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Carlos Santana is different, for better and worse

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The true impact of Carlos Santana’s new approach is up for debate, but we’re seeing a new hitter up there

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Santana has been a very good offensive player for his entire career. He’s never quite reached elite baseball destroyer status except for some short stretches against the Royals, but whether in Cleveland or Philadelphia he’s always been a positive influence in the batter’s box with his signature mix of patience and power. This year he’s been about the only thing going for the Indians offense. He’s also been a completely different hitter.

When you think of a typical Carlos Santana at-bat, what comes to mind? Perhaps two takes to an 0-2 count that ultimately, somehow and with some truly incredible non-swings on a couple pitches on the black, it becomes 3-2. Something like 100 times a season those three balls become a walk, sometimes a hit, and seemingly all too often — especially for the power he’s displayed through the years — a soft pop or roller to the defense for an easy out.

Now a month into the 2019 season, though, Santana is doing frightful things to a baseball, things he’s never done before. We already know about how he’s pulling the ball less than he ever has — his 35.2% pull rate is more than 15% below his career rate — but it’s like he’s just decided to become a different hitter:

Carlos Santana’s change in approach

Year Hard Hit% LD% GB% FB% Z-Swing% 1st Pitch Swing%
Year Hard Hit% LD% GB% FB% Z-Swing% 1st Pitch Swing%
2019 54.5 18.2 55.7 26.1 70.4 29.0
2018 32.8 16.0 40.3 43.7 65.5 23.2
Career 33.5 18.3 42.7 39.3 61.0 19.7

This is just a taste of what Santana has changed about his approach — in the early goings he’s gone out of the zone at the second highest rate of his career, his swinging strike rate is a career-high 9.5%, and only 18.2% of his K’s have been looking, the second lowest rate of his career — but there’s something here. An aggression, an adjustment to better take advantage of the good situations that he places himself in.

Maybe for a team that’s so bereft offensively, it’s a bad thing that its current best hitter has decided to go to the Joe Mauer school of hitting in the latter half of his career. Power always plays, and at this point it appears like he’s playing away from what’s kept him in the majors. Still, a book on him exists, and what he’s doing is exactly what every curmudgeon has demanded these guys do — just hit it the other way! Right now, a, early count ground ball where nobody is gives as much value as a walk, and is certainly better than a 4-3 putout from shallow right field. So he’s doing what must be done given the situation.

With as patient as he’s always been, as good of counts as he’s found himself in, it’s actually a little odd that Santana hasn’t seen more success at the plate. He’s always been near the top in pitches seen and always takes more than his share of free passes, even leading the league in walks a couple years back. Yet for all his talents he only has the one 30 home run season. It’s an arbitrary number, sure, but it always seems a bit surprising with his natural pop.

This new aggressive approach at the plate, along and going the other way while still holding onto a very solid walk rate, is unlikely to get him there if only because of the drop in fly balls. But the league keeps shifting on him and he keeps taking advantage of that shift. There will be a re-adjustment if it holds up, teams are too smart. You just wonder if Santana can reassume his old ways once that happens, and suddenly loft a handful of dingers a week as the league just throws up its hands. It’s an interesting development to watch.