Welcome Back, Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana had a surprising cold start to 2014, but he looked red-hot in June. Is there an underlying cause?

After a three-year trend of increased batting averages and an expectation of more power, Carlos Santana just didn’t hit. In 220 plate appearances before hitting the DL with a concussion this season, Santana compiled a lowly .628 OPS. Weighted Runs Created Plus, or wRC+, which measures offensive value and adjusts for park and league, estimated that Santana was 11% worse than the average major league hitter. For some context, he was at least 21% above average in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

If you’re expecting me to explain the root cause of Santana’s issues at the dish this season, I'm sorry. The truth is that Santana has not admitted playing through a nagging injury or changing his swing, and all we can do is speculate at this point. But looking at the data, it's clear that there was an underlying issue.

April and May, Not So Smooth

Below, I have listed Santana's production versus certain pitch types using linear pitch weights, or runs above average per 100 pitches, so that we can directly compare the data from the first two months of this season with his career numbers without too much worry about sample size. In the table, FB=fastball, SL=slider, CT=cutter, CB=curveball, CH=changeup, SF=splitter, and KN=knuckleball.

April and May 2014-0.16-2.93-1.971.61-0.320.57-3.38

It's time for a baseball cliché. If you can't hit the fastball, you can't hit. Previously, Santana made his living off mashing fastballs, but he hadn't been doing so in April and May of 2014. As the table shows, he has only hit above his career marks against curveballs and split-fingered pitches. His contact rate slipped, which led to an uptick in strikeout rate to 20.9%.

Unfortunately for Santana, he couldn't make the most out of the balls he managed to put in play. His 11.6% line-drive rate fell way below his career 18.8% mark, and most of the missing line drives were reincarnated as ground balls. This conflicts with a general argument about low BABIP and bad luck. His .177 BABIP in the first two months was terrible by all means, but line drives tend to go for the most hits of any ball in play, and Santana just wasn't hitting as many as he usually did. If the batted ball distribution changed as such, comparing BABIP from different years is misleading and unproductive. In this case, we can conclude that Santana was getting a bit unlucky, but the low BABIP was more a result of poor hitting by Santana.

Heating Up in June

It feels weird to say this, but the concussion Santana sustained in late May could have indirectly helped him. Check out the same table but with June stats added.

April and May 2014 -0.16-2.93-1.971.61-0.320.57-3.38
June 20143.692.69-1.320.851.49-2.94

Santana is a career .239 first-half hitter, and switching to third base might have sapped some spring training batting practice. After his June 6th return, Santana was significantly better against fastballs, sliders, and changeups in June than he was prior to his DL stint. Santana must have been feeling it at the plate, and became more aggressive, as he increased his Z-Swing (rate of swinging at pitches inside the zone) by 4.7%. As a result, he was one of baseball's hottest players after returning from the DL on June 6th. As the BABIP pendulum shifted over to .383, he put up a .455 wOBA and 198 wRC+ (98% above average!) with great thanks to a 26.4% line drive rate.

Our Metrics

Thanks to his impressive June, Santana rebounded his overall nERD statistic, which measures offensive efficiency in terms of runs above average, and Santana currently sits at 0.90, which ranks him 94th among hitters. Our fantasy numbers have Santana as the 145th most valuable player in fantasy, so we know that his one hot month didn't completely outweigh the two poor ones. However, we project Santana to be the third-best catcher and 55th-most valuable player in fantasy for the rest of the season, so fantasy owners should feel comfortable buying.

In case you're wondering, Santana played 17 games at first base and 4 at DH in June. In April and May, he played 4 games at first, 11 at DH, and the remaining at third base or catcher. I'm not sure I buy in to the idea that a player's defensive position has a direct impact on hitting, but I'm glad he's playing first (.475 wOBA) and not third (.275 wOBA).