Carlos Santana and George Springer Could Enter an Exclusive Club in 2017
Hitting at the top of the order isn't like it used to be.
In the past, the top two spots were usually reserved for scrappy hitters who didn't do much well other than get on base at a decent clip and have enough speed to steal bases. Their sole job was to reach base so the big boppers could drive them in.
Well, times have certainly changed, my friends. That can be evidenced by taking a gander at any number of lineups on a given night, but two of the more interesting cases are Carlos Santana with the Cleveland Indians and George Springer with the Houston Astros.
Both are hitting leadoff for their respective squads, and it looks like they could be on the brink of huge performances. And, sure, the 2017 regular season isn't even a week old yet, but we could've seen this coming when their managers pushed them up into the leadoff role at different points in 2016.
Santana and Springer have each hit out of the leadoff spot exclusively to start this season, and while they're both off to solid starts, let's focus on what they did last year to get some perspective on their production.
Santana had found a home in the leadoff spot for just 15 plate appearances over a span of six years before spending 395 plate appearances there last year. Here's how he performed in the two lineup spots he occupied the most in 2016. We're specifically looking at his OPS, walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), runs scored, Isolated Power (ISO) and wRC+.
The powerful switch-hitter had one of his best overall years as a big leaguer, so his numbers look solid across the board, but he really took off as the leadoff hitter. If sustained for a full year, the OPS, ISO and wRC+ he produced at the top of the order would've all been career highs.
Meanwhile, it's not as easy to see a lift in Springer's production in the same areas when looking at the spots he spent the most time hitting in.
Despite the sample sizes being uneven, there was basically no difference in Springer's production in either of these two spots. So, why is this significant? Well, because we also need to factor in how the team was able to benefit from it.
At the end of the day, the most important part of Santana and Springer hitting leadoff for their respective squads is focused on winning games. We can't really draw conclusions just yet from this year, but the fast starts from Cleveland and Houston paired with how they did last year tells us a lot.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona mixed and matched a few different hitters up at the top of his order. When Santana wasn't the leadoff hitter, the Indians posted a 41-36 record in 2016. That's good, but not nearly as good as the 53-31 record they posted with their slugger setting the tone.
As for the Astros, it was a pretty clear divide. Entering action on May 24th last year, they were one of baseball's most disappointing teams, sporting a 17-28 record. To that point, Springer hit leadoff just once. But from that night through the end of the season, he hit leadoff in every game except two, and Houston finished 67-50 (67-48 with Springer at the top).
So, if it ain't broke, there's no reason to fix it. With potentially a full year of hitting leadoff ahead of them in 2017, they may each continue progressing thanks to the hitters behind them.
When we talk about success for a player -- whether we look at it from a real life point of view of fantasy baseball point of view -- it normally begins with being in the best spot to succeed and consistently having the opportunity to do so. Both Santana and Springer are getting those things on a nightly basis.
Since they're hitting leadoff, no other player in the lineup will receive more plate appearances than them. So, right there, they're already getting plenty of opportunity to do as much as they can at the plate on any given night.
And when they reach base -- which, as the stats show us, is rather frequently -- the hitters who follow possess the ability to send them running around the bases. With regard to team wRC+, Cleveland (102) and Houston (99) were among the 10 best offenses in baseball last year, and they both got deeper over the offseason. The Indians replaced Mike Napoli with Edwin Encarnacion and have a healthy Michael Brantley back, while the Astros added Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick, among others.
So, when they're not doing the damage themselves, they'll still be a beneficiary if they're on base when someone else does.
Entry Into an Exclusive Club?
The 30-homer, 100-RBI club is one any hitter would love to be a part of, and there have been 84 such performances since the 2010 season. What's a little more exclusive, though? The 30-100-100 club, which would be slugging at least 30 homers, driving in 100-plus runs and scoring 100 or more. That's happened only 32 times since 2010 and just four times last year.
Santana and Springer were almost a part of last year's group, which included Kris Bryant, Robinson Cano, Mookie Betts and Nolan Arenado. In 688 plate appearances, Santana established new career highs in homers (34), RBI (87) and runs scored (89). Springer also set new personal bests 744 plate appearances, slugging 29 homers with 82 RBI and 116 runs scored.
Given their past production, equally fast starts and current situations, entering this club is a real possibility in 2017. It would be more unique for them to do it than any of the other 32 instances from this decade because none have come from a player who primarily hit leadoff.
The game has changed a lot in a short period of time thanks to advanced analytics, and while we don't necessarily need Carlos Santana or George Springer to produce like this to finally tear down the old stereotype of a "normal" leadoff hitter, it'd still be pretty cool to see it happen.