Carlos Santana has become the primary DH for the Indians, appearing there in all but three of the team's games so far. During the first couple weeks of the season, Santana was slotted in the No. 5 spot in the lineup, but last week manager Terry Francona did something a segment of Tribe fans have wanted for a couple years now and moved Santana into the leadoff role.
Carlos has been at the top of the order for five of the last six games, and if you're the sort of person willing to draw grand conclusions from incredibly small samples, you might point out that he homered in his first leadoff at bat, and has eight hits in those five games, five of them for extra bases.
Santana doesn't have the sort of base-stealing numbers you find with a more traditional leadoff hitter, but Francona has said on-base skills are more important to him for the player in that role, as they should be. On-base skills are ones Santana has, so if he continues to do well there, I have to think the arrangement will remain in place for most games (Rajai Davis hit leadoff against a lefty on Monday). And for what it's worth, while Santana doesn't have a lot of speed, he is a solid base runner, with a 13-for-16 success rate on stolen bases since the start of last year, and above average advanced metrics for his base running too.
Santana was at first base for one of his games in the leadoff spot, but for the other four, he was at DH. A designated hitter batting leadoff is a rarity. Prior to the beginning of this Santana experiment, the Indians had used their DH in the leadoff spot in only 141 total games since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. That works out to fewer than three and a half games per season, which means Santana's four games during the last week have already boosted the average.
For the Indians, here are the single-season leaders in game at DH/leadoff:
- John Lowenstein (1975): 19
- Bobby Bonds (1979): 14
- Jason Kipnis (2015): 13
- Miguel Dilone (1980): 9
- Miguel Dilone (1981): 8
- Coco Crisp (2003): 6
- Grady Sizemore (2008): 6
- Alex Cole (1991): 4
- Grady Sizemore (2011): 4
- Carlos Santana (2016): 4
(The career leaderboard for the Tribe barely looks any different, as Lowenstein's 19 games hold the top spot there as well.)
Santana is already into the top ten, and a week from now he could be in the top five. Notably, not one of the other players on that list was primarily a DH in those seasons. They were all leadoff hitters who sometimes played DH, not designated hitters who sometimes hit leadoff. Carlos Santana is the first player in franchise history to be used this way.
The Indians are not really an exception to this either. While every other AL team has used their DH as their leadoff hitter 20+ times in at least one season, only 10 players have ever had 40+ games like that in a season (with a total of 17 such seasons between them). Paul Molitor and Brian Downing (twice) are the only players ever to bat leadoff as a DH more than 61 times in a season. Of those 17 seasons with 40+ DH/leadoff games, only three of them happened during the 2000s, and none since 2007.
In addition to being the only players to spend more than 61 games at DH/leadoff in a season, Downing and Molitor are also the only two players to spend more than 155 games in that spot in their career (352 games for Downing, 314 games for Molitor).
LGT reader cheech99 wondered the other day if batting leadoff might be good for designated hitters because it gets them involved in the game right away (for road games anyway). Wondering about that is what led me to look into this, and while I concluded that there just isn't nearly enough data to draw any conclusion from, I did look at Downing and Molitor's years in which they spent the most time in a DH/leadoff role.
Downing's overall OPS for each season, followed by his OPS for games in which he was DH/leadoff:
- 1988: .805, .945
- 1989: .768, .765
- 1990: .841, .866
- 1991: .831, .824
- 1992: .835, .859
Molitor's overall OPS for each season, followed by his OPS for games in which he was DH/leadoff:
- 1987: 1.028, 1.003
- 1988: .836, .823
- 1989: .818, .901
- 1991: .888, .868
- 1992: .851, .724
Downing was better in those games in which he was DH/leadoff, while Molitor was worse, supporting the notion that we shouldn't attempt to draw serious conclusions from the findings. I still find it interesting, though, and you all are at the mercy of what I find interesting.
Whether Santana's recent success has anything to do with his new place in the batting order, I cannot say. The bottom could fall out on him starting tonight, and if he continues to do well, we won't know if he would have done just as well batting fifth. His new arrangement puts him in pretty limited company, and it's fun to see something new for the Indians, three decades into my fandom.