Pirates Add Carlos Santana, Potential Shift Ban Beneficiary, to First Base Mix

Carlos Santana
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, the rebuilding Pirates took a $6.7 million flier on 36-year-old Carlos Santana, who at this point in his career splits his time between DH and first base. In Pittsburgh, he joins the recently acquired Ji-Man Choi and Lewin Díaz as 1B/DH options; regardless of a positional surplus, perhaps Pittsburgh felt he was too tempting to pass up with the shift ban going into effect next season. It’s hard to think of a player who has more to gain from that rule change than the switch-hitting former catcher, who is a pull hitter on grounders from both sides of the plate: 61.9% from the right side and 70.6% from the left.

As a switch-hitter, Santana sees most of his plate appearances as a lefty, his even more pull-happy side. That brings his overall pulled-grounder percentage up to 67.2%, a mark that puts him sixth among the 203 players with at least 1,000 grounders since his debut in 2010; the only active player ahead of him, Eugenio Suárez, has hit 1,100 fewer grounders in his career. Moving the threshold to 1,500 puts Santana squarely at the top of that list (inactive players included).

Naturally, teams regularly shifted against Santana. As a reminder, a traditional shift is when three infielders play on the pull side, two infielders play meaningfully out of their position toward the pull side, or one fielder (usually the second baseman) plays at least 10 feet onto the outfield grass. Santana’s 7.88 traditional-shift-to-no-shift ratio (which I like to use because it takes out fickle situational shifts) placed him 63rd of 388 hitters with at least 100 balls in play this year. Yet as a left-hander, he saw 204 traditional shifts and just one no-shift alignment. This would put him right behind Joey Votto, who saw 205 traditional shifts compared to one no-shift alignment, atop the shift ratio leaderboard.

All that shifting is for good reason. Below is a spray chart heatmap of Santana’s grounders from the left side in his career:

On the whole, Santana fared extremely poorly against the shift last season, with a paltry 18 wRC+ that placed him last among the 109 hitters who saw at least 200 traditional shifts. This was largely due to his -2 wRC+ against shifts as a lefty, which matched his mark from 2021 and wasn’t much worse than his 7 wRC+ in ’20. Unsurprisingly, this three-year stretch has resulted in Santana’s three worst single-season wRC+ marks in his 13-year career, topping out at 102 in ’22.

The last time Santana posted a double-digit wRC+ as a lefty against the shift was 2019, when he ran an overall 138 wRC+ on the year, his second-best single-season total. Thereafter, defenses around the league made a subtle yet impactful change. See if you notice the differences between 2018–19 (top) and ’21–22:

In 2021–22, the fielder closest to a second baseman’s typical spot almost always played on the outfield grass. In 2018–19, that fielder was on the infield enough for Savant to register a blue glob on the dirt. Why did teams make this change? Simple: Santana’s line drives throughout his career have often found a home in short right field. Below is a heat map for his batted balls between a 10–25-degree launch angle from the left side:

With the change, Santana’s wOBA on line drives as a lefty went from .796 in 2018–19 to .572 in ’21–22. That 224-point drop corresponds with a 2.2 mph increase in average exit velocity and no change in average launch angle; in other words, it’s likely due to the defensive adjustments. And in case you’re wondering, Santana’s 16th-percentile sprint speed meant that any slow grounders hit to the fielder in short right weren’t likely to be infield hits. His .182 wOBA on grounders from the left side in 2018–19 actually dropped to .153 for ’21–22.

So how will teams opt to play the lefty version of Santana in 2023? One possibility is that they’ll use the first kind of traditional shift, which will still be legal. The third baseman will play in the typical 9-hole, and the shortstop will play a smidge to the left of second base.

Another option is to do something a bit less conventional. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello outlined a few ways that teams can get creative in preventing pull-side grounders from becoming hits. One possibility is the defense employing the still legal traditional shift with its infielders and then bringing the left fielder into short right.

For Santana at least, unlike the Joey Gallo alignment that Petriello details, the center fielder and right fielder would shade left in the hopes of covering more outfield ground, because he isn’t a dead pull hitter when it comes to fly balls (more on that below). That aside, this alignment still doesn’t make sense for Santana from the left side. Is it worth shaving 224 points off of his line drive wOBA when his career line drive rate is 18.1%? Not counting the overall version of Santana (which includes his right-handed stats), 18.1% is tied for the 30th-lowest rate among the 402 hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances since his 2010 debut.

Alright, forget about the guy in short right then. Why don’t we just bring him onto the dirt and make it a five-man infield? The issue with that plan is that Santana doesn’t hit all that many grounders from the left side: a 38.9% rate, which would tie for 96th-lowest out of the aforementioned 402 hitters. On top of that, he has an above average fly ball rate (43% as a lefty, tied for 50th) and sprays them (between 26–50 degrees) all over the place from the left side:

It would be tough to make plays on all of these with a two-man outfield no matter where the outfielders are positioned. Not to mention that a missed flyball leads to a larger penalty than a missed grounder; the former typically turns into extra bases, but the latter will often just be a single.

The right-handed Santana is a different story. Not only does he get less airtime than his other-handed counterpart in terms of PAs, but so do his balls in play. His 49.5% ground ball rate would tie him for 52nd among the 402 hitters, and he’s pretty pull-happy as well:

At the same time, his line drives are more sprayed:

And his fly balls drift oppo:

So there is no need for a man in short left, who would be hard pressed to make plays on grounders that far from first base anyway. But adding an extra player on the infield could help, especially in two-strike counts where Santana is more likely to pull off a pitch; his highest ground ball rates come on 0–2 and 1–2 pitches. This additional infielder would probably be the left fielder, as righty Santana’s fly ball hot spots are in center and right. The leftover outfielders would in turn shade left to cover more ground.

