You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you who the best hitter in the American League has been so far this year. 1
(Oh. You should probably read the last footnote if you care about how we’re defining “best hitter”.)
Anyway, the best hitter in the American League so far this season has been Miguel Cabrera, and if that surprises you then you should come over here so I can hit you in the nose with my ballpeen hammer. For the last decade, Cabrera has enjoyed a sustained and consistent excellence that has only been bested in my lifetime by Albert Pujols’ reign in St. Louis and the late-stage Barry Bonds. 2
Have a look at this table, just for fun:
That’s just other-worldly dominance, by all three guys. Let’s just admire that for a second.
Wait. What is this post about? Where am I?
Oh, right: Indians and web-logging and whatnot.
Do you know who the second best hitter in the American League has been this year? I’m guessing you read the title, so you prolly do. It’s Carlos Santana.
Adjusted for park and league, Santana has been a better hitter than Mark Reynolds and his league-leading 11 HRs and better than James Loney’s absurd .379 batting average and better even (ever-so-slightly better) than Chris Davis and his ridiculous .659 slugging percentage. Carlos has been that good so far this year.
Let’s take a look at Santana’s career year by year, to see what’s going on.
By the time Carlos reached the majors in the second half of 2010, he was a well-known offensive force, notorious throughout the International League for his combination of patience and power. And upon his promotion, Santana looked every bit like the real thing, walking in nearly 20% of his plate appearances with an isolated power (ISO-subtract batting average from slugging percentage) above .200, well above average.
In his first full season in 2011, his approach took some slight steps backwards, as his walk-rate dropped and his strikeouts climbed. Luckily, his power made up for most of the difference, as he swatted 27 home runs and kept that ISO north of .200.
In 2012, he managed to reduce his strikeouts, but with them went the power. Through the end of July, Carlos had a Marson-esque .234 batting average, a .388 slugging percentage, and a paltry .154 ISO with only nine home runs. It was only a late-season surge that kept his numbers from the truly abysmal, but even with that his power still looked sapped.
So what’s different this year? Not all that much, actually. His walk-rate (15.5%) is a bit higher than 2011-2012, but not in any outstanding regard—Carlos has always been and probably will always be an excellent master of the strikezone. His strikeout rate is actually creeping back up to his 2011 levels, but we should know that high strikeout numbers aren’t really all that bad if they come with power, and Carlos has certainly seen a resurgence of that this season. His .269 ISO is good for fifth in the AL, behind Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, Jose Bautista and Mitch Moreland (?). His line drives are right in line with his career average, hovering in the 18% to 20% range.
I know that BABiP column looks a bit scary: for a guy who’s only seen about 27% of his career batted balls fall in for hits, why should it suddenly jump to 37%? Isn’t this one of those fluky, Tomlin-esque flights that will slowly regress back to his non-excellent mean?
Well, yeah, it could. But I’ve argued that over Santana’s career he’s been exceptionally unlucky in regards to his batting average on balls in play. Using this xBABiP calculator, I entered Santana’s career averages and it spit out an expected BABiP of .300 for Carlos, a far cry from .365, sure, but also a lot better than his .260s and .270s he’s labored through for the first three years of his career.
Carlos probably isn’t going to keep up this torrid pace: he’s yet to hit an infield pop-up this season, and nearly 12% of his groundballs are ending in infield hits—neither of those will last to June. Let’s be sure not confuse him with those three guys I talked about up above.
But he is finally getting some luck to roll his way, after so many years of the opposite. And this is what he can look like with a little luck and continued development. He’s a patient, powerful hitter who can be among the best in the game for a non-insignificant stretch of the season, and we have him locked down in Cleveland on a team-friendly contract through at least the 2017 season. 3 You can dream on the kind of late-20s prime Carlos Santana is going to have in an Indians uniform.
In some ways, it’s a shame that his dominance over these first eight-weeks has been buried by the great start of Mark Reynolds and the consistent contributions of Nick Swisher. It would be easy for Tribe fans to miss what Carlos has been doing, simply because his teammates have been—if not as good—then at least as exciting.
But of course, it’s not a shame at all. This offense has been the best in baseball this season. And after five years of Orly Cabreras and Zeke Carreras and Chris Gimenezes, I’ll take that any day.
- We’re going to define “best hitter” using a stat called Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). Basically, we’re park- and league-adjusting a player’s value, using linear weights. If you like wOBA (and if you don’t you’re a communist), then you should love wRC+. [↩]
- I know and you know that Barry Bonds took great big barrels full of steroids. But let’s go way back in time here. Let’s go all the way back to 1992, back when Barry Bonds looked more like Sammy Davis Jr. rather than Dwayne Johnson. From 1992 to the end of his career, guess how many times Barry Bonds had an OPS below 1.000. Go on, guess.
Once, in 2006, when it was .999. One year out of 16, and it was still excellent. A .999 OPS would currently be good for 10th place in all of baseball—and that’s the worst year of Bond’s 16-year stretch. That guy was freaking amazing. [↩]
- Carlos Santana will make less over the life of his five-year contract than ($21 million) than Joe Mauer will make in every year of his deal until 2018 ($23 million per year). [↩]