Freed from the burdens of Fortnite in the clubhouse and the presence of Jake Arrieta, Carlos Santana returned home to Cleveland and had the best season of his career in 2019.
That’s not an exaggeration or waxing poetic about a great year for Carlos, either. By almost every account, it was the best season he’s ever had. Where Santana became more patient but saw his power start to wane in Philadelphia last year, he surged with the Indians posting a career-high .515 slugging percentage and a 15.7% walk rate. For most, walking nearly 16% of the time would be a great thing, but for Carlos it was par for the course. Slightly below the 16.2% walk rate he posted last season, but right around his career average.
It was one of the very few things Carlos was average at for the Indians. From the career-high slugging percentage, to the 34 home runs, to the grand slams in the biggest moments, Santana was everything the Indians needed to keep a turbulent season from delving into chaos.
Most importantly, he brought his big bat when the Indians needed it most. With Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor sidelined to start the season with injuries — and José Ramírez’s bat sapped by some mystical force — the miserable first two months of the season would have been that much worse if Santana wasn’t playing a magnificent form of baseball. From the beginning of the season through May 31, while the Indians lineup shuffled around the likes of Max Moroff, Carlos González, Eric Stamets, Hanley Ramírez, and others in an effort to make something resembling a major league lineup, Santana slashed .288/.410/.505 with 10 home runs and a stolen base for good measure.
As you might expect, those numbers were tops among Indians batters at the time. In fact, Santana was the only batter with more than 200 PA to have a wRC+ over 100. Oscar Mercado was starting to show signs of being a great rookie with a 119 wRC+ after his first 52 PA, and Francisco Lindor was just getting started with 111 wRC+ in his first 171 PA since coming off the injured list. But to find the next Indians batter with at least 200 PA you have to go all the way down to Jake Bauers and his pitiful 70 wRC+ through the first two months.
The point I’m trying to get at here is the Indians would have been way worse off without Santana. Don’t get me wrong, they were already pretty bad off, and they completely unable to recover from the double-digit lead they gifted the Twins with their early season play. But without Santana, there’s no dramatic chasing down of the Twins. There’s no briefly taking over the lead to cap off one of the most-fun months of Indians baseball that didn’t occur in October and wasn’t tied to a historic winning streak.
So how did he do it? How did Carlos Santana go from arguably the worst season of his career to leading all American League first basemen in FanGraphs WAR (4.4)? It could just be as simple as being comfortable.
Carlos wasn’t shy about the fact that he still loved Cleveland; you should already know the story of him not selling his Cleveland area home. It was always clear that Santana was the epitome of “our guy.” The idea of leaving the team that he played every major league at-bat with even weighed on him in 2017.
The result in 2018 was a dip across the board in Santana’s Statcast numbers, relative to the league. That is to say, Santana’s average exit velocity and hard-hit rate didn’t drop in 2018 — in fact, his hard-hit rate went up from 38.6% to 39.0%. But the rest of the league was feasting on juiced baseballs and hitting mammoth home runs while Santana was stuck in the long long ago of 2017. You know, the second dead ball era.
He sat mediocre at best in 2018 in average exit velocity, in the 54th percentile. Jump ahead to 2019, and he’s hitting the ball hard 44.9% of the time with an average exit velocity in the 94th percentile (91.8 mph). There was a massive, noticeable leap that allowed him to follow the trend of the rest of baseball and not get left behind.
Unless the Indians do something drastic (and drastically stupid), Santana should be back in Cleveland for the 2019 season. Seeing as he’ll be 34 shortly after the season starts and in the last year of the three-year deal he signed with the Phillies, we might be looking at the last season of him in Cleveland unless he wants to play into the budget conscious Indians’ plans and take a cheap deal for 2021 and beyond.
No matter what happens, we’ll always have that grand slam. We’ll always have that ALCS catch. We’ll always have Carlos Santana in Cleveland, no matter where he goes. He is our 2019 Indians MVP, and he is simply the best.