Santana Not Quite Cleaning Up in Cleanup Spot

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.

After the Indians’ front office purged themselves of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, Santana became persona non grata targeted by the critics of the Indians. And in all honesty, who can blame them?

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 sees more pitches per plate appearance (4.30) than all but three players in all of baseball – the Mets’ Curtis Granderson (4.37), the Angels’ Mike Trout (4.37), and Votto (4.34).

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

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. I agree with the basis of this article. Santana should not be batting 4th. But the problem is that no one can say who the Indians could possibly get that would be close to being a #4 power hitter. There is no Manny, Thome or Belle out there.

    When the Yankees were eliminated one of the first questions Girardi got was how much the Yankees needed a right handed hitting power hitter. On ESPN Insider they are going over each team saying the top 5 things teams need for 2016. They have most teams needing power hitter as their 1st or 2nd most pressing need.

    If is was easy to draft and develop power most teams would be doing it. Even in the PED filled 90’s the White Sox, Boston, and Philly found it easier to steal Belle, Manny, and Thome from the Indians than to draft and develop their own power. You should have seen the fans from Boston and Philly react when Miami signed Stanton. They all thought their team was going to steal Stanton from Miami.

    I don’t want fans yelling about the Indians being cheap when there is nothing they can do. The Indians will not and should not pay 20MM a year for 7 years to a free agent hitter. That is not being cheap. It is being prudent. I have been asking fans what they want the Indians to do since last winter and no one can say any move the Indians could make that they would be happy about. Santana should not be batting 4th but someone has to bat 4th. If not Santana who else would it be?

    1. Allow me to propose a theoretical trade that might offer a solution to Indians fans:

      To Cleveland:
      DH/1B Edwin Encarnacion
      SP Drew Hutchison
      OF Michael Saunders

      To Toronto:
      SP Carlos Carrasco
      P Rob Kaminsky

      Why it works for Cleveland

      They get one of the best right handed power bats in the game in Edwin Encarnacion. I won’t bother to post his numbers here as they can easily be looked up, and they speak for themselves. It immediately solves the cleanup hitter problem. At 32, Edwin is still in his prime and as a DH who is athletic enough to fill in at 1st as required, it’s not unreasonable to believe that he can put up big power numbers for the another 3-5 years.

      In Hutchison and Saunders, the Indians would be taking a bit of a flier on high ceiling players that have been plagued by injury and inconsistency this year. At 25, Hutchison was once considered the future of Toronto’s rotation, and he has shown the ability to be nearly unhittable when he’s on, but he has yet to show the consistency required to make him a reliable front line starter. Most of his problems are confidence related, so a change of scenery might do him a world of good, and if he pitches anywhere near his potential he would be a steal. He could fill the rotation spot vacated by Carrasco, it would make the rotation a little thinner but it wouldn’t create any holes. Saunders missed the entire season with a knee injury so he is definitely a risky proposition next year, but if he can return to form the Indians would get a lefty everyday big league outfielder to further bolster their lineup. Also reasonably priced.

      Why it works for Toronto

      The Blue Jays have a ton of power in their lineup, but with Buerhle Price and Estrada all potentially leaving to free agency next year, their rotation will need some work. Given their surplus of power, and the fact that speedy young contact hitters Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey are knocking on the door, it makes sense for them to deal from a position of strength to solve a weakness. Carrasco is the type of guy they need, talented 2-3 guy with several years of control at a reasonable price. Kaminsky would help to bolster a farm system that was thinned out by the big deadline trades the Jays made.

      The Catch

      Edwin has a team option for 2016 and is a free agent thereafter, and he probably had an idea already that the Jays wont be able to re-sign both him and Bautista to long term decline year deals with only one DH spot available. He has 10-5 rights which means the Jays would have to convince him to agree to a trade. They could sell him on the idea that the Indians are a team on the rise (not at all untrue), coupled with the fact he has played in Ohio before and with a little sell job from Mark Shapiro on the side. For their part, the Indians probably aren’t interested in dealing Carrasco for a single year of Encarnacion, so the only way I see this working is with a sign and trade agreement. I figure 4 years and $65m would get it done. It’s pricey but Edwin is an elite bat, when you consider how much a position player with his numbers would earn it would actually be kind of a steal. Given that you’d be trading Carrasco’s contract away, it would net out to only a modest increase in payroll.

