Baseball can be a cruel sport.
Cruel is Carlos Santana signing with the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent after a decade in the Indians’ organization. But no act of cruelty is complete without a twisting of the knife. Cruel is Santana returning to Cleveland in a trade, having a career year with the Tribe, and then following that up with the worst year of his career, giving the Indians’ front office all the more reason not to pick up his $17.5 million club option for 2021.
To be clear, the Indians were never going to pick up his club option for 2021, not with that price tag. But the worst part is that Santana’s 2020 season gives them cover for it.
Just how bad was Santana in 2020?
The good news: His 18.4% walk rate was the highest of his big league career since 2010.
The bad news: You read the part about the walk rate, right? Because we can stop there. I don’t have to go any further ... Oh, you’d like to keep going? Well then ... Santana’s .199 AVG, .349 OBP, and .350 SLG are all career-worst marks. He posted a 95 wRC+, another — you guessed it — career low. Santana’s 0.3 FanGraphs WAR was his lowest since 2012. And he even struck out more than usual, recording a 16.9% strikeout rate, his highest since 2015.
There is reason to believe bad luck was at least one factor. Santana’s .212 BABIP was another career low, and a far cry from his .266 career average. But similar to the struggles that teammate Francisco Lindor experienced this season, Santana looked lost at the plate against breaking balls. His .093 batting average on breaking pitches was by far the lowest such mark of his career, and 30.6% of the pitches he faced in 2020 were breaking balls. Obviously his numbers were down across the board against fastballs and offspeed pitches too, but his glaring struggles against breaking pitches are difficult to ignore.
When most people think of Carlos Santana, plate discipline comes to mind. So what I find to be particularly strange is that, even with his offensive production taking a dive, Santana’s plate discipline numbers for 2020 closely match his numbers from previous seasons. He swung at 60.8% pitches in the zone, which is only a marginal dip from his 63.6% mark in 2019. Santana even chased less, swinging at a career-low 16.5 percent of chase pitches. And he trailed only José Ramírez in number of pitches per plate appearance (4.40).
His biggest problem was putting the barrel on the ball. Santana’s 6.7% barrel percentage was the lowest of his career, and the same goes for his average exit velocity of 88 mph and his 36.6% hard hit percentage. I’ll never complain about having a disciplined hitter in the Indians’ lineup, but when that hitter is batting clean-up, a good eye at the plate will only get you so far if you can’t consistently get on base putting the ball in play.
Could this be the start of a decline for the 34-year-old first baseman? It’s tough to make that call after one season, but Santana is now in the precarious position of being a free agent following the worst year of his career, in a market that certainly won’t favor him. He deserves better, in my opinion. But as I said at the start, baseball can be a cruel sport.