Carlos Santana had a better season than some think, a worse season than some hoped for, and a stranger season than your average player. There was the third-base/backup catcher experiment, which was eventually abandoned. There was the brutal slump that lasted from mind April to late May, which he eventually broke out of. There will be time to talk about both those things when we get to Santana's entry in our 2014 in Review series. Today I want to highlight a more specific aspect of his season: Santana was a really good hitter, despite having a really bad batting average.
I understand why many fans have an immediate and negative reaction to Santana's .231 average. I just wish those fans would take a step back and look at other metrics, so that they'd understand Santana (not Yan Gomes, not Lonnie Chisenhall) was the Tribe's second best hitter this season, and one of the 30 or so best in baseball.
Part of the misunderstanding comes from many fans not having mentally adjusted to the current level of offense around MLB. This isn't 2000 anymore. Back then most teams had someone hitting 35+ homers, but those days are gone. Santana's 27 HR seem like only an okay total to many who are still stuck 10-20 years ago (even 5 years ago offense was a lot stronger than today), but that total led the Tribe comfortably and tied him for 17th in MLB.
The other part of the misunderstanding is a continued refusal by many to accept that getting on base is what matters most for hitters, and drawing walks is a good way of getting on base. Santana walked 113 times this year, a number only Jim Thome had ever reached before with the Indians. (Thome reached it five times, topping out at 127 walks in 1999.) Santana also topped MLB, making him the first Indians player to lead MLB since Jack Graney in 1919. (Thome led the AL three times, but never beat the NL leader.)
Lowest BA for MLB leader in walks:
- Adam Dunn (2012): .204
- Jimmy Wynn (1976): .207
- Jack Graney (1917): .228
- Carlos Santana (2014): .231
- Eddie Yost (1956): .231
As I already said, Santana's plus power and elite walk rate made him a very good offensive player, despite the low batting average. My preferred metric for hitting is wRC+. It adjust for ballparks and era, while doing a better job of weighing on-base percentage than OPS+ does.
Highest single-season wRC+ with batting average lower than .235:
- Harmon Killebrew (1972, .231, 141)
- Gene Tenace (1978, .224, 138)
- Mel Ott (1943, .234, 136)
- Gene Tenace (1974, .211, 135)
- Gene Tenace (1977, .233, 134)
- Carlos Pena (2009, .227, 132)
- Carlos Santana (2014, .231, 131)
- Mark McGwire (1989, .231, 131)
- Roy Cullenbine (1947, .224, 131)
- Adam Dunn (2008, .231, 130)
How about a moment of quiet reflection on Gene Tenace, one of baseball's most underrated players...
Okay, taking things back to Santana, you can see he just had one of the best seasons ever for a player with such a low batting average. Notably, Santana's 2014 season was just a little more... Santana-ish (Tenace-ious?) than usual for him, because his average was just a little lower than his career figure (.248) and his wRC+ was just a little higher than his career figure (128). So, it's not just a single season of Santana being underrated by people who are overly fixated on wRC+, it's his enture career to date.
Highest career wRC+ with BA below .250 (min. 2,000 PA):
- Gene Tenace: .241 average, 140 wRC+
- Ken Phelps: .239 average, 131 wRC+
- Mike Epstein: .234 average, 130 wRC+
- Carlos Santana: .248 average 128 wRC+
- Don Mincher: .249 average, 126 wRC+
Among all players with 2,000+ plate appearances in MLB history, Santana is in the top 8% in wRC+. (Tenace is in the top 3%!) Santana ranks 18th in franchise history in wRC+ (min. 2,000 PA), and his 2014 was the best hitting season in franchise history for a player with such a low batting average.
Highest single-season wRC+ with BA below .250 (Indians):
- Carlos Santana (2014): .231 average, 131 wRC+
- Carlos Santana (2011): .239 average, 124 wRC+
- Rocky Colavito (1966): .238 average, 122 wRC+
- Pat Seerey (1945): .237 average, 121 wRC+
- Jack Graney (1916): .241 average, 117 wRC+