View from the Porch: Seeking Santana's Power

(Photo: David Richard/USA TODAY Sports)
There seem to be two schools of thought regarding Carlos Santana. The first is that he’s a good hitter because of his elite plate discipline and the presence of power. The other is that he’s a bad hitter because he hits for a low average with a tendency to pull the ball a lot. The former is the right point of view to have, but are his walks and plate discipline too much of a good thing and is it creating a bad thing?

Santana’s elite walk rate this season is coupled with a disturbingly low slugging percentage. Santana is no longer a catcher, where bad offensive numbers are tolerable because the position is not about offense. At first base, Santana needs to produce. Outside of drawing walks, Santana is not producing at all right now and that has become a problem for the Indians offense.

The lineup reconstruction done by Terry Francona should have been done two seasons ago. Jason Kipnis fits the bill as a leadoff hitter with good speed and a much better eye at the plate than he is given credit for. Fully healthy for the first time since early 2013, Kipnis has been raking in the month of May. Does it have anything to do with Santana batting after him? It could, though the idea of lineup protection has been debunked countless times in the past.

In looking at Santana for this season, the walk rate is unquestionably elite and is unquestionably a skill. It’s a skill that every lineup needs and it is an excellent skill for a two-hole hitter to have. The thing about Santana this season, unlike in past seasons, is that the walk rate is not accompanied by the power that we are used to seeing. Entering play on Friday, Santana had a .368 slugging percentage, which is 70 points below his career average.

Where has the power gone? Well, there are a few possible explanations, most of them related to which pitches Santana is, in fact, swinging at. (Keep in mind that all images are from the catcher’s perspective.)

Here’s an overall look of Santana’s swing percentages from both sides of the plate:

The red boxes in the strike zone are good. Santana is swinging mostly at pitches in the strike zone. These are pitches that hitters can do damage with.

Here’s a look at Santana’s swing percentages as a right-handed batter:

Pretty spread out. We can assume by the low chase rate below the zone that Santana’s pitch recognition skills are outstanding because most pitches that dip below the zone are going to be breaking balls. There are also some concerns, that are more evident from the left side of the plate.

Here’s Santana’s swing percentages as a left-handed batter:

Once again, we see great plate discipline and pitch recognition skills from Santana. The reddest of the boxes are inside the zone. There’s something else that we notice as well. Santana is far more likely to swing at pitchers on the outer portion chart. He very rarely swings at pitches inside off the plate.

This is where the eye test, as much as some students of saber hate it, comes into play. How many times have we seen Santana bail out on pitches on the inner half as a left-handed hitter lately? I don’t know the exact count, but the frequency seems to be increasing. They're getting called strikes and he's allowing pitchers to come back in there.

Major League pitchers are good. Carlos Santana is a good hitter. Facing Santana is tiring for a pitcher because he makes them worse. But, it seems that pitchers may have started to adjust a little bit. Here’s a look at Santana’s slugging percentage as a left-handed batter:

Are you noticing the same thing that I am? Santana is not doing a whole lot of damage on the inner half. Sure, there’s a small sample size of pitches in there, but the down and in area tends to be a hot zone for left-handed batters. Santana likes to be selective, but he also has very good bat speed to get around on the inner half. So far this season, we’re not seeing much of that.

It’s not for a lack of contact on the inner half. Here’s Santana’s swing-and-miss rate as a left-handed hitter:

That's not a lot of whiffs. Is this a case of batted ball luck? The shift? It’s a little bit of everything, though it's nearly impossible to blame the shift for a lack of power. Santana is fouling back pitches on the inner half, probably because he’s always looking out over the plate since that’s where pitchers will pitch to him so he doesn’t hurt them with a long ball.

It certainly doesn’t help that Santana’s SLG when batting right-handed this season is just .273, over 180 points lower than his career average. It’s not from lack of contact:

Even looking at his SLG against left-handed pitching, Santana’s power has come on pitches on the outside part of the part:

What is the solution? Santana is swinging less than he ever has (34.7 percent) and is also chasing less than ever before (16.2 percent). He’s posting the lowest swinging strike rate (4.4 percent) of his career. Normally that level of selectivity and contact would lead to better offensive results. His BABIP is suffering once again at .258, but that doesn’t explain the power outage.

Is this something we should just chalk up to variance? Santana had a .154/.320/.294 SLG through May 16 last season. He still finished with a .427 SLG, which was a few ticks below his career average. Do we want Santana to be more aggressive at the plate, even though he has been elevated to the two-hole? Conventional logic and wisdom would dictate that a player no longer sitting in the crouch 130 times per season should see an increase in power production, especially throughout the season. That was the expectation from Santana this season. Instead, he has seven extra-base hits through 33 games entering play on Friday.

Those that complain about Santana being a “dead pull hitter” should know that he has lowered his pull percentage by over 12 percent this season. Ten percent of that decrease has gone to hitting the ball up the middle per Fangraphs’s batted ball data. That will naturally lead to a power decrease because it’s harder to hit balls for home runs to the deeper part of the ballpark. Santana is currently looking at the second-lowest home run per fly ball rate of his career.

Maybe we don’t want Santana to “use the whole field”. Maybe we want Santana to simply do what works for him and start appreciating him for the hitter that he is. He has elite plate discipline, elite pitch recognition skills, and is simply experiencing a power drought ruled by variance and an inability to drive pitches on the inner half because he’s not looking for them.

In 2014, looking solely at the two innermost columns against right-handed pitching, Santana was pitched inside 28 percent of the time. In 2015, Santana has been pitched inside 33 percent of time.

In 2014, looking solely at the two innermost columns against left-handed pitching, Santana was pitched inside 37.6 percent of the time. In 2015, Santana has been pitched inside 39.7 percent of the time.

Pitchers have adjusted. It’s time for Santana to do the same. In spite of the power outage, Santana is still one of the game’s most productive hitters at the one thing that matters – not making outs. It is incredible to see a hitter that has batted .232 and still manages to reach base 37 percent of the time with an OPS+ of 124.

It’s reasonable to think that we are on the verge of seeing Carlos Santana break out in a big way from a power standpoint. To date, the Indians have played 23 of their 33 games against the teams and opposing pitchers that know Santana the best. Only 13 of the team’s next 61 games are against AL Central competition.

It’s unfathomable that there are people out there that think Santana is not a good hitter. His current 20 percent walk rate would rank tied for 70th out of 11,091 qualified player seasons in the last 100 years. The ultimate goal of being a hitter isn’t driving in runs. It’s not making outs in order to create runs. A hitter does his job if he gets on base (productive outs (ugh) aside). Santana is one of the best in baseball at doing that. Add in a power bump that should come in the near future and the Indians lineup is going to see a big surge in production that could help offset some of the more glaring problems.
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