SABR-Toothed Triber: Translating the Carlos Santana Situation

Jon Steiner is back once again, this time to dissect everyone’s favorite prospect.  What can we expect from the slugger upon call-up?  Let’s take a look…

The first time I saw Carlos Santana swing a bat was in March 2009 during a spring training game.  I’d just gotten home from work, flipped on STO, and there he was.  The first thing that went through my mind?

Victor looks big.

Obviously, it wasn’t Victor, and as I realized I was watching our newly acquired young catcher, I became obsessed: the kid looked like V-Mart alright, but WOW!  His swing looked more powerful!  How was this possible from a 22-year-old kid?

Since then, I’ve been waiting patiently like the rest of Cleveland for Santana’s arrival.  We’ve heard from Mark Shapiro for years that his bat is ready for the Majors, but he needs some time to work on his English and refine his receiving skills.  I thought today we’d take a look to see just how ready his bat might be, and what, if anything, his minor league numbers can tell us.

To do this, we’re going to use with something called Minor League Equivalency, or MLE for short.  Here’s the gist:

[MLE] uses a minor league player’s… statistics and translates them into… [a]  major league batting line.  How do they do that? […] MLEs adjust a player’s batting line based upon park and league effects.  Certain leagues and ballparks are known to inflate offensive numbers while others suppress them, so MLEs take all of these effects into account and translate a player’s statistics by accounting for how strong their [sic] league is in comparison with others.

In other words, we’re going to look at Santana’s minor league performance, and translate it into the AL central.  A caveat before we begin: MLEs are neither projections nor predictions.  Players get better as they develop, so when you see Santana’s single-A statistics translated into the Majors, it won’t be pretty.  That doesn’t mean that he won’t be a good major leaguer; rather it means that if he had been called up when he was 19, he would have been overmatched.  Sounds obvious, but I want to be clear.  And for this reason, we would be wise to look more toward his performance in the higher leagues if we want to think in terms of projecting his MLB performance.

With that out of the way, we’re off.  Here are Santana’s minor league numbers as of this past weekend (I’m leaving out his 2005 and 2006 stints in Dodgers rookie ball):

2006Vero Beach (A+)22331823430.2680.3450.384
2007Great Lakes (A)33473640450.2230.3170.370
2008Inland Empire (A+)434149669590.3230.4290.563
Kinston (A+)12661920240.3520.4520.590
Akron (AA)812020.1250.1250.500
2009Akron (AA)535239790830.2900.4130.530
2010Columbus (AAA)3549620.4140.5140.897

Before translating his numbers to the majors, let’s pause here for a just bit and consider his development arc.  I’ll admit, I was surprised to see rather pedestrian numbers from Santana in 2006 and 2007.  He didn’t show much power (ISOs right around .100) and his on-base ability was barely average (.345 and .317, respectively).  Furthermore, he was playing 3B and OF.  All said, he was a fairly unspectacular minor leaguer.

Then came 2008.  Santana exploded in the California League with a .323/.429/.563 clip where 52 of his 113 hits went for extra bases.  Oh yeah.  And he started catching.  All of a sudden, Santana was one of the hotter prospects in baseball.  I still can’t believe we got him for three months of Casey Blake.  An absolute steal.

The trick would be whether Santana’s numbers would translate out of the California League, where offensive numbers are often inflated.  After he was traded to the Indians, he joined the high-A Kinston team in the Carolina League.  In his few months there, he played even better than before.  Santana’s 2008 season line finished at .326/.431/.568 with 21 HR.  Just for comparison’s sake, Victor’s age 22 season was spent entirely with Kinston, where he posted a .329/.394/.488 line with 10 HR.  Just sayin’.

Santana’s performance in Akron last year was similarly terrific: he was the best player on the league’s best team.  Yes, his average dropped below .300, but he kept his on-base percentage above .400 for the second consecutive year and slugged an astonishing .530.  And so far this season?  He’s tearing up the International League to a .414/.514/.897 line, while wearing Victor’s #41.

So let’s put his numbers into the MLE calculator to see what we see.  Here are Santana’s minor league numbers, translated to Cleveland*:

2006Vero Beach (A+)20621115480.2060.2640.288
2007Great Lakes (A)31142122530.1570.2130.245
2008Inland Empire (A+)38285839690.2190.2950.352
Kinston (A+)11241213270.2700.3450.422
Akron (AA)811020.1040.1040.369
2009Akron (AA)456166964910.2250.3280.395
2010Columbus (AAA)3037520.3640.4500.750

*For updated numbers, try this site; just type in Santana’s name in the search field. 

Obviously, Santana’s MLEs are considerably lower than his actual numbers.  That should make sense: the Majors have the best pitchers (especially the AL), so a player can’t expect to hit as well against them.  Furthermore, fewer runs are scored per game in the Majors compared to most minor leagues due to the variances in both pitching talent and ballpark dimensions.

But two things really jump out to me here.  First, take a look at 2008.  Like I said above, the California League inflates offensive statistics relative to other leagues.  So compare his MLEs with Kinston to those with the Inland Empire.  In the California League his numbers translated to a .219/.295/.352 line in the Majors, but after moving to Kinston his MLEs jumped to .270/.345/.422.  Basically, that’s like developing from Yuni Betancourt to Grady Sizemore in the course of one season.

In other words, Santana got A LOT better after the Indians acquired him.  Say what you will about Mark Shapiro’s drafting record, but he can steal talent in trades.  Just ask Ben Broussard, who’s currently pursuing a music career while his trade partner Shin-Soo Choo is playing like the AL MVP.

