Santana Not Quite Cleaning Up in Cleanup Spot
Bob Toth | On 21, Oct 2015
Is there any player on the Cleveland Indians roster who is more frequently criticized and questioned than first baseman Carlos Santana?
If you answered anything but no, you haven’t been paying much attention to the Tribe over the last season.
It was yet another slow start for the Indians slugger and cleanup hitter that helped a bad offense look worse through the early showings in 2015. It was a re-run for Tribe fans – a similar slow start in 2014 for Santana was frequently a source of media and fan attention, but he got a bit of a free pass because of the presumed effects that relocating to third base had on the career catcher and first baseman. This season, he hit .202 on the road, .239 in April, .217 in May, and hit rock bottom with a .189 June.
Those excuses no longer held water, which made it increasingly harder and harder to let the 29-year-old switch-hitter off of the hook. It was becoming the same old song and dance.
But is Santana as bad as some fans will play him off to be?
Statistically – no, even if his numbers were down.
On a team lacking a noticeable power hitting threat, Santana led the club with 19 homers and 85 RBI this season. In a 162-game season, a figure so light in the long ball department is rarely used in conjunction with a player deemed a “power hitter” and, especially, a “cleanup hitter”.
Fans have clamored for a long-term power solution in the lineup, especially that ever-elusive right-handed variety, since Manny Ramirez left town. While not strictly right-handed, nor able to supply the power as well from that side of the plate (just four of his homers came off of left-handed pitching this season), Santana was tagged with the label of a home run and run threat in general after a 27-homer, 79-RBI season in his first full year in the Majors in 2011.
He has matched that home run output just once since.
If you look at Santana as a cleanup hitter or as a home run hitter, you are likely to be disappointed by the end result and you are going to miss the things he does do well.
He walks. He walks with the best of them.
Last season, he led the American League with 113 free passes. This season, he was second in the league with 108. He has been in the top three in the category in the AL since his first full season in the Majors. He has drawn 502 walks in the last five seasons, surpassed in all of baseball only by Cincinnati’s Joey Votto with 529. Votto led baseball twice in the last three seasons and the National League in four of the last five.
Santana sees a lot of pitches.
He plays almost every day.
Even when Santana was behind the plate catching and seemingly taking a ball to the dome each game, he was a mainstay in the lineup. Since his season-ending knee injury during his rookie campaign in 2010, he has played in at least 152 games in four of the last five years. While his run production and power may be inconsistent throughout his career, and his glove and range may leave something to be desired at first base, he is a guy that manager Terry Francona can count on to be on the field, day in and day out. That could have been to a fault this season, when Santana admitted during the final series of the season that he had been playing through a nagging back injury for most of the year.
One of the biggest problems facing Santana is that he is a man out of position, both in the batting order and in the field.
At some stretches of his career, he fit the mold of a cleanup hitter because of the power numbers and the ability to drive in large numbers of runs, so he served as a serviceable option in the fourth spot in the lineup for Francona. But over the last couple of seasons, he has not been as consistent getting on base, which has hurt the team for long stretches during the season. That effect has been increased with him in the cleanup role.
Santana steadily averaged nearly three home runs per month, nothing to write home about from the run producer in the order. In fact, he had three in every month of the season with the exception of October but, to be fair, the team did only play four games in the month.
His first half and second half splits are nearly identical except that his batting average improved 21 points and he played in eight fewer games. But even a .242 mark in the second half only brought his season average up to .231, matching what was deemed an unacceptable career low last season after hitting a career high .268 in 2013. That low batting average was again complemented by a high walk rate and gave him an on-base percentage that still placed him in the top 20 of the league.
Santana hit .240 in the fourth spot. While he was not the worst in the league in that regard, he was much closer to the bottom of that list than the top. His efforts helped to contribute to the team’s .244 combined average from that spot in the lineup, the fourth-lowest in the AL, and yet those same contributions slotted the team in as the fourth-best club in the AL in OBP and first in all of baseball in walks from number four hitters.
Now if put to better use, say, higher in the lineup, Santana could help to wear out an opposing pitcher earlier while giving more guys in the batting order behind him an opportunity to get multiple looks at the stuff that pitcher possesses. With Santana hitting in the middle of the order, some of that benefit may get lost.
But given the seasons just completed by the three men above him in the lineup – Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, and Michael Brantley – it is hard to justify Santana replacing any of the three, especially given that Santana also strikes out a fair deal (eighth-most among all AL cleanup hitters this season) and none of the three are of the cleanup hitter mold either.
In the field, Santana played 132 of 153 games at first base. By the numbers, he did not look bad – he made three errors in 1,141 chances for a .997 fielding percentage, the fewest errors he had committed since his 46-game rookie campaign. Advanced metrics on range factor compared back to the league showed what those who watched him already knew – that Santana is not fleet of foot and that his footwork in general caused unforced and non-tabulated errors for the team as a whole.
Wherever it is that he plays, both in the lineup and on the field, Francona and the Indians need production and consistency from Santana. He can be a more viable producer for the club, if utilized in the right way. He may even be an intriguing option for another club, one needing base runners at the top of their lineup, when general managers begin talking to each other with a bit more energy following the conclusion of the Postseason and the Indians look at the approximately $9.5 million in guaranteed money left on his contract.
Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images