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Santana Showing Signs of Heating Up

Santana Showing Signs of Heating Up

| On 15, Jun 2014

Maybe, just maybe, the bat of Cleveland Indians man-without-a-position Carlos Santana is finally heating up.

It is tough to guess the exact culprit for the struggles of the once-reliable slugger at the plate this season, but since his return from the seven-day concussion disabled list at the beginning of June, his bat has been a bit livelier. Given his numbers over the first two months of the season, it would not have taken much at all to show an improvement over the .159 batting average and .301 slugging percentage he provided the club in his first 51 games.

Santana was getting a lot of work, missing just one game in the third week of April before the blow to the head that sent him to the DL.

The most obvious reason for his issues in the batter’s box may not have had anything to do with his approach at the plate but may have more likely reflected his position change in the field.

Santana spent the winter playing third base in an effort to give him more lineup flexibility and to keep him out of the designated hitter role, one that he has shared in the past that he is not all that happy with playing. After winning the third base job out of Spring Training, he had spent the majority of his time at the hot corner while sprinkling in a little time at catcher and DH and parts of four games at first base.

Regardless of where he played, the bat did not travel. His average was last above the Mendoza line on April 10th. Prior to his trip to the DL in 50 games, he hit just .159 with a .327 on-base percentage. He maintained a nearly even walks-to-strikeout ratio (43 walks with 46 strikeouts), but had just six home runs, seven doubles, and 17 RBI.

Since returning from the disabled list, it is no surprise that the Indians have restricted the amount of action he has seen behind the plate, especially with George Kottaras on the roster again and showing offensive production at the plate in his limited playing time.

Santana throughout his career has been an absolute magnet for undesired contact behind the plate. In a game during the series against Baltimore, he repeatedly signaled back to the dugout the number of times he took hard contact from foul tips, including the hit that likely caused him to experience concussion-like symptoms on May 25th. The foul tip left him with headaches, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping.

Keeping Santana out from behind the plate has been something the team has monitored since his knee injury his rookie season against the Boston Red Sox in a play at home plate. In addition to the health concerns that affect his ability to stay in the lineup and productive, his production when in the lineup as a catcher has not always compared well to other ways he could get onto the field.

Santana’s average when used as a catcher has never been something to write home about. After his .262 mark when exclusively a catcher in his rookie season of 2010, his average has hovered in the .240’s. He hit .242 in 92 games in 2011, .241 in 99 games in 2012, and .249 in 83 games in 2013.

This season in eleven games behind the plate, Santana has hit .088 with just three hits in 46 trips to the plate. Just one of those three hits was for extra bases and he has yet to drive in a run when the starting backstop.

What may have been more surprising is that Santana has yet to see any action at third base since his return. Granted, regular first baseman Nick Swisher was just activated from his own disabled list trip on Friday and the team will probably work him back into action easily with some additional time at designated hitter. The demotion of first baseman Jesus Aguilar to Triple-A when Santana returned instead of the designation of Kottaras for assignment may have tipped the Tribe’s hand for their plan for Santana, at least for the immediate.

Including Saturday’s game, Santana has started eight straight games at first base. It is a move that may take some of the mental stress off of Santana, who is still new to the hot corner, while improving the overall Indians infield defense, an area of need that almost needs no mention as the team as a whole entered Saturday’s action with an eleven error lead on the next closest team and an MLB-worst .975 fielding percentage.

Santana is responsible for six of the team’s 64 errors and all six have come in time at third base.

Santana has thrived in his action at first this season and throughout his career. He hit nine of his 27 home runs in 2011 as a first baseman while hitting just .238. He hit .344 there in 20 games in 2012 and .287 in 28 games in 2013. In 12 games there this season prior to Saturday’s game, he had hit .342 with 13 hits, including two doubles and four home runs, while driving in 12.

The continued success of Lonnie Chisenhall at the plate has not hurt either while the club has made the decision to play Santana at first. Chisenhall was hitting .384 entering play Saturday, good enough to lead all MLB players with 25 at bats or more on the season.

“He’s played a lot more first than Lonnie,” said Indians manager Terry Francona of Santana on Friday. “Lonnie’s played first base four time or five in his career. Carlos has played a lot of first. I just thought that was an easier way to come back. He hadn’t played in a week.”

Entering play on Saturday afternoon, Santana had appeared in eight games since his return to the lineup. He was hitting .286 with a .394 on-base percentage, and a .500 slugging percentage. He had eight hits in 33 plate appearances, including a pair of home runs and seven RBI. The run production since his return accounts for almost 30% of his season RBI total.

“His batting average is going to be low for a while because he had a bad start but he’s starting to take some more aggressive swings and stay in the middle of the field,” said Francona following Friday night’s 10-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox. “He just missed another [home run], he just got a little bit on the end. If he gets hot, that’ll be great for us.”

The team is working with him mechanically at the plate still to turn around his offensive game. His leg kick was adjusted to help him with his timing. The club still hopes that he can find a consistent and shorter swing. He is doing so while generally hitting further down in the lineup than he was accustomed to throughout his career, when he typically was slotted in the middle of the order.

His offensive struggles have not necessarily been a product of his eye at the plate. Even after missing nine games while on the disabled list, he still entered Saturday’s game second in all of baseball in walks. He drew a bases loaded walk in the top of the eighth inning to give the Indians a 3-2 lead in that contest.

Any chance at extended success on the field this season for Cleveland will live and die with Santana’s bat at the plate. He has proven to be a run-producing power bat in the middle of the lineup in the past and that is exactly what the Indians lineup has been missing throughout the season. If his bat is truly heating up, and he has hit in seven of nine games since returning with eight runs batted in, it could not be at a better time for the Tribe.

Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

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