Throughout spring training I’ll be highlighting “things to work on” for certain key players this year.
Before we dive into this year’s analysis of Santana, let’s review what he worked on last spring. In my “things to work on” piece for Santana last March, I suggested he focus on improving his ability to handle fastballs up in the zone.
And clearly Santana reads IPL, because that’s exactly what he did.
After struggling mightily with the high heat through his first two full seasons, Santana boosted his numbers significantly in 2014.
The key difference: selective hitting. Santana drastically cut down his strikeouts while boosting his walk totals. He still loves to swing for the fences at the high heat, but he simply did so more selectively this past season.
So what does Santana need to do this year? Stop playing right into the hands of the defense.
It seems every year more and more teams teams are using defensive shifts, and Santana’s performance against right-handed pitchers puts him in ‘the absolutely must shift’ category.
In 2013, Santana pulled 73.9 percent of his ground balls, the third highest rate of any left-handed batter against a right-handed pitcher. And on those ground balls, he posted a .171 average, the third lowest in the league.
Fixing Santana in this area is tricky, however, because his pull approach is actually working relatively well overall.
When Santana pulled the ball against right-handed pitching, he posted an overall average of .380 thanks to a ridiculous .923 average on pulled line drives (league average: .735).
And when Santana goes to the opposite field against righties his overall average is just .250.
So what’s the right approach for Santana?
Should the Indians just accept his automatic outs on the ground, due to the fact that it’s balanced out by his line-drive rate? Or should they ask him to beat the shift by going to the opposite field more often?
Only the coaching staff can truly answer that question, but my best guess is they’d like to see a blend of both approaches.
Clearly Santana is capable of taking a pull-heavy approach at the plate and making it work. But that doesn’t mean he can’t pick out certain pitches to serve into left field for an easy base hit.
David Ortiz, for example, ranks among the most pull-heavy lefties in the game. 47.2 percent of his balls in play against right-handed pitches were pulled (13th highest rate in the majors). As a result, he frequently sees the same shifts as Santana.
Where the two players differ is in their willingness to take what the pitchers and the defense give them.
When Ortiz sees an outside pitch, his pull percentage plummets to 35.5 percent. Santana’s, however, remains at 51.4 percent.
If Santana can find a balance between his desire to pull everything and the easy singles the defense offers him the opposite way, we could see a fairly significant improvement in his average and on-base percentage. And this stage of his career, even a relatively minor increase could put him in the rage of a .390-.400 OBP, ranking him among the most productive middle-of-the-order hitters in the game.