Kansas City Got Their Bat. Will It Be Enough?

At the beginning of this offseason, Dayton Moore had two goals: sign a starting pitcher and add a middle-of-the-order bat. When Kansas City pounced early in free agency and signed Mike Minor and Michael A. Taylor, the jokes were easy to make. Minor is a decent approximation of a starter, but Taylor a middle-of-the order bat? Surely there was more, right?

There’s more. Yesterday, the Royals signed Carlos Santana to a two-year, $17.5 million dollar deal, with incentives that could add $1 million to the total. Santana is now one of the top three or four hitters in a Royals lineup that feels underpowered, but less so than it did a week ago. He’ll slot in somewhere in the middle of the order (mission accomplished!) and bring his much-walking, much-taking, some-homers game to a lineup light on both (26th in walk rate in 2020, 20th in home runs).

Santana checked in at 41st on our list of the top 50 free agents this offseason. This ranking is no knock on his career production — he’s been a useful hitter for a decade now, and has become an excellent defender at first base. It’s merely the way that baseball works now; bat-first players, particularly those confined to first base, left field, or DH, are a dime a dozen these days. Add that to his age — he’ll turn 35 early in the 2021 season — and Santana looked destined for a deal of roughly this size.

That’s not to say that there’s no value in signing him. Santana had his first below-average offensive year in 2020, but even then, he walked a gobsmacking 18.4% of the time. Some of that comes down to the fact that the Indians surrounded him in the lineup with three packs of bubble gum, a sternly worded letter to the editor, and Mike Freeman. But even without that desultory cast, Santana would have drawn his fair share of walks. He’s fourth among active players in career walk rate, behind Ted Williams 2.0, a plate discipline deity, and Aaron Judge.

You don’t end up on that list by accident; he’s perennially one of the best hitters in baseball when it comes to avoiding chasing pitches outside the zone. He also makes contact frequently — 2012 is the last year where he posted a below-average contact rate — which is how he has a sterling career 16.5% strikeout rate despite working deep into the count regularly.

Maybe you think of Santana as a slugger, and you’re not totally off base; he hit 34 homers in 2019, though 2020 represented the worst power output of his career. The key to his game, however, is that he doesn’t need to hit for power to be effective. From 2015 to 2020, Santana was actually below average in terms of production on contact. His .354 wOBACON was decently below the league-wide .370 rate. Despite that, he posted a 117 wRC+ (.350 wOBA) over those years.

Walk as frequently and Santana and avoid strikeouts as adeptly, and you don’t have to be a slugger to excel. That gives him a high floor, and when he has a good contact year, the results can look like 2019 — .281/.397/.515, good for a 135 wRC+ and 4.4 WAR. He might not ever be Freddie Freeman out there, but that’s still excellent production from a first baseman.

2020 highlights how unlikely Santana is to be a true offensive drag. He put up his worst year, period, when making contact; his .285 wOBACON was 188th out of 194 hitters who put at least 100 balls in play. Despite that, he still managed a 95 wRC+ — the six batters with worse marks on contact averaged a 63 wRC+. And it’s not like he didn’t hit the ball hard — his .359 xwOBA on contact (goodness gracious with these acronyms) was middle-of-the-road.

That 2019 aside, average production on contact feels like a fair guess at what Santana’s upside could be. If he repeated his strikeout and walk numbers but managed that aforementioned average contact, it would work out to a wRC+ in the low 130’s. There’s room downwards in contact quality and also in plate discipline from there — 2020 was one of his best efforts in terms of walks and strikeouts — but there’s a lot of room below 130 wRC+ and above fair value for a two-year, $17.5 million contract.

That’s all well and good, but does signing Santana mean the Royals are likely to make the playoffs? To be blunt: no. It certainly makes them better, but the AL Central will have four solid teams next year counting Kansas City, and they’re still behind Cleveland, the third-best squad in the division, by a fair margin — 10 WAR, if you look at our Depth Charts projections.

But mean projections and WAR forecasts aren’t destiny. LaPlace’s demon doesn’t exist, and if it did, society would presumably use it for something more useful than projecting baseball players’ future. Hitters get better and worse all the time, in ways both predictable and unpredictable. As Kiley McDaniel noted recently, pitchers don’t develop linearly; the Royals have a pile of young starters, and you never know when Kris Bubic or Brady Singer might ace-ify himself overnight.

Frankly, that might not be enough. The Royals still don’t look like a .500 team; they might need one of those ace transformations just to get there, and Santana is small potatoes compared to the improvements they’ll need overall. Unlike the Minor signing, Santana also isn’t fungible; teams always need more starters and more innings pitched, but rarely need more good-but-not-great corner bats. Minor can contribute to the Royals even if several pitchers take great leaps forward, and he’ll also retain trade value if he’s as good as they think he is. The same isn’t true of Santana.

There’s a lot to like about Carlos Santana the player. He’s a low-variance bat at a price that makes sense, particularly for a team without much else going on in the first base department. Despite those positive characteristics, though, I don’t quite get the fit in Kansas City. He’s theoretically a useful piece, but the timeline feels all wrong, and they’re not at a place where adding a few wins to their 2021 total figures to be useful.

I could be wrong on that, of course — some percentage of the time, I will be wrong! But if the team arrives sooner than expected, either in 2021 or 2022, there are always a few first-base bats lurking around waiting to be acquired. If, on the other hand, they find themselves as sellers in a few years, well: there are always a few first-base bats lurking around waiting to be acquired, which hurts his resale value.

It would be one thing if Santana’s plate discipline were a teachable thing. When he joined the Phillies in 2018, returning Phillies players gained an average of 0.7 percentage points of walk rate. If you want to attribute that to Santana, he seems more valuable. But bad news — when he returned to Cleveland in 2019, returning Indians players lost roughly one percentage point of walk rate on average. Maybe he’s not a patience-teaching guru after all — that would be a legitimate reason to add him, but it’s also not very likely to be true.

From a pure production-for-pay standpoint, Santana is likely to provide Kansas City a good return on investment. Their efforts to supplement their young core with veterans a year too soon rather than a year too late are admirable. In this case, however, I think the idea is better than the actual enactment thereof. Santana’s a good player, and the Royals are right to be thinking of ways to improve, but the pieces still don’t all fit.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

A fair amount of Santana’s value is his durability since he typically suits up for 153 games or so. In fact, his full season low is 143 games.
Add in his switch-hitting, defense, and batting eye and you get a fairly high floor.
But “middle of tbe order bat” is a bit of a stretch.
He can fill that slot on weak offenses but at this stage of his career he would be more of a 6,7 slot guy on a good offense. Maybe 9 if the leadoff has enough power.

His WAR projection of 1.8 is about right and a 50% salary cut is a fair bet.
But it is a bet.

2 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Don’t you want guys that get on base more often than other players to get a chance to do so more often by hitting up in the order? Getting on base in front of the 8, 9 guys can’t be optimal.

2 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

If he’s the best they can do in the middle of the rotation they’re not going very far.
The best rotations don’t just go 5 deep, but go top to bottom. At six he can extend rallies.

Recall how the 90’s Indians used to run Sorrento and Sexton, Branyan, etc, in the bottom. That’s Santana’s profile.
In fact, early on they ran Thome and Manny 6&7.

Santana may start the season in the middle to give the young’uns time to develop but unless he pulls a 2019 (increasngly unlikely), if he’s in tbe middle in Sept, the Royals will be way back.