      Food for thought!

      1. This is the kind of trade talk that I am looking for fans to bring up. It is well thought out and presented. Having said that I do not see it happening because I do not see Encarnacion giving his permission to be traded to the Indians. I also do not like giving up Carlos and would prefer to try to give up Danny. Also there is some risk on the pitching for the Indians. Fans love offense but it is pitching that allows a team to make the playoffs and World Series and that is what I want more than flashy offense.

  2. It is easy to say the Indians could trade Santana but just what would you want the Indians to get for him? And how would the Indians replace 19 homers and 85 RBI? People want to trade CC or Danny to get a power hitter but they cannot say who that would be. I would trade CC to the Angels for Mike Trout but guess what. The Angels won’t make that deal.

  3. This article is an excellent review of Santana’s history plus detailing his positives and negatives. While Carlos may not have reached expectations, he has been a relatively productive part of the Indians. It is also obvious that he is not a classic cleanup hitter and putting him in that spot has probably hurt his production while increasing the pressure for him to perform in a way that is both impossible and doesn’t take full advantage of his positives. I also agree with the writer that the first three slots in the Indians lineup are filled, providing hitters who have some power and can hit for average and field their positions well. What the Indians continue to need is the proven right handed power hitter to make our lineup truly strong and one which puts continuous pressure on the opposing pitcher. in addition, a number five right handed hitter who also has power would be just what the doctor ordered. That way Santana could fill the number six slot quite nicely as a designated hitter and occasional sub at first base. Otherwise, package Santana, along with Chisenhall and pitcher Bauer to obtain that power stick for either right field or third base. Depending on the situation, we may want to try and go with Chisenhall in right field and go after a third baseman. My choice would be someone like the Reds third baseman Todd Frazier. The Reds are in a rebuilding mode and might take Bauer and Santana if we threw in Giovanny Urshela. The bottom line is either trade Santana or place him in a more suitable place in the batting order.

  4. I would like to see Kipnis, Ramariz, Lindor and Brantley at the top of the order. Yes, Ramariz would have to rotate through several positions, and yes, Brantley is not a prototypical cleanup hitter but he delivers with runners in scoring position among the best in the league. Let us keep our pitching and play base to base until Zimmer, Bradley, et al are ready.

    1. I agree with not trading pitching. So many big hitting teams like the Indians of the 90’s, the Tigers, and the Rangers never won a World Series. But the Giants never had a big hitting lineup in winning 3 of the last 6 World Series. They won because of their pitching. The Mets are there because of their pitching and KC as well. If Toronto gets past KC I’ll bet that the Mets pitching shuts them down. It’s always about who has the best pitching.

  5. Thanks for the positive feedback, Arno & Joe. Santana is certainly a player that fans rally around, good or bad. I know the expectations have been high around him since he came up, especially with the kind of numbers he initially had, so each season that he has failed to surpass those numbers have in essence become disappointments for the fans. If he weren’t stuck in the middle of the lineup, sure, some of the RBI numbers might be lesser, but we fans might not cringe as much about the .230 average. He really is a hard guy to slot into a lineup. There is no ideal spot for him. I hate the thought of him at the top of the order because of his strikeouts and power potential, but do see the OBP/walk side of the argument. Hitting him lower in the lineup negates some of his OBP benefit unless he’s hitting ninth to set the table for Kip/Lindor/Brantley, but Santana isn’t a 9 hitter either.

    I have to agree with Arno that this elusive “right-handed power bat” is going to have to be developed from within. The Indians are one of three teams of the 30 who have never paid out more than $60 million on a contract. There is no reason to suspect that trend will change, especially after the last few high dollar investments blew up in the team’s collective face. Santana may be a nice piece to try to acquire a bat, but I don’t know that he’ll bring in that ’90’s style slugger the fans are clamoring for.

  6. I saw a list of the top contract each team had given out in their history and as I looked at each team there was hardly any that made any sense. There were a bunch of guys who got hurt just about as soon as they signed the contract as was the case with the Tribe’s biggest signing of Travis Hafner. There were a bunch that did not come close to earning what they were paid. But I am sure some dumb teams will way overpay guys like Cespedes, Davis and Upton and get burned again. And I am sure that some fans in Cleveland will yell about the Dolans being cheap because they didn’t give one of these guys 200MM for 7-8 years. Let other teams be stupid.

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