Carlos Santana is having an excellent season, recapturing the greatness he had in 2013. That was the year he posted a triple slash of .268/.377/.455 and finished 15th in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. It was his third straight year of at least 18 homers, 70 RBI, and 90 walks.
The next two years, while he still kept those three streaks going, saw Santana in decline. His average dropped to .231 and both years his on base percentage and slugging percentage decreased. Last year, his slugging was only 38 points higher than his OBP, not a good thing for a middle of the order bat.
Santana turned a corner this year. He’s posted his highest average (.244) and OPS (.817) since 2013 and his highest career slugging percentage (.474). The club is on pace to hit the fourth-most home runs in its history, and Santana and Mike Napoli are a big part of that. Santana’s 24 dingers are second on the team to Napoli, and he has also posted his highest career isolated power (ISO), which is average subtracted from slugging and measures a hitter’s raw power. Santana’s hitting for power while not sacrificing his plate discipline (lowest chase percentage in the AL, fifth-highest walk total). However, there is cause for concern.
Where is the concern? It’s all in his splits.
Santana, a switch-hitter, has historically been much better against lefties than against righties. His career average is .277 versus lefties and .229 versus righties and his OBP is .382 when a southpaw is on the mound while it is .353 when a right-hander is toeing the rubber. However, he seems to be more powerful hitting from the left side. His ISO is 44 points higher when he faces righties than versus lefties and his slugging percentage is about the same from either side.
Case in point – he has hit 21 home runs left-handed, but only three right-handed.
This year, his splits are really different and that’s where the concern comes in. He’s struggling against southpaws like he never has before in his career, while his numbers against righties have actually improved.
The terrible numbers against lefties are due to a change in approach at the plate. This season Santana is walking half as often against lefties (7.3%) as he has over the rest of his career (14.5%). He is seeing fewer pitches and swinging at a much higher rate than he has in his career (41% this year, 37% in 2015). It’s not that he’s whiffing at an unusual rate either; he’s just swinging at more pitches and making significantly more contact. And when he makes contact against lefties, he’s generally hitting grounders. Santana’s groundball rate batting right-handed has soared from 43% just two years ago to 58% this year. That’s why his power numbers are so low versus southpaws – his trajectory is not conducive for it. Against right-handers, Santana’s done the exact opposite, increasing his fly ball rate to 48% this season. And he has the power numbers to match, ranking fourth in the AL in ISO vs. righties.
It could be that his batted ball rates reflect where pitchers are attacking him. Left-handers have started pitching Santana down in the zone this year, mostly away. Unless your name is Tyler Naquin, those are hard pitches to drive for homers. Righties, on the other hand, are pitching him middle away, a great spot for power. However, pitch location is only a small contribution to the overall problem.
So what is manager Terry Francona supposed to do? Well, is there really anything to do? Santana is already getting fewer at bats against lefties. He leads off when the Tribe is facing a right-handed starter, but bats fifth when a left-hander takes the mound. It’s not like Francona is going to platoon one of his best hitters. The only thing he could do is occasionally start someone else at DH when the Tribe is facing a southpaw. More than likely, I think he’ll do nothing. This would be the correct strategy. Santana’s “struggles” against lefties have led to a .259 average, certainly not terrible. And removing his bat would only do more harm than good. So, no, Tribe fans should not be worried about Santana’s splits, unless it continues to be a trend next year.
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