As a surprise to few, the Cleveland Indians opted not to pick up Carlos Santana’s $17.5 million club option for 2021, allowing him to become a free agent. Santana joined Kyle Schwarber, Corey Knebel, and teammate Brad Hand, among many others, on the list of salary casualties this offseason. This marked the end to the veteran first baseman’s 10-year career with Cleveland, interrupted by one season with Philadelphia (and 30 minutes with Seattle). Unfortunately, due to his age and MLB owners’ financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, Santana could not find a costly deal, settling for a two-year agreement worth $17.5 million with Kansas City.
However, Santana can still be a very useful piece, even at this stage of his career. One underrated part of Santana’s game is his durability. He has not spent a day on the injured list since 2014 and has accumulated over 600 plate appearances in each season of his MLB career, with the exception of this year’s shortened season. He is also a switch hitter with roughly even splits, which nullifies any possible platoon advantage for a pitcher. Here’s a look at Santana’s numbers over his last five seasons:
From a production standpoint, Santana’s performance deteriorated significantly in 2020; this was the first below-average offensive season of his career, in terms of wRC+. However, the 42-point difference between his xwOBA and wOBA indicates negative batted ball luck. Santana’s offensive drop-off is likely due to random variation in a small sample rather than a sign of aging.
Although we can consider Santana’s down year in 2020 relatively fluky, his batted-ball metrics are still a cause for concern.
2020 was a career-worst for Santana in terms of xwOBAcon, exit velocity, and barrel rate. He stopped hitting the ball hard, which used to be one of the keys to his game. This led to a massive drop in power, another trend we are not used to seeing from Santana.
For the first time in his career, Santana’s isolated power dropped below league average. Considering he is 34 years old, this can be worrisome for both fantasy managers and the Royals. The idea is to pay for future production, not past production. With that said, there are more aspects to Santana’s game that may be more exciting.
Throughout his entire career, Santana has maintained a high walk rate. He has displayed the power that any everyday first baseman needs, but his elite plate discipline is the reason why he has made nearly $75 million playing baseball. As he has gotten older, that trend has not changed.
Ironically, Santana posted the best BB% and O-Swing% of his career in 2020, despite the drop in production. This is important to note, especially in a season like 2020, since plate discipline is generally considered more stable relative to batted ball metrics. This article by Steve Slowinski outlines a study on the reliability of common baseball statistics based on sample size. Slowinski, along with sabermetrician Russell Carleton, found that the “stabilization point” of BB% is 120 PA, which is less than half of Santana’s 2020 sample. On the other hand, more encompassing metrics like OBP and SLG have stabilization points of 460 PA and 320 AB, respectively. Statcast measures like exit velocity and launch angle take about 130 balls in play to stabilize.
Essentially, Santana’s elite plate discipline numbers are more indicative of true performance than his below average wRC+ and ISO. Additionally, plate discipline metrics correlate higher with the following season’s performance than many other statistics. The following chart takes all hitters with at least 400 PA in consecutive seasons 2010 (since 2015 for Statcast metrics) and displays the correlation coefficient between Year N and Year N+1 in various metrics.
In general, for players with outlier 2020 performances, whether positive or negative, we should probably evaluate their plate discipline metrics to see if there was a significant change. This will help us determine whether the small sample was an actual trend or strictly noise. For Santana, his plate discipline has remained just as good, if not better, leading us to believe his 2020 numbers are probably not a major concern. Although barrel rate and exit velocity correlate well year to year too, they take a bit longer to stabilize, per Slowinski’s article.
Santana is one of just three qualified hitters (Alex Bregman and Joey Votto) with more walks than strikeouts since 2017. A hitter like Santana puts so much pressure on a pitcher because he will not chase many pitches out of the zone.
Santana has made a career out of being a patient hitter, especially on breaking balls. In fact, Santana ranks sixth among qualified MLB hitters since 2018 in Chase% on breaking balls. Here is Santana laying off a close 0-1 pitch from Michael Pineda, whose slider was among the most chased pitch of any breaking ball in 2020.
Santana’s career is a prime example of the sustainability of an elite walk rate. He has maintained a BB% above 13 every season of his 11-year career. However, is this something we can anticipate to decline as he gets older? I analyzed all players who have played at least ten seasons since 1980 and visualized various statistics as a function of age. Instead of taking the average player at each age group, I decided to use the 75th percentile since Santana is a well above average hitter.
Santana is 34 years old, which means he has not even reached the peak of his career yet, in terms of BB%. Even when he does finally start to decline, walk rate does not have as sharp of deterioration as other appropriate stats. Here is isolated power for example:
wOBA produces a similar curve:
Not only is the peak of these curves earlier than that of BB%, but the slope of the decline is of much higher magnitude. Judging by this relation, it is fair to predict a loss of power as Santana gets older; it has already happened to a certain extent. Nonetheless, Santana is known for his plate discipline, which will likely remain elite. Unfortunately, we do not have enough seasons of data to analyze Statcast metrics and how they change as players age, but I would guess they would produce a curve similar to ISO. Even with reduced quality of contact, his elite walk rate should be enough to bring him back into the 110-115 wRC+ range with normal batted ball luck.
Bringing it all Together
On Fantrax fantasy leagues, Santana’s ADP is approximately 230th overall, as the 17th first baseman. While it is fair to worry about his success on batted balls, Santana is essentially a sure bet for a walk rate of at least 14% paired with a strikeout rate of under 17%, which can be pretty valuable, depending on the structure of your league. It is rare to find someone with such assurances late in drafts. Santana additionally will provide a massive bargain for Kansas City, considering he will only cost $8.5 million per year. Generally, it is safer for teams to rely on players who flourish off elite plate discipline, as Santana has proved his entire career. While Santana has reached an age where most players decline, his skillset is significantly more sustainable than many of his peers. A 135 wRC+, which Santana posted in his last full season, is still within his range of outcomes. Considering he will cost next-to-nothing, Carlos Santana is someone to keep an eye on for 2021.
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire) | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)