Old friend Carlos Santana, out there in Cleveland last night, just making it happen:
Game-winning grand slam yesterday. Walk-off home run today.
Carlos Santana is on 🔥 pic.twitter.com/cCULLbJFxD
— ESPN (@espn) August 13, 2019
Which begs the question: Where the hell was this at last season?
And in light of John Mallee’s dismissal as the Phillies’ hitting coach and the subsequent hiring of Charlie Manuel to fill that position this morning, here’s another question, which fair or not, will be asked: Did Santana’s resurgence in Cleveland help get Mallee fired?
I mean, Santana hit .229 with a .766 OPS with the Phillies. He’s up to .286 with a .939 OPS and has already surpassed his 24 homers of a season ago with 43 games remaining.
It’s an interesting question and one that can be answered in a variety ways – and yet it’s probably without a single definitive conclusion.
Contextually, here are some ways that Santana’s resurgence can be explained:
- He’s more comfortable now that he’s back in Cleveland where he spent the first eight seasons of his career.
- He’s back in the AL, which is typically thought to be the more offensively advantageous league.
Or, the local fan favorite theory:
- He’s out from the crippling grasp of the Phillies’ offensive teachings (or what was the crippling grasp of the Phillies’ offensive teachings).
First, let’s address what can’t be explained by numbers. Let’s say that Santana is simply more comfortable with the Indians. The conventional wisdom in sports is that increased comfort and confidence will yield better results, so there could be a reasonable correlation made between his improved psyche and uptick in production. That seems like a plausible explanation.
As for the theory that his return to the American League has something to do with his improved performance at the plate, well, that’s somewhat more complicated. Obviously, Santana has more experience and familiarity with AL pitchers, so that, too, could contribute to his comfort, confidence, and production, but the idea that the AL is the far superior offensive circuit is misleading. At least it is this season. Check the numbers:
National League: .253 BA, .323 OBP, .439 SLG, .762 OPS
American League: .253 BA, .323 OBP, .432 SLG, .755 OPS
Same batting average, same on-base percentage, and an ever so slightly better slugging percentage in favor of the AL isn’t enough to simply write off Santana’s marked improvement as a product of his competition.
That brings us to the last explanation – the one we’ve been hearing about for months as the Phillies’ offensive woes continue deep into a disappointing season. And that disappointment needs to be noted here. This Santana discussion wouldn’t be a thing and Mallee would still have a job right now if the Phillies’ lineup – one that was supposed to mash this season – didn’t currently rank 24th in batting average, 23rd in slugging-percentage, and 22nd in OPS. But it does, so here we are.
The completely underwhelming, and frankly, unacceptable performance of this offense has led to many questions about why a young group of hitters who many thought would continue to ascend have either flatlined, or in some cases, regressed.
Naturally, the attention turns to the on-field hitting instruction as well as the principles being instilled throughout the organization. With Mallee now gone, we will see if the Phillies have altered their organizational hitting philosophies at the highest levels, or if Manuel is simply working with the constraints of certain restrictions and guidelines.
At any rate, pair the Phillies’ disappointing offense with Santana’s All-Star bounce-back season, and fans (along with people like myself) have some convenient anecdotal evidence to indict what the Phillies have been teaching – or at least had been teaching.
The term “launch angle” has become sacrilegious in Philadelphia, drawing a physical reaction that rivals the response to “wide-nine,” and Santana’s case doesn’t help.
Let’s set aside his improved statistical output for a moment and focus on the swing that’s producing it.
According to StatCast, Santana averaged a career-high 15.1 degree launch angle that produced an average exit velocity of 88.8 mph. Compare that to this season in which he’s averaging a 10.9 degree launch angle that has produced a career-best average exit velocity of 91.7 mph. That disparity in average launch angle doesn’t just happen by accident, and one could make the argument that it’s not a mere coincidence that Santana is producing a .293 BABIP in 2019, up from a career-worst .231 BABIP last season.
Batting average on balls in play is often a product of luck and can sometimes explain the disparity in a player’s numbers from year-to-year, or why certain guys who are far exceeding expected outcomes, either positively or negatively, are likely to experience some type of regression to the norm. Santana’s increased production this season can be partly explained by his drastically higher BABIP. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak pretty much did exactly that back in late June. Here he is, per this story by NBC Sports Philly’s Corey Seidman:
You know that I really like the player. Carlos Santana’s career has been characterized by high walk rates, more walks than strikeouts and power, and he’s a pretty good defender at first base. That’s exactly what he is this year. His walk rate is about the same as it was last year. His strikeouts are actually up a little bit. And he’s running a BABIP that’s about 75 points higher. What comes with that is additional batting average points and additional slugging percentage points. He’s the same guy. He’s the same guy.
Mind you, Santana’s numbers are different now than they were when Klentak made these comments, but the first few parts remain true. His walk rates are similar, his strikeouts are up a bit, and the BABIP is significantly higher, but to say he’s the same guy is a bit disingenuous because he has changed his swing. Not only is the average launch angle distinctly different, but he’s also pulling the ball about 4% less this season.
Those changes have led to Santana barreling more balls while producing a considerably higher exit velocity and hard-hit percentage. Santana’s expected batting average and expected slugging-percentage are up, too. Sorry, but you can’t just write off all of that due to luck and an increased BABIP because he’s not the same guy.
Based on that information, could one make the argument that what the Phillies did with Santana’s swing was the cause of his struggles here? Absolutely.
Can one look at Rhys Hoskins’ increase in average launch angle from 18.4 degrees in 2017 to 22.4 degrees in 2018 to 24.9 degrees this season and wonder if it correlates with his year-to-year decline in hard-hit percentage, expected batting average, and expected slugging-percentage? In light of a recent 2 for 24 road trip in which he failed to knock in a run, I think that’s fair.
The reason for concern goes far beyond Hoskins, too. Maikel Franco and Nick Williams never developed. Cesar Hernandez’s on-base skills have eroded. Much-hyped newcomers Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura have stagnated.
Is that Mallee’s fault alone? Hell no. But this is a results-oriented business and with Santana’s season serving as an irritating side note as the Phillies continue to careen their way out of contention thanks in part to a consistently listless offense, a change probably had to be made. Usually, the on-field coach is where it starts.
What becomes unclear now is how much of what was happening with the Phillies’ swings are (were) happening at the behest of either Mallee and/or the organization. With him now gone, it’s also unclear if a different voice – a voice with about as much clout as a coach can have in this city – will have a noticeable impact on the Phillies’ moribund lineup. What we do know is that things can’t get much worse.