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Carlos Santana: Why the Tribe's best hitter is often unappreciated

This weekend I heard some friends remark about how disappointing Santana has been (right before Santana ripped back-to-back missile doubles, scoring one and setting the Tribe up for another big inning with the second). But it had me thinking: Why does the average Tribe fan not see that Santana has been our best hitter this year?

Carlos Santana.
Carlos Santana.
Stephen Dunn

It didn't take long to find some answers.

Carlos Santana has 32 multi-hit games this season. He has 50 hitless games this season. That means fans are more accustomed to seeing Santana go without a hit than have a night when he's blistering the ball around the yard. There are 60 American League players with more than Santana's total of 32 multi-hit games, led by Eric Hosmer with 60. That means the average team has four players with more multi-hit games than Santana. On the Indians, Kipnis and Brantley lead the way (43), followed by Bourn (36) and Swisher (33).

Fans like big hits. He has zero multi-HR games this season.

Here's the stat that surprised me: Carlos Santana's season high for RBI in a game is 3. And he's only done that three times. He has only 16 multi-RBI games this season; Miguel Cabrera, the standard by which all good hitting is measured, has 37. This doesn't mean I care about RBI. For the most part, I don't. But fans do, and by now they want to know why Santana has never had 80 RBI in a season. In 2013 there have been very few games when the headline is, Carlos Santana Carries Tribe With Huge Night.

So fans assume that Santana is a bad hitter with RISP. They are wrong.

In 2013, he's posted 214/325/386 with no one on. He seems to be trying to do much when the bases are empty. This could also be a sample size issue, as last season he was nearly identical in all situations.

With men on base this year, he's been outstanding. .335/.441/.529 with runners on.

.286/.431/.489 with RISP.

.284/.429/.493 with two outs and RISP.

5 for 10 with the bases loaded.

How many fans would tell you that Michael Brantley has been Cleveland's best hitter with men in scoring position? No doubt, Brantley is earning a reputation for being a tough out with runners on. He puts the ball in play and tends to hit a lot of balls hard. But the past few weeks have skewed things; you would think Brantley is leading the earth in all things baseball if you just listened to Underwood and Manning. Compare:

Santana with runners on: .970 OPS

Brantley with runners on: .787 OPS

Santana with RISP: .920 OPS

Brantley with RISP: .876 OPS

Santana with two outs and RISP: .922 OPS

Brantley with two outs and RISP: .932 OPS

What we find is that Santana has been far more dangerous with men on base in general, and both have been outstanding with runners in scoring position. Brantley's reputation is buoyed by a higher batting average with men on base, but in reality, Santana has been better with RISP. They've been largely the same with two outs. Brantley has more two-out hits, but almost all of them are singles (39 of 45). He's a small-ball machine, and that's not a pejorative; his bat control can be beautiful to watch.

For fans who care about All-Star appearances, they should remember the fluky nature of those picks. Kansas City's Salvador Perez is an exciting young player, sure, but his OPS has been 100 points behind Santana all season. There's no reason he'd be selected in front of Santana. Joe Mauer is still outstanding, but is constantly in-and-out of the lineup. Jason Castro has been very good; we'd still gladly have Santana. The comparisons will change when Santana is no longer a catcher, which is essentially true now, but that's just a look at the All-Star selections for the fans hung up on such things. Looked at another way, Santana has been equal to the much-more-heralded Buster Posey, the 2012 NL MVP.

So I think the haters just want more games that you would categorize as "spectacular." For whatever reason, Santana has rarely been spectacular this season.

But we should be thrilled that he has almost never been dead weight. In 2011 and 2012, he went through first-half stretches when he couldn't hit sand if he fell off a camel. In the first half of 2012, Santana suffered a stretch of 106 at bats in which he posted 0 HR and a .498 OPS. Here were Santana's OPS numbers by month in 2012:

Month OPS
April .863
May .658
June .505
July .972
August .804
September .919

And his OPS numbers by month in 2013:

Month OPS
April 1.198
May .661
June .746
July .851
August .802
September .824

His worst month this season was better than his two worst months a season ago. In other words, Santana was able to mitigate his downturn significantly, while offering a remarkably consistent performance beginning in June. He's simply not gotten scorching hot since April; again, it's hard to figure out why.

And there are more reasons to be optimistic about Santana over the next several seasons. After a one-year dip in extra-base-hit percentage, he's back in the same neighborhood he had inhabited previously. He's seeing a career-high pitches per at bat, 4.3 which is one of the best numbers in the league. His line-drive percentage in 2013 is a career-high, moving from 15.4 to 19.1 to 22.2% over the past three seasons. That's probably the reason his BABIP is .304, a career high. And while he doesn't have many multi-hit games, he leads the team (and is 14th in the AL) with 75 games in which he's been on base multiple times.

In 2012, Santana was simply a bad hitter against fastballs; this season he's back to raking against heaters. We can assume 2012 was an outlier in this department, but my hypothesis is that Santana has learned to deal with offspeed pitches more effectively. After all, he sees one of the smallest percentages of fastballs in the league, and he appeared to be constantly frustrated by this fact in 2012. This year he's been more efficient in driving fastballs, while doing a marginal job against offspeed pitches.

There are some reasons to be mildly concerned. In 2013 Santana has swung at a career-high number of pitches outside the strike zone. But that's not a big quibble, as his plate control is so good in general. I'm more concerned about the fact that almost every one of his 20 home runs have been pulled. That's not to say he hasn't shown opposite-field power; two of the Indians' biggest hits in the last week have been doubles to the right-center-field wall from a right-handed-hitting Santana. But as for opposite-field home run power, it's not been there. Baseball Reference lists three home runs to center field; all the rest have been pulled without a single opposite-field shot.

In summation, Carlos Santana is strangely both an easy player to love and an easy player to hate on, depending on whether you pay attention to the most useful metrics. Fans who want gaudy numbers are routinely disappointed. But Santana is not an all-or-nothing kind of player. He's the anti-Mark Reynolds. He gives you something almost every night, even if he hasn't given you video-game stats. And with his solid 2013 and an opportunity to spend less time behind the plate, there is reason to believe Santana will improve even more in 2014.