Carlos Santana: How the Dream Sagged, and Why it Might Be Revived

May 14, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA: Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana goes all the way from the blue circle to the yellow circle with his massive stride, making him the best Twister player ever. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

This past April, it never really seemed that Carlos Santana had caught fire at the plate. And yet his month-long OPS of 863, had he sustained it, would place him 35th in all of big-league baseball today. It was an extension of an outstanding second half to 2011, and it seemed he was a hot streak away from truly elite status.

So here we are in July, wondering what the hell happened to the guy for which a middle-of-the-order spot has been preserved for the next six years or so. In June, Carlos Santana was among the six worst hitters in all of baseball according to OPS (.505, seriously). Since April, Santana couldn't hit snow if he fell off a chairlift.

This is an attempt to get inside his performance to figure out what, exactly, is wrong, and whether we can expect it be corrected or improved upon.

Didn't he have a similarly terrible first half last year?

No.

In 2012, Santana has driven his car off a cliff that no one saw approaching. From 863 to 658 to 505, his OPS looks like it belongs to a player who lost an arm on the first of May. In 2011, Santana's entire campaign was steady -- even his first half, when his month-by-month OPS was a still-respectable 722, 787, 785.

So if you're expecting a repeat, don't base it on recent history.

Just how bad is this slump?

Since Santana's last home run, May 15th at Minnesota, he has compiled 124 plate appearances. Here are the numbers:

18 for 106, 4 2B, 0 HR, 18 BB, 26 K, .208 SLG, .290 OBP, 498 OPS

That is positively Pujols-esque. (Albert started the season with an OPS of 504 in 114 plate appearances.)

Aren't injuries nagging at him?

Maybe, but that's almost certainly not the driving factor. Here are Santana's nine games leading up to his concussion at Chicago on May 25th: 6-32, 4 BB, 6 K, 1 2B, 497 OPS. Something was amiss; it would continue after Carlos missed those eight games.

He's a mess; Victor Martinez never experienced anything like this, did he?

Yes, he did.. Through the first week of June, 2005, here was Victor's line:

33 for 157, 7 2B, 4 HR, .331 SLG, .270 OBP, 601 OPS

Slightly better than Santana, but a deep slump for even longer than Carlos has had. Over the final four months that season, Victor's OPS was 952.

Martinez continued his tear into April of 2006, when he posted a monstrous 1134 OPS. Then, he collapsed again. Check out how similar his line is to Santana's current slump:

17 for 99, 5 2B, 0 HR, 8 BB, .222 SLG, .233 OBP, 455 OPS

Roughly the same stretch as Santana's recent problems, and with an OPS 43 points worse. The rest of 2006, Martinez compiled an OPs of 878. To state the obvious, Victor and Carlos are different players, but there are enough similarities to draw some comfort from Victor's history.

So why is Santana struggling so much?

He has utterly failed against left-handed pitching in 2012, which is a surprise given his 2011 success. In fact, we see a high level of fluctuation in Santana's right-handed performance:

2010: 60 PA, 7 for 48, 1 HR, .311 OBP, .271 SLG, 582 OPS
2011: 213 PA, 57 for 179, 5 HR, .428 OBP, .536 SLG, 964 OPS
2012: 86 PA, 14 for 71, 0 HR, .330 OBP, .225 SLG, 555 OPS

2011 looks like the outlier, but it's a much larger sample, and anyway the fact remains that none of these samples is particularly large. Interestingly, Santana's K rate as a RHB in 2012 is less than one in every five at bats, while he's striking out 25% more often as a LHB this year. What we find is that Santana is doing essentially nothing but hitting weak groundballs as a RHB. We'll get to that in detail in just a moment.

Batting left-handed, Santana has settled into something approaching consistency over his last season-and-a-half. Combining 2011 and 2012, we come up with 624 PA. His 2011 left-handed OPS was 732; it's only 10 points lower this season. If you're interested, the combined stats:

624 PA, 111 for 531, 27 HR, 325 OBP, 404 SLG, 729 OPS

That's not particularly good, but there is plenty of room for a young hitter to build on that. The wildcard is, what's going on from the right side? And is Carlos reading the book on Carlos?

The book on Carlos Santana

Very few hitters in baseball see fewer fastballs than Carlos Santana. By far, Satana sees the most offspeed stuff on the Indians. He's getting a fastball only 51% of the time; only part-timer Shelley Duncan is close at 53%. Even the fastball-loving Travis Hafner sees 58% fastballs and has never seen less than 56% in a season. Michael Brantley, Jack Hannahan and Lou Marson all see fastballs nearly 65% of the time. Even Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, and Miguel Cabrera get a fastball much more often than Santana (58%, 59%, and 60% respectively). Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder see more offspeed stuff than Santana, but in terms of big names, that's about it.

Interestingly, Santana has always seen a fastball rate near the league low. He arrived in 2010 and promptly saw only 48% fastballs that year.

That means that Carlos has established a clear reputation as a fastball -- and almost certainly as a mistake fastball -- hitter. Many of the heaters he does see are nowhere near the middle of the zone. So if he's sitting dead-red, or hoping for a mistake, he's getting himself out an awful lot. The numbers indicate that if he were to sit on an offspeed pitch, particularly in traditional fastball counts, he'd make harder contact more often.

Opposing pitchers are hoping to induce a swing-and-miss or a weak groundball from Santana with offspeed pitches. In the past two months, it's working.

Santana's walk rate and K rate have hardly moved this season. His line drive percentage is roughly the same as ever. The big change is in his groundball/flyball ratio. Last season, that ratio was 1.12. this season it has risen to 1.33, but more alarmingly, it's 2.1 over the past two months. For the uninitiated, a ratio over 2 is indicative of consistently weak contact and is a red flag. (Casey Kotchman, king of the ground ball, is at 2.14 this season, and was even higher last season in his "strong" performance year.)

Should we expect Marson to be a better hitter?

Absolutely not. I don't intend to dump acid rain on Marson's breakout parade, but the wonderful work we're seeing from Marson is not indicative of a future all-star. Marson's recent hot streak has come at an excellent time, and there's nothing wrong with giving Lou more playing time for a while. But any notion that Marson is supplanting Santana is silly and should not be taken seriously. No, we don't hear it at LGT, but yes, we hear it in other corners of ostensible Tribe fandom. Tribe fans should be thrilled with Marson's apparent ability to hit well enough to be a viable backup.

Santana and Manny Acta have spoken about his mechanics, which include a long stride. To my eye, he is far too often off-balance, especially on breaking pitches. But that's just guesswork on my part. We don't have access to the private conversations between Santana and Acta, or among Santana and the rest of the staff. No doubt they're more than aware of everything presented here. Making large-scale mechanical adjustments is difficult for any hitter; we should hope that the necessary tweaks are relatively minor and will deliver our top-flight catcher back to this lineup. Victor went through this, as did that one guy who just signed like a half-billion-dollar contract in Anaheim Los Angeles. The hardest part is watching a talented hitter struggle in a lineup that is already built like a creaking jalopy.

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