechanical flaw, an atypical rate of groundball pitchers, or maybe just random chance. In reality, it’s Santana’s Oppo% that has been elevated, and my assumption is that the increase is purposeful.

With that in mind, the biggest question becomes “What’s next?” I suppose it’s possible that this is permanent, and we’re actually seeing The Summer of Carlos, in which we’re dealing with a whole new Santana for the very first* time.  It’s far more likely, though, that this purposeful approach is to beat the shift, or perhaps it’s an attempt to correct some other timing issue. Either way, the Carlos Santana of old is probably going to return, for a couple of reasons. One is that going to the opposite field almost entirely saps him of his power—including his walk-off homer from a few nights ago, Carlos Santana has a mere 13 career Oppo Bombs despite that 71% of his batted balls to the opposite field have flyballs. That’s good for a paltry 2.8% HR/FB-rate when going the other way. This year, most of his balls hit the other way have been grounders, which is probably unsustainable, and even if not, it’s extremely doubtful that Santana suddenly desires to become a singles hitter permanently.

*Okay, technically second: Santana did this for like a week in 2013.

Secondly, Santana’s foray into going with the pitch is reminiscent of an AL Central foe who did the same thing to begin the 2015 season: Mike Moustakas. Moustakas, generally a pull-hitter in his own right, began 2015 by hitting 52% of his batted balls to the left side of second base said Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs. And, here’s a story by Jeff Passan corroborating Sullivan’s suspicion of Moustakas’s change in approach. Moustakas seemed earnest about wanting to change his approach as if it was triple dog dared of him to do it. But, when someone has been successful at pulling the ball their entire lives, it’s understandably difficult to permanently change on a dime. By the second half of 2015, Moose was pulling the ball at nearly the same rate he had in previous seasons and to the end, he remains predominantly an oft-shifted upon pull-hitter to this day. I expect the same to be true for Carlos Santana’s future.

It really has been a pleasure to watch Carlos Santana’s opposite-field fueled hot start. In an age dubbed “The Airball Revolution,”2 seeing a player able to beat the shift by hitting grounders the other way is refreshing. And, in a lineup composed largely of slumping veterans or potential Quad-A players pushed into duty for injury reasons and/or Terry Francona’s attempt to make the season interesting, Santana’s torrid start has been a sight for sore eyes. While a disciplined hitter who uses the entire field is valuable*, permanently handcuffing one’s own power is less than ideal, especially as his opposite-field ground ball singles turn into fly ball outs. Still, we know now that, unlike Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana has the ability to use the whole field effectively if he needs to, and that’s a nice tool to keep on his belt.

*Here’s to Greg Allen’s future, everybody.
  1. I hear your groans, and I don’t care! []
  2. or WFNY’s Michael Bode’s “Elevation Revelation.” []