Carlos Santana doesn’t seem to be having a great year.
Whether by counting stats (12 home runs, 39 total extra-base hits) or by rate (102 wRC+), this is nothing but a disappointing campaign for him, especially since he’s chasing a big payday this winter.
The guy blasted 34 dingers and led all non-Naquin Cleveland Indians with a 134 wRC+ in 2016. It was his finest offensive season, and he's doing a great job following it up with his non-injured worst. But of late, something has changed. Carlos Santana has started to do a thing. Specifically, mashing orbs of rawhide and twine, and making it count.
Since June 10, an admittedly arbitrary point I kind of picked out of thin air, Santana is hitting .270, owns a 122 wRC+ and has walked 12.2 percent of the time. If other arbitrary amounts of time are more to your liking, since July began he's packing a 174 wRC+ (basically average Mike Trout).
All this after a start to the season that was downright ugly. He owned a 91 wRC+ prior to June, and his power numbers were in the tank. Considering everyone is hitting a million home runs, you'd expect the Indians' reigning Home Run King (well, tied with Mike Napoli for the 2016 title) to just go wild on meatballs. Like some sort of chubby kid at an Italian grandmother's house. Instead he went vegan. Or appeared to, on the surface.
Thanks to Statcast, we have the new brother of BABIP to help measure luck and un-luck in hitters, xwOBA. Based on how hard and in what direction a ball is hit, there is a wOBA that hitter should be achieving. That’s xwOBA.
For the year, Santana's wOBA is .327, right around league average. But from the opening of the season to the middle of June, his xwOBA was .353, right where he was three years ago in his second best offensive season to date. His actual wOBA was .310 in that time, driven in part by a .239 BABIP. Since that arbitrary date I picked, his BABIP is .306, his wOBA is .356, and his xwOBA is .357. As we've seen a thousand times before, this is what regression looks like.
Incidentally, if you write “wOBA” over and over you start saying “wobble” in your head. Maybe that’s just me.
So, in reality, it’s not that Santana just started mashing orbs of rawhide and twine. He’s been doing it all year. They’ve simply been going in the wrong direction. He’s started to find grass and whatever substance the surface of the walls is made of. Still, there’s a minor issue with direction, in a vertical sense.
Last year when he had that stupendous home run output, Santana also had his highest fly ball rate of his career at 41.8 percent. Based on what we have seen of late with the Fly Ball Revolution, there's an established connection there. I had assumed it was on purpose - more fly balls, more dingers. This year, as a power outage swept him, Santana's fly ball rate fell to 36.3 percent. This seemed troubling, and the reason for that power outage, except that his ground ball rate (the thing we're all avoiding these days) also dropped a point to 41.8 percent. All this slack was picked up by line drives. Line drives don't turn into home runs quite as well as fly balls because they are on lines and he is not Miguel Cabrera,, but they turn into hits better than anything.
Typically the batting average on line drives is above .600 compared to .239 for fly balls. The power is less though — liners have an isolated slugging in the .190 range compared to .378 for fly balls. You’d think that along with the fade in power this would have led to a spike in batting average for Santana, but instead he looked like he was terrible. But that’s the point: looked. He’s got 26 doubles this year, after hitting 31 all of last year. It’s not good to replace homers with doubles, but he’s still delivering some damage.
It seems likely he’s going to hit like this the rest of the way. If averages and BABIP and Statcast are to be believed, anyway. It’s not abnormal for a player to just be unlucky for a while.
That odd drop in fly ball rate means he’s unlikely to crack 25 home runs on the season, but the doubles could mount insanely. He’s going to have a hard time arguing a big contract, but he’s doing everything right and he’s performed “correctly” all year. It’s just starting to pay dividends.
Like we saw with Edwin Encarnacion for a couple months, it just took Santana a bit longer to start finding turf with the ball. From here on out I expect him to be a major force in the Indians lineup. Which is a frightful prospect for opponents, considering what everyone else is doing.