Carlos Santana has only played forty major league games, but he’s already topped one significant leaderboard with his play. Consider this little nugget: Last year, he put up the best OPS by a switch-hitting catcher debuting under the age of 25 with 30 or more games. In fewer words, he was the best rookie switch-hitting catcher of all time last year. Of course, that assertion comes with some significant caveats, but after further inspection his supernatural feat holds up as historically great.
His 46-game sample last year wasn’t a full season by any means. Normally, you wouldn’t go out on a limb to call a forty-game stretch anything other than a hot streak. But with Santana we have to consider his excellent minor league record as a precursor to his debut. In 57 Triple-A games last year, he hit .316/.447/.597. In 526 minor league games, he hit .290/.401/.499. This is not 46 hot games from Rod Barajas in a Met uniform after a career of suckitude. This is an excellent prospect coming up and performing.
The funny thing about that “46” number, as well, is that it stacks up decently enough against the other young debuts of switch-hitting catchers. Among the men that managed more than 30 games, his 46 ranks eighth of twelve. Only three young switch-hitting backstops managed more than 100 games – Butch Wynegar, Mark Bailey, and Bob Didier. Wynegar was the only one that managed to put together what one might call a major league career – he had the ability to get on base even if his pop was lacking.
Let’s say that there is some possible umbrage to be taken with the fact that we are limiting this to switch-hitting catchers. Such a rare breed may make anyone look exceptional. Well, uh, Santana’s .867 OPS would have dropped all the way to… second on the all-time list of catcher debuts. Yes, Joe Mauer is of course the leader in the clubhouse with a .939 OPS in his 35-game debut at 21 years old in 2004. Those sideburns adorn quite the curvebreaker, but the point is holding steady. First- or second-best, Santana’s season is still stacking up.
Catchers sometimes take a little time to develop. There’s the theory that their offense comes last because they have to spend so much time preparing to call their games. Let’s open this up to switch-hitting catchers under 25 in their first two seasons. Nope, still first. Fellow switch-hitting Indian backstop Victor Martinez had a .851 OPS in his third season, at 25 years old, but Santana is still first. In fact, get this – only one switch-hitting catcher under 25 has EVER posted a better OPS. Ted Simmons, in 1975, was 25 years old and showed an .887 OPS in 157 games. So, yeah, still pretty good, especially since Simmons was a great catcher himself.
When a player debuts well, the best initial reaction is to laud them for work done and reign in expectations because of historical precedent and the likelihood of a letdown. In this case, though, even after examining the place of Santana’s rookie season among debuts in his class, there are few negatives. We’ll have to wait to make sure the knee is fine, but all reports are good so far. His production will likely give Indians fans at least one reason to rejoice this season (and Dodgers fans at least one reason to despair).
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.