Has anyone seen Carlos Santana? Not the guy with the guitar, mind you, but the guy who has a career OPS of .801 and averaged a shade under 22 HR over the last three seasons. I thought he was on the Cleveland Indians, but the guy wearing the #41 jersey is currently batting .128 in 23 games (10-for-78), with one HR (on pace for 7 HR), and 3 RBI (on pace for 21! For a season!). That guy just posted an 0-fer in a weekend series that saw the Tribe miserably swept out into the San Francisco Bay. I don’t know who he is, but he is not the Carlos Santana we’ve seen in Cleveland the past few years.
So what’s wrong? Is it the position change? Has he been historically unlucky so far? Does someone in the greater Cleveland area have a #41 voodoo doll? Is this the curse of Lou Marson?
For the record, Marson has a career OPS of .600 — which would be a drastic improvement over what Santana has put on the field this month (OPS of .518, largely due to an OBP of .313). I don’t want to compare the two players in anything other than a tongue-in-cheek way, but I just want to clarify that a month of average production from Marson, largely regarded as a no-offense catcher, would be a significant improvement over Santana right now. And it’s almost May.
Diagnosing the Problem, Part I: Luck
Somebody needs to keep Santana away from the Horseshoe, because so far in 2014, he has been remarkably unlucky.
The first stat you need to look at when determining luck is BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). Though players fluctuate through periods of good luck and bad luck, BABIP generally normalizes around the same number for a player on any given year. For Santana, the progression of BABIP goes as follows:
A BABIP of .158 is simply unsustainably low — that will normalize up to a certain level, and Santana’s production will pick up. All things being equal, Santana will probably have a big hot streak, and end up with a BABIP in the .260 range on the 2014 season (barring a ridonkulous hot streak, I think it’s unlikely-bordering-on-impossible he has an above average year BABIP-wise).
There are some problems, however, with looking at BABIP and disavowing any concern about Santana — something is clearly not right at the moment. That “something” has nothing to do with his hitting eye, however, as he’s already walked 21 times in 23 games, which would put him on pace for well over 100 walks (his career high is 97 BB)… so I think it’s safe to say he has not devolved as a hitter from a mental standpoint.
In order to diagnose the problem, we need to delve deeper into the underlying statistics. For this article, I will focus on two specific areas: type of contact Santana is making and the “area” in the strikezone where he is making that contact.
Diagnosing the Problem, Part II: Contact Rates
Here’s a stat for you (and this led me to contact rates in the first place): 7
7 is the number of double plays that Carlos hit into in 2013.
7 is also the number of double plays that Carlos has hit into so far in 2014.
While seven GIDP over an entire season is low for a player of Santana’s …ahem… agility, seven GIDP in a single month is mind-bogglingly high. Surely, surely, Santana must be hitting a lot more ground balls compared to his career average, right?
From 2011-2013, Santana hit a ground ball 28.9% of all plate appearances (34.5% of all at-bats, if we throw walks and sacrifices out the window), and he had a .185 average on that contact. Of the 552 ABs that ended in a ground ball over that three-season span, Santana racked up a grand total of 13 2B and 37 RBI. Ground balls are generally not the kind of contact you want to make, so these numbers are not alarming by themselves.
Thus far in 2014, Santana is hitting ground balls in… 28.1% of all plate appearances (35.4% of all ABs). His average on those hits is .103, which is lower than his career average, but doesn’t do a single thing to explain his atrocious start to the season. Clearly, Santana’s ground ball rate is not the problem.
The next step was to look at Fly Ball rate. You know what I’m doing here now, so I’ll just cut to the numbers:
2011-2013: 24.4% of PAs / 28.1% of ABs (.232 AVG / .123 BABIP)
2014: 21.4% of PAs / 26.9% of ABs (.091 AVG / .048 BABIP)
Aha! This seems to be the culprit in Santana’s early season swoon. First, I’d like to point out that a low BABIP on fly balls is completely expected — if the ball doesn’t leave the ballpark (and thus not counted in BABIP), it usually ends up in someone’s glove. In three previous seasons, Santana hit 53 of his 65 HR on Fly Balls, and he had an OPS on that type of contact of .896. Basically, fly balls are where Santana flexes his power, and because he only has 1 HR this season (and had some horrific luck), his fly ball metrics have taken a nosedive. In the most likely scenario, some more balls will leave the yard and some fly balls will start falling in (that .048 BABIP is… I didn’t even know that was possible), and Santana’s numbers will go up from there.
