April 21, 2014

In defense of the under-appreciated Carlos Santana

carlos santana celebrationIn a season that largely has been better than expected, it’s hard to tell that based only on the vitriolic commentary about the Cleveland Indians.

Yes, of late, among the variety of possible scapegoats, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has been the most prominent and deserving punching bag. The 27-year-old former All-Star has been all over the place this season and is mired in a rough six-week slump.

While now-released Mark Reynolds and closer Chris Perez also have taken turns as the enemies in the fans’ eyes, the criticisms of one player just don’t sit well with me.

This fellow 27-year-old has never been an All-Star, but deservingly could have been one over the past few years. He’s also having his best offensive full-season in the major leagues, as demonstrated by his 29 doubles, 60 walks, career-high batting average and 129 OPS+.

This player is, yes, the defensive albatross of Carlos Santana. And for all his misgivings, he’s still a very valuable player and highly undervalued in Cleveland.

Back on July 27 (here and here), I was already pretty tired of the fans’ hatred of Santana – even from my family members. Thus, I started re-sharing some comparisons to a player who my colleague Jon once accurately described as currently an “average left fielder,” Michael Brantley.

Brantley is a full year younger than Santana, so he likely does still have more potential in terms of growing as a player. Both players are 100% under guaranteed Indians control through the 2016 season.

But these two players receive – in general – starkly opposite reactions from the Cleveland fan base. While Santana is seen as a major liability with his defense who has failed to live up to some unwieldy offensive and slugging expectations, Brantley is “Dr. Smooth” and a natural cog for any team.

So what do the numbers say about a comparison between these two? Per Baseball-Reference, this again shows the unseen value of Santana.

brantley santana stats since 2010_CROP

In terms of non-statistical analysis, it’s notable that Brantley made his debut back in 2009, at just 22 years old. Santana starred for the Indians during his brief rookie season in 2010.

The categories might be a bit complex at first for the uninitiated, so here’s a quick key. These all are related formulas that aim to estimate value added to the team:
Rbat – Runs from batting better or worse than average
Rbaser – Runs from baserunning better or worse than average
Rdp – Runs from avoiding double plays better or worse than average
Rfield – Runs from all fielding better or worse than average
Rpos – Runs from positional scarcity better or worse than average
RAA – Total runs above average (sum of previous five columns)
Rrep – Replacement level adjustment, per playing time
RAR – Total runs above replacement (sum of previous two columns)
WAR – Total wins above replacement (approximately, RAR/10)

Let me now share some observations from this chart:

Starting with the guy who is not the focus of this article: Michael Brantley is perfectly average. Yes, over the past two seasons he has been 18 Runs Above Average – nearly 2 wins better. And, as I said before, he is a year younger than Santana and could conceivably still improve. But considering Brantley now plays at left field with little power and as not a great on-base guy, this contract extension talk is a bit baffling. Even FanGraphs agrees.

On the other hand, Carlos Santana is not merely average. He has been 48 Runs Above Average in these four seasons, including 18 last year alone, equaling Brantley’s (far improved) totals from the past two seasons. Santana provides slightly negative value with his baserunning and double play avoidance, but that marks a difference of only about 1 win compared to Brantley.

The biggest reason for Santana’s far-better advanced statistics: His hitting. It seems so ordinary, but yes, Santana is a far better offensive producer than Brantley. With his bat alone, Santana has produced 6 wins more than the average player over these four seasons. His Batting Runs pace in 2013 (18 in 113 games) is by far his best for a full-time season. In fact, according to some research last night, Santana’s 127 career OPS+ ranks sixth-best all-time among catchers with 1,500 plate appearances. That’s extraordinary.

The place where Santana receives the most criticism is with his defense. Catcher defensive statistics are still very raw, as Jon and others have shared. There is no real knowing how accurate these numbers are. Many teams likely have more advanced proprietary statistics, but there’s a reason why those are secretive and us lay fans are left with free sites like Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

That being said, Santana’s defense was rated as fairly average over the previous three seasons. During that span, he was just 4 runs below average in terms of all aspects of fielding, a perfectly negligible number, especially with his advanced batting abilities. This season, he’s perhaps easily the worst defensive catcher in the game at 14 runs below average. Near-historic wild pitches have been an issue. Rookie Yan Gomes is out-playing him defensively in many fashions.