Against this kind of alignment, I wouldn’t expect drastic changes in output. It might prompt Santana to pull his fly balls more, but he still easily bested his lefty wRC+ against traditional shifts with an 80 wRC+ against them as a righty last season. That isn’t great, but his overall mark of 134 as a righty indicates an approach worth maintaining unless five-man infield shifts become commonplace against him. And it’s hard to believe teams will be willing to sacrifice an outfielder to make that happen, as they only employed traditional shifts against right-handed Santana on 64 balls in play last year. That’s compared to 33 no-shifts, a merely average 1.94 ratio that would have ranked 172nd out of 388 (excluding the overall version of Santana).

In a way, the two versions of Santana represent a microcosm of what the shift-banned baseball world might look like. His lefty self, which despite recent struggles will almost assuredly be rewarded by the new rule, is emblematic of the many hitters who failed to adjust in a shift-heavy era. He will most likely face a partial shift, with the third baseman playing a typical shortstop and the shortstop up the middle. Such a shift represents the best effort to recreate a strategy that has stymied him these past three years.

His righty self, on the other hand, has weathered shifts more effectively. Just like last year, Santana may sometimes see nothing but the standard alignment when he peers out at the infield from beneath the brim of his helmet. Like other hitters who weren’t truly stifled by the shift, no alignment that really got the better of him was disallowed by the new rule. Or perhaps he will see the ongoing efforts of front office creativity trying to stymie those that prevailed against more extreme shifts in years past. Either way, the rebuilding Pirates have little to lose with this move.





Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He has a degree in psychology and cognitive science from Vassar College, with minors in economics and philosophy. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he clearly struggled with when determining his course of study in college. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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sadtrombonemember
2 months ago

This is the kind of move that seems too clever by half. They should’ve just seen if they could have fixed Franmil Reyes, or brought back Josh Bell on a multiyear deal, or something like that. Sure, this has a marginally better chance of working out than signing Reyes, and is cheaper than signing Bell, but this kind of move is a dead end. DH’s are not usually sought after at the deadline unless they’re absolutely raking.

wokegraphs
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Naw, they have a few options for reps at DH/1B that would have made a Reyes or Bell wasted funds past this year, imo. They 1) have to see what to do with Miguel Andujar 2) if Nunez isn’t taken in Rule 5 he needs ABs 3) Henry Davis is going to need 1B/DH ABs given scouts don’t think he’s going to catch.

sadtrombonemember
2 months ago
Reply to  wokegraphs

I would have thought that if they wanted to give Andujar or Nunez a shot they wouldn’t have signed Santana to begin with (and would have protected Nunez). As for Davis, I think he could fit in an outfield corner–he’s pretty athletic, and Choi will also be a free agent so it’s not like there will be a lot of competition there.

szielinskimember
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Treat it a a signal sent to the fans that shows the Pirates spending money on Vets and which suggests the team might approach the McClatchy Line this year.

epoc
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Presumably they wanted someone who could play 1b against lefties, and Reyes is not a 1b, so there’s that option off the table. And then also, based on the entire history of the franchise, they are presumably not in play for even mid-tier free agents, so that’s the other option off the table. Santana fits a lot of needs for them (1b/dh, doesn’t need to be platooned, good plate discipline, good contact skills, mythical veteran presence) and has reasonable potential for bounceback, given that the plate discipline and hard contact are still there. The shift thing is the most interesting thing to write about, probably, but it’s also probably not in the top ten reasons why he was a target for them. I don’t think it’s a particularly “clever” move.

gettwobrute79member
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Considering this org isn’t really good at “fixing” hitters, the idea they’d do so with Reyes is…optimistic. They haven’t really proved much of anything on the hitting end of things.

I don’t love this move, but I don’t hate it either. I would have preferred Bell, but I’m guessing he’s looking at something like three years and they’re not gonna do that (and that may be the right move, with Abreu getting what he got).

sadtrombonemember
2 months ago
Reply to  gettwobrute79

I suspect that Bell is going to get a lot less than Abreu. Like half as much. Abreu’s coming off of a very strong season, the Astros have a meddling owner running the show, and they were competing against AJ Preller (a notoriously aggressive executive) who had made Abreu his top priority.

I think Bell, if he’s getting a 3 year deal, is probably getting something like 3/$30M. Him, Justin Turner, Michael Brantley, Joey Gallo, Trey Mancini, and maybe Michael Conforto (although he could be a level up) are probably all chasing the same spots. That’s a pretty robust group Bell is competing against, with Wil Myers, Brandon Belt, Carlos Santan, and JD Martinez a level down, and Luke Voit and Matt Carpenter hanging out somewhere too.

gettwobrute79member
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think Bell gets around 3/40, or roughly around 2/3 of what Abreu got. He’s a good candidate for a higher budget team that needs something more at the 1B/DH spot (like the team.

Bell was a fun, but remains a frustrating player. As that insane two month heater from 2019 gets further in the rearview, I think their limited resources now are better spent on pitching and/or an OF.

gettwobrute79member
2 months ago
Reply to  gettwobrute79

Edit: end of second paragraph got cut off. That should read (like the team that was covered in ZIPS yesterday).

Bell isn’t as good as Abreu of course but he’s more than half a decade younger with a fairly similar profile B/K wise. If a team can get his swing tweaked to a bit more like it was a few years ago, maybe he can take off. But that feels like a big ask.