Is Carlos Santana Evolving?

As I muddle my way through final exams, Fangraphs is my only escape, my only respite. As always, I am obsessing over Carlos Santana's early season returns and this season, the returns are very

Santana to the leadoff spot has long made sense, his OBP, sneaky good base running, and power fit nicely at the top of the lineup but I did not foresee an offensive evolution of sorts.

In spring training the warning signs were there, as K%(strikeout percentage) stabilizes more quickly than almost any other statistic and Santana posted a K% of just 4%. This should have signaled to us that a hitter with already elite plate discipline was making another improvement but it slid by us.

Carlos Santana Plate Discipline

K% BB% O-Swing% Zone% Zone Contact
League Average 21.40% 8.50% 27.90% 48.50% 85.70%
Career Average 17.90% 15.60% 22.30% 43.50% 86.40%
2016 12.20% 9.80% 15.60% 48.90% 87.90%

There are so many eye-popping changes that it is hard to pick one to focus on but we will start with the surface. Santana has cut his K%  by nearly a third, improving over what was already a better than league average rate.  Even with Santana's BABIP issues, which we will get to later on, this K% cut will improve his batting average. 

The BB% decline is disconcerting, however, we quickly learn that it is not because of an increased chase rate, as Santana's chase percentage(O-Swing%) which was already elite, has been unfathomably good so far. No the BB% decline is partially due to two things: more pitches in the strike zone and an improved rate of contact in the zone. 

I know this is pretty technical stuff but I think the nuts and bolts really build on each other. Perhaps due to hitting in the leadoff spot and pitchers wanting to get ahead or any collection of factors, Santana is seeing the highest percentage of pitches in the zone in his big league career. 

Further, not only is Santana seeing a heightened Zone%, he also is making more frequent contact in the zone than throughout his career, further curbing his BB%. The decreasing walk rate comes with its concerns but it isn't because Santana is chasing more, as shown above, he is chasing less. The decreasing walk rate comes from Santana getting and hitting more strikes. 

So we have one input which affects batting average, K%, where Santana has made a large strides in the early going, are there any other potential gains?

Batted Ball Profile

Pull%  Cent % Oppo%
Career Average 53% 29.60% 17.40%
2016 42.90% 41.30% 15.90%
Santana's contact profile has also been a bit different in the early going, lets talk implications. Santana in his career hitting balls into the shift has hit .239 with a .551 OPS. The shift has been a major reason why Santana's batting average is so low as it significantly suppresses his batting average on balls in play. 

In 2016, Santana has shown a far more even dispersal between pull field and the center of the field, this more equal dispersal and 10% decrease in Pull% should help to improve his BABIP(Batting Average on Balls In Play), and in turn his batting average. A final positive input, Santana's IFFB%(popup %) has also declined significantly though it has not stabilized yet. But popups are similar to strikeouts in their conversion to outs.

Carlos Santana has changed quite a bit this season, he has made a massive gain in K%, improved his contact dispersal and his ISO as well. Obviously we are only at the end of April and the data will change but it appears Santana has evolved. The potential gains are clear, more balls in play + more dispersed contact= batting average gains. This version of Santana is very different than the past and it is quite possible that he shifts back but this data is something we should monitor moving forward.

One thing is certain, no matter which version of Santana we see, either one fits well at the top of the lineup.
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