While many want to say that stats don’t explain the true value of Michael Brantley, it’s then conversely factual that the naked eye doesn’t tell the true value of Carlos Santana. The ways in which the player acquired for Casey Blake in July 2008 is extraordinary aren’t really the sexiest aspects of baseball.

Let’s take a look back at his career statistics, especially his rates per plate appearances of various outcomes (click the image to expand it and get a better view):

carlos santana career stats-page-001 (1)

The two minor league seasons where he had the largest sample sizes were in 2008 and 2009. The latter season, I was the media relations intern for the Akron Aeros when Santana played 130 out of 142 games and won the Eastern League Most Valuable Player award.

From that season, I gained an up-close appreciation for Santana’s noted consistency and his remarkable patience at the plate. As a minor leaguer, he singled in 15.7% of his at-bats and walked in 13.4%. Just from those two possible outcomes – out of all of the things that could happen in the world – Santana’s on-base percentage was already over .290. He finished his MiLB career in 1,683 plate appearances with a spectacular .401 on-base percentage.

What’s noteworthy is that Santana wasn’t a major slugger in the minors. He had a .210 iso rate (SLG – AVG), which was more because of his solid doubles numbers (69 in 2008 and 2009) than anything. At best, as a major league player, Santana was projected to hit homers in the 20-25 range or so each season. That was never his strength. Yet he was still an incredibly rare offensive talent.

That talent and projectability shines through to his major league production. He walks a bit less, strikes out a bit more and overall isn’t as dominant – as expected against far better pitching. But the ratios are all fairly similar. His on-base percentage at .363 is stellar, ranking 33rd in baseball (min. 1,000 PAs) since 2010. He slugged 27 dingers in 2011, but he has exactly just one more homer and one more double in the majors than in the minors.

All this goes to say that Carlos Santana as a 27-year-old MLB starter is much what we thought he would be as a 23-year-old Double-A MVP. He’s not a perfect player. He was old for his various minor league levels. But his offensive skills shine through as one of the best in baseball.

Long-term, there will need to be a conversation about Santana’s defensive position. Gomes clearly has had a breakout season – despite never really being a prospect – and has deserved more playing time. Undoubtedly, when Santana moves to first base more often, he will take an added penalty for his overall value based on Rpos, the relative positional scarcity above or below average.

While many think Santana has regressed overall as a player, there just flat-out wrong. His offensive numbers continue to shine and with the advanced specialization of bullpens and more, his consistent production is far more impressive compared to league norms. There’s no reason for him to be in the same conversation of the Cabreras or Reynolds or Brantleys, since his offense and overall value is simply still so darn good.

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

  • nj0

    The Captain Morgan Rum Pirate?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    who?

  • nj0
  • nj0

    You’d still be handing out drinks….

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    That is one of your alcoholic beverages that so many of you humans partake in. On my planet we treat our shells with more respect for they are our temples!

  • Brendan B.

    Maybe it’s that some people don’t realize that catchers aren’t supposed to hit like this. It’s such a rare species. He’s also been incredibly durable since that horrible knee injury. Hopefully the defensive stuff is just a fluky (sp?) bad year. Awesome stuff, Jacob.

  • Steve

    Actually Catchers usual slide BEFORE 28.

    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=20596

  • WFNYJacob

    Thanks Brendan. ;)

  • Harv 21

    “usual” is not what those averages show. But he also writes ” Basically, the aging effect is very small, with no more than two runs separating the prime from the career nadir.” So if you wanna use his stats, age is not a major factor anyway, skill is.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Alfonso Soriano update: one more homerun and four more RBIs – that’s 18 RBIs in just 4 games. Thank goodness the Indians didn’t pick him up for that $6M left on his contract.

    For good measure Reynolds hit a two-run HR in his Yankees debut.

  • mgbode

    great job with this thread guys. agree with many points throughout. santana’s bat has been very good, but the lack of overall power has been disappointing. his seeming regression at defense (likely other teams finding and picking on his flaws IMO) also has been disappointing.

    however, despite all that, he’s the 2nd best hitter on our team (Kipnis) and has provided a ton of value to the team since being called up. he’s patient, he’s pretty consistent and I still think he has a chance to continue to get better.

    now, if we want to talk gripes, Bourn (lack of SBs), Swisher (lack of, well most things), and Asdrubal (where’s the contract push?) are the ones that are much more deserving.

  • Steve

    Wrong link, thats just framing. Fangraphs has an article on overall value. Decline is before 28. And of course there is more than a two run difference between peak and nadir in total ability.