Carlos Santana, entering his fourth season in the majors, has seemingly been a sleeper forever. It’s been said a lot before, but I have a strong feeling this will be the last time.
Santana is starting to feel a little bit like the catching version of Ricky Nolasco (all potential, no results). His career batting average in his 344 game major league career is .247. His career high batting average was .260 (back in 2010). He is slow on his feet (2.6 speed score last season), and hits the ball on the ground more often that he hits fly balls. Further, although he has a very respectable 51 career home runs in less than 1,500 major league plate appearances, Santana saw his power stroke drop significantly last year (.050 ISO differential).
However, these knocks are superfluous. Santana has made strides in his game over his major league tenure that make him look more like a player in the mold of 2008/2010 Geovany Soto than the 2009/2011/2012 Soto.
For starters, Santana has consistently maintained one of his key assets at an elite level, his plate discipline. Just over 15 percent of his trips to the plate in the major leagues have resulted in a free pass. Thus, despite posting a career batting average south of the .250 mark, his career on-base percentage is north of .360. Only three players drew more walks than Santana’s 91 last year: Adam Dunn (105), Ben Zobrist (95) and Dan Uggla (93). Each of those played 150 or more games in 2012. Santana played in 142. For his two-plus years of major league service, Santana has walked 15.4 percent of the time. Over the past three years, the only major league players to draw a greater percentage of walks are Jose Bautista, Joey Votto, Lance Berkman and Daric Barton. Not even Kevin Youkilis, the Greek god of walks, drew free passes 15 percent of the time in any single season of his career.
Santana’s plate discipline skills and pitch recognition talent as a catcher have developed in a way that should manifest in ways outside on-base prowess. In 2012, Black Magic Woman swung more often than in 2011, but at pitches in the zone. At the same time, while remaining selective with bad pitches, he made contact more often with pitches outside of the zone.
The results have been apparent in his process-based metrics, although not in his results. Santana saw his line-drive rate jump to league average rates last season, while his popup rate fell at an even faster rate. His walk rate remained consistent, while his strikeout rate fell nearly four percentage points. A 16.6 percent strikeout rate is respectable for any player; for a power hitter, it is rare. Santana has shown the ability to handle almost every pitch except the slider. For whatever reason, his other weak pitch last year was the fastball. Santana has shown the talent to absolutely crush fastballs in both the major and minor leagues. Assuming health, I am not worried about the young power hitter (his power graded as a 65-70 on the 20-80 scale, if memory serves) handling fastballs in 2013.
Santana sees a first-pitch strike barely half the time, and only 45 percent of all pitches thrown to him last season were actually strikes last year. As pitchers become increasingly aware they need to throw Santana strikes if they want to keep him off the bases, and as Santana gets more chances at quality pitches, things should turn around. This is particularly true as pitchers fall behind in the count on him and need to lean on their fastball.
By my calculations, and based on his approach at the plate, Santana should have posted a batting average in the upper .270s last year. Even with depressed power, he should have pushed an .810+ OPS. Santana is not going to win a batting title any time soon, and he’s not a player in the mold of Joey Votto, but in the upper minors Santana hit .296 over 189 games between the ages of 22 and 24. His major league equivalent batting averages between 2008 and 2010 were .287, .258 and .273. Over that span, his respective MLE wOBAs were .375, .367 and .392.
Santana’s career trajectory has been an odd one. A freak knee injury ended his rookie season prematurely. A concussion likely stunted him last year. While David Wright is a testament to the risks and effects of a concussion on a promising young player’s career, Santana finished the second half of 2012 strong. His power numbers in July and September were in line with expectations, and he walked (49) more often that he struck out (43) over the season’s final three months.
There is no such thing as a “sure thing” in baseball, and Santana is certainly a name that carries some amount of brand recognition for a player who’s never cracked the top 150 in a given season. However, if I were a betting man, I’d put plenty of chips on Santana being one of the better value picks of 2013, even if he costs you double-digit draft dollars.