Slumpin’ Santana Searches For Answers
By Bob Toth
One of the most noticeable and documented concerns surrounding the 2012 Cleveland Indians’ roster has been the team’s inability to consistently score runs, especially against left-handed pitching. The team sports a 7-16 record against southpaws. The Indians’ team batting average has remained in the bottom third of the American League and is more than 30 points lower against left-handed pitching. They have been in the middle of the pack in terms of average runs scored per game. Helping to contribute to that problem has been the team’s struggles to hit the long ball, as they rank 12th amongst the 14 teams in the AL.
With a lineup constructed predominantly of left-handed hitters, the Indians hoped to rely on switch-hitters Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana to supply some power and stability from the right side of the plate. Cabrera has been one of the team’s biggest sources of offense, hitting nearly .300 on the season. While he has supplied fewer home runs from the right side of the plate than the left, his batting average as a right-handed hitter has been higher.
Santana, on the other hand, has struggled at the plate overall, regardless of how his opponent has pitched to him. The Indians catcher, coming off of his first full season in the majors, was expected to be one of the primary sources of runs for the team. Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers just before the non-waiver trade deadline of the 2008 season with pitcher Jon Meloan for Tribe third baseman Casey Blake and cash, Santana was believed to be able to eventually supplant Victor Martinez behind the plate.
The ceiling was perceived as very high for Santana. He moved quickly through the Indians’ minor league system before joining the big league club in June of the 2010 season as a 24-year-old rookie. At the plate, Santana showed strong glimpses of potential, batting .260 with six home runs and 22 RBI. He exhibited good patience at the plate, drawing 37 walks versus 29 strikeouts. He looked on pace for an excellent debut, while averaging an extra-base hit in 48.7% of his total hits. But his promising season was cut short with a left knee injury sustained while trying to block home plate during a game in Boston against the Red Sox.
Santana would return in 2011 with a new position to add to his repertoire and plenty of anticipation surrounding his abilities. In addition to time behind the plate, the Indians looked to platoon Santana at first base to take some of the wear and tear of the catching position off of him. Santana seemed to benefit from the additional playing time and had the break out season he looked capable of in 2010. He appeared in 155 games and slugged 27 home runs and drove in 79 RBI.
Santana stayed healthy and he stayed productive. Ninety-five times he played at catcher, with another 66 appearances at first base and one at designated hitter. The only complaint about his 2011 season was his .239 batting average, which was heavily impacted by a slow start during the first two months of the campaign.
Given his statistics, it came as no surprise that there was much excitement surrounding how Santana would follow up his 2011 season. Santana, though, has disappointed. In 63 games, he is batting .220. Sixteen of his 49 hits on the season have been for extra bases (32.7%). He has eleven doubles, five home runs, and has 29 RBI.
After reaching a season-high .269 batting average on May 17, his numbers have steadily plummeted. A week later, Santana was sent to the seven-day disabled list after sustaining a concussion, following a series of foul tips off of his mask in Chicago against the White Sox. Since his return from the DL on June 5, Santana has shown little signs of power and patience at the plate. In his 20 games in June, he is batting just .162 with five RBI. He has struck out 20 times.
Is Santana still struggling with complications of his concussion and the constant bashing he has taken behind the plate this season? The numbers would seem to indicate that, but when looking deeper into the statistics, his slump at the dish appears to have started a week before his stint on the disabled list.
Starting May 18 with the Indians’ interleague series against the Miami Marlins, Santana’s batting average fell sixteen points in the midst of a 3-for-25 skid at the time of his injury. He managed just a pair of RBI in that week. Couple that with his month of June and he is batting just .151 over his last 27 games. He has not hit a home run since May 15 against Minnesota, and has not knocked in two RBI or more in a game since May 11 against Boston.
Unlike last season, when Santana was spread out over two positions, the bulk of his playing time this season has been behind the plate, due in part to the slow offensive start of Lou Marson and the ability to platoon right-handed hitting Jose Lopez at first base. Santana has played 51 games behind the plate, eight games at first base, and another seven at designated hitter.
Would it serve the Indians better to try to get more time for Santana at first or DH while utilizing Marson at catcher? Marson may think so. At the time of Santana’s concussion, Marson was batting an abysmal .100. In his playing time since, he has batted .392, raising his season average to .284. One weakness has been his inability to provide significant punch at the plate, with just five extra-base hits scattered amongst his 20 during this time span. He has yet to leave the yard, but he has done well to capitalize on his playing opportunities and getting on base.
It may even be worth it to try to give Santana the occasional day off with a left-hander on the mound. His splits help to isolate where some of his struggles are occurring. On the season when batting right-handed, he is hitting .200 and just .159 against a left-handed starter. He has just two doubles in 14 hits off of southpaws.
Another consideration for Manny Acta may be to get Santana out of the cleanup spot, especially with little protection in the lineup for him right now. When used as the fourth batter in the Tribe’s lineup, Santana has hit four home runs, but is batting .180. As the number five hitter, Santana is hitting over 100 points higher (.286) in half as many at bats but with just one homer. It could be that Santana, in his slump, is pressing twice as hard to snap out of it with the additional pressure and expectations placed on the cleanup man.
Regardless of the solution to the problem, one important thing remains. Carlos Santana must contribute at the plate for the Indians to be a viable contender in the American League Central Division. If he cannot, it may make for a long summer for Tribe fans if the roster remains the same.
Photo: Jeff Curry/Getty Images