But we need to look at the types of pitches Santana is making contact with (in terms of the strike zone location) in order to make a conclusion. Before we get to that, however, I want to give you the numbers for Line Drives (the only other type of contact):
2011-2013: 12.4% of PAs / 14.7% of ABs (.787 AVG / .769 BABIP)
2014: 8.7% of PAs / 11.0% of ABs (.556 AVG / .556 BABIP)
Line drives aren’t complicated: they are the best type of contact a hitter can make, and generally a line drive equals a hit. Santana isn’t hitting a lot of line drives this season, and it is also contributing to his slump. I don’t want to point to a 3% difference in line drive rates over a month and say that it means anything, but if that rate continues throughout the season, it would be extremely worrying. I believe the AVG will normalize up to about .700 eventually, and that .556 is (somewhat ironically) abnormally low.
But let’s look at where in the strike zone Santana is making contact. There is a lot of data to go on, so here’s what I think is important:
Dominant Area of Strike Zone for Type of Contact:
Ground Balls: 49.6% Vertical Middle of the Strike Zone / 56.2% Outside or Outside third of plate
Fly Balls: 48.3% Vertical Middle / 48.1% Outside or Outside Third
Line Drives: 52.3% Vertical Middle / 52.3 % Outside or Outside Third
Look at that model of consistency! This is something akin to looking at the inner workings of a car engine, as we can see what kind of a hitter Santana is. He likes the ball in a certain spot in the strike zone, and he has the eye to wait for a pitch in that zone or take a walk. When Santana is generating a majority of his contact outside and middle of the plate, he is a force to be reckoned with. Now, let’s look at this season:
Ground Balls: 55.2% Vert-Mid / 48.3% Outside of Outside Third
Fly Balls: 50.0% Up in or Above Strike Zone / 54.5% Horizontal Mid of Strike Zone
Line Drives: 44.4% Down or Below Strike Zone / 55.5% Horizontal Mid
Fair notice: the 2014 are based on a really small sample (9 line drives, for instance), but there is a fairly sizable shift in where Santana is generating contact. When he’s hitting ground balls, Santana is still Vertical Middle / Outside dominant, and we see that reflected in his nearly-identical GB% in 2014 compared to previous seasons. When it comes to fly balls, however, Santana has had a tendency thus far to go after balls higher in the zone and more in on his hands — which is combining to sap his power on fly balls. From 2011-2013, Santana posted a 13.3% HR/FB ratio, and that number currently sits at 4.5%. Part of it is due to luck, but I believe a bigger part of it is where he is making the contact that leads to fly balls.
Line Drives are screwy, too (but likely due to the small sample). In the previous three seasons, he generated a line drive on a ball down in the zone only 25.3% of the time, and that number is essentially 20% higher so far in 2014. On top of that, he’s making contact a little closer in on his hands, which again, saps his power a bit. Line drives are still line drives (and they are always desirable contact), but it suggests Carlos isn’t exhibiting the same level of discipline that he has in previous seasons.
Luck is obviously the biggest contributing factor to Carlos Santana’s dismal start to 2014 — his BABIP is far too low (especially on fly balls), and the numbers will almost certainly rebound a bit purely due to some much-needed regression to the mean.
But it is also worthwhile to note that while Santana is walking at a career-high rate, he has shown a diminished ability to hit his pitch. I would venture a guess that if I broke this down in the same way for every slump he has had over the past three seasons, we would see a drastic fluctuation in the location of generated contact (like we see so far in 2014). Carlos thrives on walks, but he also thrives on the ability to hit a pitch at the belt and a bit outside… and in 2014 Santana is swinging at the pitcher’s pitch too often, generating contact higher AND lower in the zone, with terrible results.
I trust that the Indians know these numbers way better than I do, and honestly, I don’t know if there’s a simple fix here. Santana’s numbers will take a big jump when he narrows his swinging-range back to his powerhouse zone. Until then, all we can do is wait… but it is probably time we see Santana hitting 6th or 7th for a few days.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN TruMedia and Baseball Reference