Santana Seems to be Good Fit at Top of Batting Order
Craig Gifford | On 08, May 2016
Where does Carlos Santana fit in?
That is a question that has seemed to run through the Cleveland Indians organization for a number of years, really ever since Santana’s rookie campaign of 2010.
Is Santana best suited to be the team’s cleanup hitter? He did lead the team in home runs last year, though that number stood at only 19. He twice has hit 27 bombs and once hit 20 on the nose in five previous full seasons. Those are not exactly big bopper type numbers. He’s not hitting the ball out of the park at a clip that the traditional power-hitting, cleanup guy would normally be.
Being a threat to hit 20 jacks a year has also seemed to make Santana the perfect guy to hit fifth. He is just dangerous enough to be protection for the prototypical batter in the four hole. A lot of times the batter who can hit 30, 40, 50 taters per season is prone to being intentionally walked. Santana is just the kind of hitter who could make a manager think twice about putting a runner on board as he has enough pop to be a threat to hit the home run that was avoided by issuing a free pass to the batter before.
Unfortunately, for the Tribe, Cleveland has not actually had that traditional number four batter in Santana’s tenure with the club. The last real threat to hit 35 or more home runs for the Indians was Travis Hafner, pre-2007. That is a big reason Tribe manager Terry Francona and Manny Acta, before him, have inserted Santana into the cleanup spot so frequently. There really has been no better threat to hit the long ball than Santana for the last five years.
Over those years, while not sporting a great batting average, Santana has been great at getting on base. He walks a lot. He led the league in 2014 with 113 free passes to first and had another 108 last year. His on base percentage is always .350 or better. So, while the 30-year-old veteran has never hit higher than .268 and barely above .230 each of the past three campaigns, he reaches base at a strong clip and has some power. Perhaps the number three spot in the lineup is more his speed.
Speed, of course, is one thing Santana is not really known for. He did set a career high with eleven stolen bases in 2015 and has swiped three or more bags each of his seasons in the big leagues. However, a typical leadoff or number two hitter is stealing 20-plus per season. Santana has never been thought as a top-of-the-order guy. His skills at the plate surely make him best at hitting somewhere in the middle of the order – just exactly where was always the question.
That is, until now. Francona, to the surprise of many, tossed around the idea of placing his 2015 home run leader in the leadoff spot of his batting order. The Tribe manager said he had thought about doing it since last season, but never pulled the trigger on it. He finally tried it out in a spring training game. Then in April, he had a struggling Santana lead off for the first time in his career. He promptly led off the game with a home run, to which first base coach and former Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. quipped that it reminded him of Rickey Henderson. Of course, Henderson spent a career leading off. The Hall of Famer has Major League records for both stolen bases and leadoff home runs.
Santana is no Henderson, but his early success in the leadoff spot has led Francona to putting him there a lot more often. It has, by far, been the best place for Santana to hit this season, in looking at the pure numbers.
When Santana has led off a game this year, he has batted .300 with one of his four home runs and three of his 12 RBI. He has hit at a .250 clip when hitting fourth or sixth in the batting order and a paltry .196 when in the cleanup spot. The Cleveland designated hitter and part-time first baseman seems to have taken a liking to being the first batter at the plate for the Tribe.
As far as speed, Santana is not a normal leadoff guy. Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and Rajai Davis are far bigger threats to hit a single and then turn it into a double with their speed, a la the stolen base. However, Francona has always looked at Santana’s propensity for getting on base and sees a table-setter. He can get on base, even if it is with a walk, and be there for one of his better contact hitters to drive home.
One reason Francona has been able to experiment with his power hitter in number one spot is because of the lineup around him this year. The Tribe, at least on paper, has one of its more complete batting orders in years. Newcomer Mike Napoli is just as good a bet as Santana to hit 25 or more jacks. So far this year, he does lead the team in homers and RBI. Then there are Kipnis, Brantley, and Yan Gomes, who all have 20-plus home run potential. Having that quartet of hitters who can bat in the middle of a lineup has allowed Francona to tinker and see who could fit better in other spots.
The move with Santana is somewhat reminiscent to that of Kipnis a season ago. In 2015, Kipnis got off to a rough start. He was batting second or third most of the time. In May, Francona moved Kipnis to the leadoff spot and the Tribe second baseman took off at the plate. He went on to be an All-Star and hit over .300. Of course, he seemed a natural fit for the leadoff role as a player who can get 20-30 steals a year.
Still, Santana has seemed to take off a little more at the top of the order than the middle, where he may have felt more pressure to power a ball out. He can hit more for contact or take a walk as a leadoff hitter, things that he seems more comfortable or natural doing.
Of course, Santana’s time in the leadoff spot has been brief and the numbers are from a small sample size. His nine hits as a leadoff guy are in just 30 at bats. He was hitting .364 in the top spot before a 1-for-8 slump this past week. Still, what Santana has shown out of the one-hole should be enough to keep him there or at least bat him leadoff on a semi-regular basis, depending on pitching matchups.
There are still plenty of questions as to where Santana should hit in the lineup. Francona has now added another possibility, though who is going to argue with a manager who has won two World Series titles. If Santana can keep getting on base as he always has, maybe the answer to where he best fits will be right at the beginning.
Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images