The other general point of interest is just how much better major leaguers are than minor leaguers.  I can’t speak to all the sausage-making details of the MLE calculator, but I was shocked to see Santana’s MVP 2009 campaign in the International League translated into a .225/.328/.395 line in the AL Central.  Whether or not you believe the calculator is up to you, but for me it was a stark reminder that not all successful minor leaguers turn in successful major leaguers.  (Another stark reminder?  Jeremy Sowers has a career 2.60 ERA in triple-A; in the Majors, it’s a 5.18 ERA.)

Obviously, Santana’s numbers in 2010 so far are phenomenal.  According to the MLE calculator, he’d currently have an OPS of 1.200 with a .364 batting average in Cleveland’s lineup.  Obviously we’re dealing with a particularly small sample size—only 35 plate appearances as of this analysis—but it’s clear he would be performing at Chooian levels were he with the big club this year.

So why isn’t he here yet—especially with the early season struggles of Sweet Lou Marson?

Well, let me count the ways.

For one, the Indians really are concerned about Santana’s development.  There remain some questions about both his communication skills (i.e. speaking English) and his game-calling.  Further, while his defense grades out fine overall—he’s got a cannon for an arm—Sandy Alomar suggested in Goodyear that his footwork and blocking skills could both use some additional work.  But still, it’s not like Marson is any great shakes behind the plate, so there must be more to the story.

Well (and this is where the speculation on my part begins), I would guess that Marson’s situation plays a significant role in keeping Santana in Columbus for the next few months.  Before coming over in the Cliff Lee trade, Marson was a high-end prospect in the Phillies’ organization—ranked #3 in their system by Baseball America in 2009, behind only Carrasco and Dominic Brown.  So even though there has never been any doubt that he’d eventually lose out to Santana in Cleveland, there is probably some desire on the part of the Indians’ front office to allow Marson a chance to prove his value, if only for the purposes of a future trade.  That means Shapanetti will likely give Marson until mid-season to accrue some major league service time and hopefully improve his standing as an MLB catcher.

Unforturnately for us, the only skill Marson has consistently displayed throughout the minors is controlling the strikezone: he has a career .386 OBP in the minors but only a .274 batting average.  So unless you get really excited about your catcher taking a lot of pitches, you’re probably not going to be enjoying Sweet Lou for the next few months.

But there’s one additional reason you haven’t yet seen Santana on the North Shore: service time.  According to Tony Lastoria on last week’s Smoke Signals, the Indians would have to be “absolutely IN-SANE” to keep Santana in Columbus at all this year if the big league club were hoping to compete.  But in a rebuilding/reloading year, it might be worth managing his service time a bit, since once Santana comes up, it’s unlikely he’ll ever be sent down again.  Keeping him down until mid-June virtually guarantees an extra year of club control, which we all know can be a valuable thing for a small-market club.

So let the office-pool begin.  When do you brilliant readers think Santana will join the big league club?  May 1st?  Mid-June?  After a July trade of Sweet Lou?  Not until September callups?  Whatcha got?

Personally, I’m taking June 7th, if only for sentimental reasons.  Boston will be in town that night to open a three game set, and I can’t think of a more apt time for Santana’s call to the Bigs: he’d be squaring off with his idol, Victor Martinez—a bright future against the background of Victor’s storied past.  And I guarantee you the whole stadium would be cheering for #41.

See you next time!

-Jon Steiner

(Image via WFNY/DP)

  • LaundroMat

    I thought Valbuena had the “Sweet” nickname…

  • MrCleaveland

    That Santana looks like a stud.

  • Tommy

    What is the possibility of Marson’s return to Columbus after the eventual call up of Santana? Does he have options left? It seems like Redmond would stay in his backup role, probably catching Carmona and Huff, depending on how those pitchers continue to develop the rest of the year. I would think Redmond would be able to help Santana with his game calling skills along with Sandy too.

    So would Marson be able to catch everyday at Columbus to recapture some of his prospect value for potential trade? or maybe we see Marson as our backup catcher in 2011 and beyond

  • Jon Steiner

    I’m pretty sure Marson has two option years left, so he can definitely be optioned this season if/when the Indians decide to. If they can’t get a decent trade for him, I imagine that’s where he’s heading. I think you’re right on about Redmond: he’s valuable as a mentor to the younger kids, he’s relatively cheap, and he obviously can’t be optioned. He’ll be here all year so long as he’s not injured.

    I could see Marson as a backup to Santana in 2011, but I could just as easily see Toregas in that role if we can flip Marson for any value. Either way, Marson has to do something positive, whether in the majors or minors, to prove himself worthy of an MLB roster in the future. He’s only 23, so he’s got some time, but he’s off to an inauspicious beginning.

    Another question came up, that I might as well answer now. Someone wanted to know whether the team would benefit in regards to service time by keeping Santana down for the entire year rather than just part of it. The short answer is no, there is no benefit to keeping him down past June from the service time perspective. Once he comes up, he probably won’t ever be sent back down, so you need to keep him down until June to make sure he stays below the 172 days of service that would constitute a year. But you’re pretty sure that he’ll be a free agent after the 2016 season by keeping him down til June. Longer than that won’t buy an extra year (unless we do it again next year).

    Super-two status might come into Santana’s situation at some point, and feel free to ask questions on that if you’re interested. But even if Santana qualifies as a Super 2 (which we won’t know for a long time), we’ll still have club control over him for six years, it’s just that four of those years would be arbitration years rather than only three for non-Super 2 players.

    And Laundromat, anyone with the first name Lou, Louis, Loubadiah, or LuLu can be called “sweet.” I think it’s a fairly accepted law of nomenclatures.