When the Phillies inked Carlos Santana to a three-year contract worth $60 million last December, one popular line of thinking went like this: Santana is a veteran hitter noted for his plate-discipline and savvy approach. He takes the pitches that he should take and swings at the ones he should swing at. By proxy, his presence will help a talented, but struggling player like Maikel Franco help realize his potential that to this point has been unfulfilled, in part, by failing to do what Santana succeeds at. In essence, an ancillary benefit of Santana’s own production would be that a player like Franco would look more like Santana this season.
To be fair, that is pretty much what has happened through 16 games. Unfortunately for the Phillies, this has not been a positive development. Santana, a hitter with a proven track record of success, is a hot mess right now. He enters tonight’s game hitting a paltry .136 over 59 at-bats this season, which is .111 points below his career average. His .548 OPS is 258 points (holy shit!) below his .806 career average. He’s hitless in his last 14 at bats and is 2-for-26 over his past seven games. He’s been brutal.
Most fans don’t want to hear this, and I get it, but he has run into some bad luck. Hitting the ball hard is, you know, normally a good thing, but it hasn’t worked out for Santana thus far. His 40% hard-hit percentage is actually up from his 33.1% career mark. What’s more, according to Statcast, his 90.67 mph average exit velocity is above the MLB average of 88.89 mph, yet his .125 BABIP is the lowest among any qualified hitter in baseball. I know what you’re thinking. Cool numbers, dude—so what does this mean? Well, here’s what his current season BABIP looks like in relationship to his career and league averages:
When things fall off a cliff like that in a relatively small sample size, it means either the player’s skills have completed eroded, or he’s experiencing a shit ton of bad luck. It’s entirely possible he’s experiencing some regression as he enters his mid-30’s, but I’m willing to wager that what you’re seeing is more a product of the fact that the guy has just gotten boned this season.
Still, it’s an oversimplification to dismiss his struggles as purely a product of misfortune.
His line drive percentage has dropped a bit from 20% to 16% this year, as has his ground ball rate rate (40.8% to 30%), and he’s seen his fly ball rate skyrocket from 39.3% to 54%. That’s a problem when those fly balls do not result in home runs, which they haven’t this season. Historically speaking, his fly balls result in homers about 13% of the time. This season that number has dipped to under 8%. If your eyes have been telling you that he’s seems to have warning track power so far—that’s because he has. Warmer weather will help. It’s worth noting that he was significantly better after the all-star break last season, and I expect Santana’s fly ball metrics to stabilize to career norms, but if they don’t, he’s going to continue to struggle.
I’ve also noticed in recent games that he appears to be offering at more pitches out of the strike zone, which has put pitchers in an advantageous position. As it turns out, the numbers back this up. For years, Santana has excelled at refraining from swinging at balls. His 26.2% out-of-zone swing rate this season is not at Franco levels (33%), but it is the worst of his career, up 4.8 percentage points from last season. Surely, this increase could be attributed to the human element at play. He signed a lucrative contract, has gotten off to a woeful start, and he’s starting to press.
If you think Carlos Santana sucks, that’s completely fair. I get it. He’s been killing the Phillies. And when you pair Santana’s lack of production with the 12-for-62 combined start for Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp, it’s almost incomprehensible that this team is 10-6 right now. It may seem to hard to do as you watch him flail away and wreck Phillies’ scoring opportunities on a nightly basis, but my advice would be to pump the breaks before you give up on him. He’s been a quality hitter for a long time who is going through a rough stretch right now. The smart money says he snaps out of it.