The offensive output of the Cleveland Indians has been less than stellar this season.
They rank 15th in wRC+, 25th in runs, and 19th in offensive fWAR so far. It’s a bummer to watch, especially since it was supposed to be pure magic and might with the return of Michael Brantley and the arrival of Edwin Encarnacion. Many players are underperforming, but of glaring note is the leadoff position. Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis have been the principals in that role, and neither is having a particularly good season. This probably won't maintain. Probably.
Last year Santana started leading off in late April, and from then on it was either him or Rajai Davis starting the game depending on pitching. When he wasn't batting leadoff, Santana was slid to fifth or sixth. This year it was an everyday thing from day one, right up until Kipnis came back. This year he's also having a dreadful campaign so far. We're a third of the way through the season and he's played near every game, and has a 91 wRC+. It's bad regardless, real bad for a DH/1B, and real bad for a DH/1B on a contract year.
Even with offense elsewhere the Indians need Santana to create runs. Mainly, his BABIP is the 12th lowest in all of baseball among qualified hitters. It's a marker that improvement may be in the offing, and so is 20.5 percent line drive rate, the second highest in his career. That second thing might not really be a good thing though — aside from walks, Santana is there for home runs. Part of the reason he hit 34 of them last year might well have been the career high fly ball rate. That has since dropped three points to 38.1 percent. He's on pace for a career high in doubles, but doubles don't pay the bills like dingers do.
Then there's the walks. Or rather, the lack of walks. Even when Santana’s power disappeared in 2015, he took free passes like an old person at a national park. He never walked less than 14.4 percent of the time, until this year. While 12 percent is still good, when he's slugging below .400 and is hitting it at defenders at an insane clip, suddenly he has very little use for the Tribe. It could be that he's seeing a lower than last year rate of fastballs at 53 percent (57 last year, and a considerably higher rate of sliders than he ever has at 12.9 percent. Whatever it is, his average exit velocity has slipped from 90.8 mph last year to 89.9 this season. It’s not a huge drop, but none of his problems are a big difference from his excellent 2016. The sum of the parts though, that’s a big problem.
To paraphrase some Beltway dinguses who like the sound of their own voice too much though, surely there’s got to be some kind of there, there. Why is he having such an off season? Is it just that it’s a third of the way through the year and he’s still just kind of off? The way he’s performed so far means he won't’ have the shiny numbers he did last year, but he can still be good. There must be something to how he’s being pitched. He’s a switch-hitter, so that gets a little squirrely. First, here’s how he’s seeing pitches from lefties last year and this:
And now, righties:
There’s been an abject change in how left-handers are attacking Santana, and it’s led to a cratering in his wRC+ against southpaws, from 102 to just 51. There may be a reason — check out how he hit lefties around the zone last year:
While it’s not exact, there’s certainly been an adjustment when he’s hitting right-handed. They’re attacking him where he was bad last year. That was a big deal in 2016 too, his ability to be at least decent as a left-handed hitter. He wasn’t crushing it to the tune of a 144 wRC+ like he was left-handed, but it allowed him to be effective in the lineup even if he got bumped down. That same wRC+ is down to 115 against righties this year. Still bad, but not as hideous as when he’s in the other box.
He’s being pitched to smarter. He’s also hitting the ball softer (hard hit ball rate down to his career average 33 percent from 36.3 percent lat year, the aforementioned exit velo drop) and his BABIP is in the tank. That needs to be rectified, and only time can do that. Shifts are his enemy, but they’ve been a fact of life for him for half a decade. There’s still 100 games left in the season, so he has the time for things to just “shake out”, as irritatingly passive as that sounds. It’s just hard to produce runs when your leadoff hitter for half the season to this point is way terrible.
This was going to be a study of the failings of the leadoff hitter, but upon digging it seems Santana is worse than I thought, for very odd, small reasons. He needs to simply get a bit more lucky though, and get a bit more air under the ball. The good news is, his bat is less vital than a year ago with the presence of Encarnacion and the return of Brantley. Assuming those two turn it on. But he still needs to hit, for his own sake and the Tribe’s. Maybe he just needs to face the Kansas City Royals more often, or avoid Ervin Santana. Later this week we’ll look at Kipnis, but for now it’s about Santana. It’s stunning the drak he’s been on the offense.
Whether he’s slightly hurt, unlucky or just suddenly cursed by some dark god, who knows. He just needs to get better.