This is Carlos Santana’s third-best offensive season, based on the stat Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). Isn't that amazing? Considering he just cracked the thirty home run barrier for the first time in his career, though, this comes off a bit surprising at first. wRC+ is a rate stat, so theoretically he could go on a fabulous tear and rise in the ranks, but right now that seems unlikely. This isn’t to knock Santana's 2016, either. More than anything, it shows just how good a hitter he’s been for quite a while now.
More than half a decade into his career, it's still hard to understand the player that is Carlos Santana. In a way, his career kind of mirrors the Cleveland Indians’ rise to where they are today from when he debuted. Obviously, as one of your best hitters matures, that’s going to make you a better team, but even with the hiccups along the way, it’s like Santana is the Indians. Even his perception among the fanbase mirrors the Tribe’s perception in baseball and among Clevelanders.
Carlos Santana's progression mirrors that of the Indians
What I mean is, the Indians are taking headlines in Cleveland for the first time in a while. Of course, if the Browns start off 5-0, the Tribe sweeping the first round of the playoffs might be below the fold. And LeBron is the savior and all that and his showing up to training camp will be a full banner with a photo collage. But who reads newspapers? Despite their deep ties to the city and being the most consistently well-run franchise in the city, the Indians come in third in every conversation when it comes to major sports in Cleveland.
It can almost be explained, since the Browns have ensorceled the entire region no matter the year through sinister black magicks and mind-control drugs in the water, and the Cavs spent the first four years of Santana’s career mourning the departure of LeBron James. The Indians were just busy building a good team, even if it wasn’t pretty and they did it organically. That’s the thing about Santana. Moderately heralded when he came up, there was never any real explosion on his part. He was just pretty good. Then he had to muddle around for a few years and got knocked out for a season with a knee injury. That really dimmed the spotlight on him.
Then he really broke out in 2013 with his best season in both wRC+(132) and fWAR(3.6) before backsliding a bit. This is almost precisely how the Tribe has come together, though the years were a bit off. Remember 2012? They were alright, a winning record at the break at 44-41 and their young players were finding their feet, then just fell off a cliff in August when they won five games. They broke through, as Santana did, in 2013 with their playoff appearance in the inaugural Wild Card game, followed by two 80-something win seasons. It was an interesting arc that did little to build hype.
Understanding Santana's approach is difficult, but it's not anything we're used to
Now look at Santana. A thirty home run season, a renaissance of a season leading off against righties, and helping the Indians to their best season in nearly a decade. And that milestone is what he’s always needed to gain legitimacy in the wider baseball world’s eyes. People who watched him knew he brought value every day he played. Just because a guy doesn’t spank the ball around the yard doesn’t he can’t create runs. Between the home runs and his absurd walking, he’s just a marvel.
The one thing I’ve never understood about Santana is that he doesn’t get more hits. His greatest attribute is the combination of patience and his sense of his strike zone. And yet, he seems to struggle to really square up pitches even when he knows he’s going to get a grooved pitch. You'd think that sense of the zone would relate better to raw hand-eye coordination with the bat to ball aspect of the game.
In his career, he’s hit 23 home runs on 0-0 counts and 20 on 3-2 counts, but then it all drops off from there. He’s hit the same number of homers, 17, on 3-1 counts as he has on 1-1 counts. It’s an interesting, selective aggression. With how he works counts, I suppose I thought he’d have hit more homers. More than that, it seems like he should have more extra-base hits. With the violence he puts into his swing and how much he forces fastballs in hitter's counts, his only topping 30 doubles once sounds off.
It would be interesting to really find out what Santana is consciously doing this year as opposed to years past. He is recording the lowest walk rate of his career at 14.4 percent while also logging his highest home run to fly ball ratio at 17.1 percent. He’s also hitting considerably more fly balls than he ever has, 42.2 percent of batted balls. It’s hard to judge in a linearly from year to year because last season he was hurt and was sapped of power. This switch from on-base to power hunting is a bit counter-intuitive since he has been leading off so much of late, but having that potential for a lightning bolt to start the game has certainly been nice for the Indian. It’s just an interesting and obvious change in approach, not something you see in a baseball player six or seven years into their career.
Santana has done more than enough to get (unjustly) upset fans off his back
The thirty home run season is surely a rarity these days, but it’s a bit cathartic for Carlos Santana fans to see him reach that milestone. Somehow 27 just wasn't enough for some people. You know how many guys hit 30 homers last year? Nineteen. The year before, eleven. It's not 1997. Twenty-five home runs is a great point to reach, especially if you're walking 100 times as well.
Santana has always been judged on his bat, and he’s always performed with his bat, even if it wasn’t in the more raw, basic stats. He’s a curiosity, doing the unsexy things like drawing walks and working counts while launching bombs and attacking early in at-bats. His style is just as odd, blousing pants and high-socks-ing it like it's the 1950’s while also wearing what appears to be multiple gold chains. Plainly he watches a lot of The A-Team and has been influenced. He can play multiple positions, though poorly. He’s everything I’d want to be in a baseball player: misunderstood, fun, interesting, murderous with a piece of lumber and a butcher with the glove. He’s the greatest return we could have hoped for in trading the immortal Casey Blake's beard.
However much longer he’s with the Tribe, the Carlos Santana era is one of the finest in Indians history.