In the last five years there's no one I've written as many words about as Carlos Santana. It's possible I've spent more time, energy, and words on him than anyone else on the planet. Maybe one of the beat writers has topped me, but I'd bet not. Dozens of articles and hundreds and hundreds of comments here at Let's Go Tribe, along with who knows how many tweets. I've found a way to bring him up on most of the radio spots I've done over the years too.
Even at his best, Santana is a player many Tribe fans have never warmed to, never viewed as a vital part of the team. When not at his best, he's been a major target for scorn. The collective opinion is that he's been a disappointment. The vast majority of what I've written and said about Santana has been to push back against that notion, to defend him, to make his case. Along the way, he has become both my favorite player on the team, and the central figure of my time as a person who writes about baseball. That's sort of strange, given that Santana has never been an All-Star, and received mention on only one of the 210 American League MVP ballots that have been submitted since his career began.
Santana had the worst season of his career in 2015, when he was something other than a very good offensive player for the first time. His excellent walk-rate was still there, allowing him to maintain the very good on-base percentage that his driven his value throughout his career, but his power dipped, leaving him with a career-worst .395 slugging percentage. The vultures were happy to declare him dead, and began to descend upon him.
Santana hit a three-run homer in the Indians' first victory of the season, then slumped badly for two weeks. Instead of benching him or moving him down in the order, manager Terry Francona went the other direction, and moved Carlos up to the leadoff spot. It was a Friday night in Detroit, Justin Verlander (who'd go on to receive more first-place votes in the AL Cy Young balloting than any other pitcher this season) was on the mound, and in the very first leadoff at bat of his Major League career, Santana worked a full count and then clobbered the 3-2 pitch into the right-field seats. From that point forward, Carlos rolled.
He'd be pencilled in at the top of the order for almost every game against a right-handed pitcher after that, usually batting fifth against lefties, splitting his time between first base and DH. His power was up, and that made him more like the player many fans wanted him to be. He was closing on his career high in home runs (27), but still didn't get that much love from many fans, who'd instead grown more attached to the new guy, Mike Napoli, who was also displaying a lot of power, and had a fun meme built around the idea that he liked to party.
During the final month and a half of the season, few players could match Santana at the plate. He hit .316/.450/.592 during his last 44 games, with 22 extra-base hits and 37 walks. He finished up with 34 home runs, tied with Napoli for the team lead and the highest number anyone had hit for the Indians in a decade. He led the team in on-base and slugging, though Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor would draw more praise for their batting because they both hit .300.
Santana finished the season with a line of .259/.366/.498, with a wRC+ of 132, tied for the best from among his six full season.s He hit those 34 home runs, along with 31 doubles and 3 triples. Santana also drew 99 walks, making him the first player in franchise history with 90+ in six consecutive seasons. (He's drawn 601 walks during those six years, 40 more than any other American League player.)
In late July, the Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman, a lousy person I wanted to see fail. I expressed that my dream scenario was the Indians beating the Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series on a walk-off home run by Santana off Chapman. Fast forward to November 2. Yes, skip right past the two home runs Santana hit in the ALCS against Toronto, and by the one he hit in Game 4 of the World Series off John Lackey, tying the game after the Tribe had fallen behind, and by his RBI single in Game 7, tying that game up... fast forward to the bottom of the ninth... The game was tied, Chapman was on the mound and looked spent, and Santana came to the plate. Carlos, as is his way, worked a full count, then he swung at the 3-2 pitch...
Sports are often spoken of as a matter of inches, but inches are far too clumsy a unit for measuring how close Santana came to joining baseball's postseason immortals. Had his swing plane been just a quarter inch higher, the harmless fly ball he hit could have carried over the wall. My dream would have come true, and my dream would instantly have become the dream of the hundreds of thousands of other Tribe fans around the globe too. Someday there would have been a statue of him in Cleveland.
Carlos Santana was the Indians' best hitter in 2016. He has been the Indians' best hitter this decade, leading the team in times on base, total bases, home runs, runs scored, and runs driven in. Does any of that matter? Did any of the thousands upon thousands of words I've written about Santana over the years matter? Have I changed one person's mind about him? My god, what if I haven't? What the hell was the point of it all?
Tell me it was worth something. Please appreciate Carlos Santana.