In baseball, it is important for a man to reach base. A man who does not reach base will never arrive at or send a teammate home. A man who never scores or generates runs will never help his team win. A man who never helps his team win is a fool.
CARLOS SANTANA IS NO FOOL
He walked 24 times in the first 18 games of the 2020 season, and did it with 75 plate appearances. In his career he averages 697 plate appearances per 162 games, meaning a full season with his current walk rate would lead to 223 walks.
The All-Time single-season record for walks is 232, by Barry Bonds in 2004. 120 of those walks were intentional. So far, not a single walk of Santana in 2020 was intentional.
If you’re still unsure about how ludicrous this is, consider the following: he’s hitting below the Mendoza Line but owns an OPS+ of 109 and wRC+ of 129. A .453 OBP will do that.
How is Santana walking so often?
According to Statcast, 57% of all pitches thrown to Santana have been out of the strike zone — a total of 198 pitches. He’s swung at 26 of those pitches, which is a chase rate of only 13.1%.
Other sources put this metric at either 10.7% (Pitch Info) or 14.5% (Baseball Info Solutions). For reference, the most patient hitters in the game for the last decade tend to have a chase rate just below 20%, and only a handful of players manage that per season.
Carlos Santana earned a reputation throughout his career as one of the most patient hitters in baseball. In his 11th major league season it appears that he’s activated his limit break. We don’t have an MLB Zone Profile for 2020 yet, but I think it’s helpful to show you the foundation from which he’s building. Here is a chart showing the league’s whiff rate as a whole during 2019 for areas in which there were at least three swings. I’ve set it side by side with Santana for comparison.
It’s pretty much the same as Mike Trout’s, if you’re wondering.
He’s missing slightly more often on balls that he does swing at (24% compared to his statcast-era average of 19.6%), and swinging at fewer pitches overall (31.6% compared to a career average of 38.7%). Combine his elite chase rate with that and you have a glorious recipe for walks.
Why aren’t pitchers challenging Santana in the zone more often?
The answer to this actually depends on which dataset you prefer.
Statcast suggests that pitchers are avoiding Santana a little bit more often. They state that the MLB average Zone % for a hitter is 48.5%, and Santana is seeing only 42.6%. Baseball Info Solutions and Pitch Info both show that he is seeing slightly fewer strikes, but nothing nearly as significant as the Statcast data suggests.
Anecdotally, it does appear to me that pitchers are a little more willing to walk Santana this season, perhaps because the rest of the Indians batting lineup has done very little damage behind him. This is beginning to change with the resurgence of Franmil Reyes, though Santana’s walk numbers have only accelerated in that timeframe.
Santana is swinging at so few pitches that it’s difficult to say whether or not avoiding him is a good strategy. He has only 38 batted ball events so far, of which two were barrels. Overall his exit velocity and hard hit rate are down from last season, but I’m not willing to call this a trend on so few data points in a delayed-start season.
One thing that is definitely different according to every data set is the percentage of shifts Santana sees. In 2018 and 2019, infielders shifted about 83% of the time against Santana when batting left-handed, and about 13% of the time when batting right-handed. Those numbers are up to 98% and 33% respectively in 2020. It seems possible to me that Santana’s reaction to the near-universal shift against him is to simply become even more patient.
In any case, it might be better if opposing pitchers did challenge Santana a little bit more often. He’s destroying them without taking the bat off of his shoulder right now.