They say the best revenge is to become your best self. For most of us regular schlubs, that means a three-week dabble in a Keto diet and posting strategic Instagram selfies to show our ex Linda that we’re gonna be just fine without her. But if you’re a Major League Baseball player who was benched, demoted, and traded a year after an All Star-caliber season, the best revenge looks more like this:
Domingo Santana’s 2019 revenge tour is only just beginning, but he’s already turning heads—and I don’t just mean Nathan Eovaldi’s as he said the sad goodbye to the above 403-foot, 107-mph no-doubter to left field. So far to start the young season, Santana has looked every bit the offensive weapon he was in 2017, when he was one of just six players with 30 homers, 15 stolen bases and an .800+ OPS—a group that includes the likes of Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Francisco Lindor.
Santana’s career has been one of solid production and front-office slights. He’s just 26 years old, but his transaction log reads more like a veteran journeyman’s than that of a high-upside, cost-controlled bat. The Brewers shipped him to Seattle this offseason after they acquired Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich prior to the 2018 season, pushing Santana to the pine. He’d only been in Milwaukee by way of a trade that sent him from Houston, where he’d been a top prospect on a club that would go on to win the World Series two years later without him. And he’d only ended up in Houston after the Phillies accidentally traded him away as a “player to be named later.”
So you can’t fault him for pressing at the plate early in 2018 when his playing time and career trajectory were once again put into question. He’s said so himself:
“I was really not in my comfort zone. Instead of going up there and get a jam hit and only go 1 for 4 but know I’ll be out there tomorrow, but playing with them (Yelich, Cain and Braun), you felt like you had to get on their level. I got that in my head. And it didn’t work.”
That lack of confidence resulted in a poor showing that ultimately got him demoted for a good chunk of the season. But so far for 2019, he’s heading in the right direction.
With a fresh setting and playing time guarantee in Seattle, Santana is poised to get back on track to the 2017 version of himself. Thing is, he might actually be even better.
In hindsight, it’s hard to fault the Brewers for going out and acquiring both Yelich and Cain at Santana’s expense. Both were All Stars last season, and Yelich was the National League MVP—not exactly regrettable if you’re a general manager. But even so, Santana’s always had some swing and miss to his game that had to be concerning for the front office. He’d never posted a strikeout rate below 28% across any level in a meaningful sample, and his K rates often have floated above 30%.
The obvious reason is that he’s letting it all fly toward the fences at the expense of making good contact. But he’s also been hyper-aggressive at the plate. It’s not that he swings at more pitches outside the zone than the rest of the league, but when he does chase he’s historically struggled to make contact. Even when he does swing at pitches in the zone, his contact rates have undershot the league average by a decent amount, shown in bold red here.
|Santana ‘17||26.5 %||71.3 %||46.3 %||51.9 %||78.9 %||70.3 %||44.2 %||62.1 %||13.7 %|
|MLB ‘17||29.9 %||66.7 %||46.5 %||62.9 %||85.5 %||77.5 %||45.0 %||60.3 %||10.4 %|
|Santana ‘18||30.9 %||71.8 %||47.2 %||48.2 %||78.2 %||66.4 %||39.9 %||65.1 %||15.8 %|
|MLB ‘18||30.9 %||67.3 %||46.6 %||62.8 %||85.5 %||76.9 %||43.0 %||60.6 %||10.7 %|
This all results in an ugly swinging strike rate that contributes to all those strikeouts. That aggressive approach is great when he connects, but it also yields a huge amount of whiffs, like this kill-or-be-killed cut against a Zack Greinke changeup.
It’s good then to see that the 2019 version of Domingo appears to be taking a different approach at the plate. He’s made improvements across the board in his contact rates while keeping his actual swing rate mostly intact. So not only is he theoretically putting more balls into play, he’s also not striking out as much. The most encouraging sign is that he’s not swinging at as many pitches outside the zone, but when he does swing he’s making contact at a rate well above league average.
The end result is a career-low 9.2% swinging strike rate, a massive drop off from his 15.8% in 2018 and 13.7% in 2017. This hasn’t yet reflected in his strikeout, which currently stands at 25%. But even that rate would be a career best and could hold even if the swinging strike rate rises. (For reference, the worst K% last year among qualified batters with a <12% SwStr% was Justin Smoak, at 26.3%.)
Swing rates and swinging strike rates are among the fastest statistics to stabilize within a season, given that each at-bat potentially includes multiple data points. Santana has seen 167 pitches so far this season (as of Friday) has already pushed him past the stabilization point for swinging strike rate. While it could certainly move, and I’m willing to bet it goes up some, he’s clearly headed toward the path of putting a lot more balls into play. For a guy with a career BABIP of .360, this is a great thing.
Man on Fire
For a guy with an all-or-nothing approach at the plate, Santana has historically put the ball on the ground a lot. He’s a career 46% ground ball hitter, comparable to peak career Robinson Cano in terms of batted ball profile and distribution. But he’s always been consistent in his home run rates, posting 27.6%, 27.5% and 31% HR/FB from 2015-2017. The outlier was his 2018 season, where he hit just 13% of his fly balls past the fence.
This consistency of HR/FB% is what makes Domingo Santana in 2019 so interesting: He’s actually putting the ball in the air. Better still is that those extra fly balls are occurring at the expense of his grounders, not his line drives. Obviously, more fly balls in this case should yield more long balls for Santana, and keeping his line drive intact should help him maintain his high BABIP. Fly ball and ground ball rates tend to stabilize around at around 80 balls in play, so there’s still a bit of noise to sort out here. Santana very well could end the season with the same grounder rate as always. But his Statcast data shows that there’s likely some regression coming his way in the good sense. Two charts tell the tale:
In the top chart, we can see that Santana’s launch angle has increased for fastballs and offspeed pitches. His SLG on those pitch types for 2019 is .100 and 1.250, respectively. His overall launch angle so far is 19.7, way up from his career of 10.3. I wouldn’t expect a 30-degree launch angle off offspeed pitches all season, but even his batted balls off fastballs are getting hit higher.
The bottom chart shows his average exit velocities for pitch types over time. The big drop in his average exit velocity off fastball is staggering: from 89.4 last season to 77.7 so far in 2019. Short of an injury, there’s no reason to expect that exit velocity to hold over the course of the entire year. Santana slugged .464 off fastballs in his poor 2018; he’s on fire out of the gate so far this year, with the entirety of his production coming off breaking balls and offspeed pitches. There’s some small sample wonkiness going on here for sure, but the great sign is that Santana’s going full John Wick without getting any production from his bread-and-butter.
Putting it all together, Santana’s showing some really positive signs to address the biggest weakness in his game by reducing his strikeout rate. Combine that with a potential increase in launch angle, and there’s every reason to think he can return to his 2017 form. Batting out of the three-hole in the Mariners lineup—behind Mallex Smith and Mitch Haniger, ahead of Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion—should provide plenty of run-production opportunities. I don’t think a 100/30/100 season is too far of a stretch, and with his improvements at the plate I think a .285/.380/.525 triple-slash is very plausible.