When healthy, Carlos Santana is one of the best offensive catchers in Major League Baseball. He must be feeling pretty good about now.
After racking up four hits in the second game of the doubleheader on Sunday against the Kansas City Royals, Santana is hitting .388 on the young season. With two days remaining in the month, Santana is currently just ahead of Sandy Alomar Jr. for the best April by an Indians’ catcher in team history. Alomar hit .387 in 1997. Santana awakes this morning as the American League’s leader in batting average.
At this point, Santana has more of a reputation of being a free-swinging power hitter, but during his development in the minor leagues, he was a high batting average player to go with his high on-base percentage. When the Indians traded Casey Blake to the Los Angeles Dodger in 2008 for Santana, the switch-hitting, converted catcher combined to hit .326 in 568 plate appearances at High-A between the two affiliates.
A year later at Double-A Akron, he hit .290. Both seasons he struck out under 100 times had had over 20 home runs. He was on pace for the same bat-controlled, power numbers in 2010 at Triple-A Columbus before he was promoted to the Cleveland Indians in June. At the time of his promotion, he was hitting .316, with 13 home runs in 246 plate appearances, while only striking out 39 times. Santana’s .260 batting average, with six home runs in 192 plate appearances appeared to be just the beginning to his big league career in 2010. A nasty collision at home plate injured his knee and cut his season six weeks short.
But since his 2010 knee injury Santana has never seemed to be the same high-average, low-strikeout hitter he was in the minor leagues and appeared to be beginning in his big league career. His .260 batting average in 2010 is still his career high for a season. In 2011, he crushed 27 home runs, but at the expense of his batting average, a paltry .239 with 133 strikeouts.
A year ago in 2012, Santana suffered a concussion in late May and later admitted that he never felt the same until after the All-Star break. He hit only .162 in June 2012, without a home run and only five runs batted in, while striking out 20 times. He seemed lost at the plate, flailing at pitches or trying to guess at what was headed his way. Santana clearly was pressing at times. But in a second half where everything went wrong for the Indians last year, Santana may have been the only bright spot. He found his swing, hitting .281, with 13 home runs and only 41 strikeouts in 314 plate appearances.
To be fair, Santana likely will not continue his blistering pace, but a clean bill of health could provide the opportunity for Santana to have his best offensive season as a big leaguer. While his April will be one of the most historic months for a catcher in Indians history, that same .281 benchmark from the second half of last season would be a great goal to try and exceed this season. Finding a way to limit his strikeouts to under 100 would make him that much more of a dangerous hitter. Currently, he’s only struck out 12 times.
Indians manager Terry Francona has been clear that he wants to sit Santana lower in the batting order to take away some of the previous pressure of hitting third or fourth in the lineup. Hitting in the bottom half of the order may have helped his early start. Likewise, some of his additional catching responsibilities may be alleviated soon, too. With Lou Marson being placed on the 15-day disabled list Sunday, Yan Gomes was recalled from Triple-A Columbus. Francona believes that Gomes has the potential to be an every day catcher at the Major League level and stressed that they will look for ways to get him in the lineup more than just the normal backup catcher duties. Santana may see an extra day a week at designated hitter or first base, thus keeping him away from tools of ignorance a little more and the increased chances of injury.
Santana’s offensive production has been a pleasant surprise to an early season filled with inconsistencies for the Tribe. Potentially, Santana is as healthy today as he has been since his youth as a developing prospect.
It’s possible 2013 is the season Santana fulfills his potential and emerges as an All-Star quality player.
Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images