The Brewers’ Potential Breakout Slugger

Right after the end of the playoffs, we lost August Fagerstrom to a major-league front office. I miss having August around, because he was a good friend and an excellent writer. If there was one complication, though, it was that, shockingly often, we wanted to write about the same things. The same sorts of stuff inspired us, and in this line of work, there’s nothing more precious than a half-decent idea. It would be discouraging to want to do something, and then realize another person already had something along the same lines in progress.

It’s not good to have August gone. Less quality content is less quality content. But if nothing else, I am now freer to pursue what I like. Which means I am now freer to write about Domingo Santana. Used to be, August would carry that torch, and he wrote positive things about him any number of times. Now it’s up to me. Much like August, I consider myself a Domingo Santana fan. And it looks like he could become a crucial piece of the Brewers’ organizational rebuild.

You might remember Santana for being the guy who struck out 14 times in his first 17 at-bats as a rookie. And that’s all he did that year — that wasn’t just a slump that was easily hidden by greater playing time to follow. Santana had 17 at-bats in the majors in 2014, and that was his line, so that will be his line forever. When I look at his player page, for that year, I see a strikeout rate of 78%. It’s funny and sad and incredible and sad. Thankfully for Santana, he hit well in 2015. And then he hit well again in 2016. His career wRC+ is up to 103. That’s pleasing enough, but things get sunnier yet.

Santana hasn’t yet had a full season in the majors. Last year he went on the DL twice. By results, he was no better at the plate last year than he was the year before. Yet, increasingly, we’re getting into a post-results era of analysis. You know it, I know it, so let’s just say it: It’s time for Statcast! And I’m going to make use of Jeff Zimmerman’s wonderful corrected average exit velocities. He made a strong attempt to fill in the Statcast gaps. So, I examined all the players with at least 50 batted balls in each of the last two years. Here are the guys with the biggest exit-velocity improvements:

Top Exit Velocity Gains
Hitter 2015 EV 2016 EV Change
Sandy Leon 76.8 84.0 7.2
Domingo Santana 84.9 91.0 6.1
Byron Buxton 79.4 85.2 5.8
Gordon Beckham 79.9 85.4 5.5
Daniel Nava 83.1 88.5 5.4
Sean Rodriguez 82.5 87.8 5.3
Tommy Pham 85.7 91.0 5.3
Adam Rosales 81.5 86.5 5.0
Cameron Rupp 83.8 88.7 4.9
Rougned Odor 82.1 86.8 4.7

It’s wonderful to see Santana in second, but that’s not all. The improvement is huge, but now focus on that 91.0. What does that mean? Here’s the top of the 2016 average exit-velocity leaderboard:

Top Exit Velocities
Hitter 2016 EV
Miguel Cabrera 91.3
Nelson Cruz 91.3
Domingo Santana 91.0
Tommy Pham 91.0
Tyler Flowers 90.9
Giancarlo Stanton 90.8
Ryan Howard 90.5
Keon Broxton 90.2
Christian Yelich 90.1
Miguel Sano 90.0

Third place, out of the guys with 50+ batted balls. That exit velocity isn’t easy to fake, so what we know now as a matter of fact: Santana can hit the living crap out of a baseball. You’ll notice Santana is joined on this list by teammate Keon Broxton, who I also like. Broxton, quietly, is a potential star player, a strikeout-prone power bat who’s a capable defender in the middle of the outfield. But now consider the last name on the list. A few times in the past, August gave Santana a George Springer comp. I liked that one. I also like this one.

Sano vs. Santana
Hitter EV Max EV O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
Miguel Sano 91 114 25% 60% 35% 79%
2016 Domingo Santana 91 112 21% 63% 35% 84%

There are similarities between Santana and Springer at the plate. There might be more similarities between Santana and Sano, and that also carries over to the rest of the profile. Santana isn’t thought of as a strong defender, and he won’t be a real stolen-base threat. Santana turned 24 in August. Sano will turn 24 in May. Sano topped out as the No. 6 prospect on the Baseball America top 100. He was included somewhere in six different lists. Santana was never included in any of the top-100 lists. He didn’t get the hype, but he appears to have the skills.

Sano might have a little more power. Santana’s power has taken a step forward, and he also seems to have better bat-to-ball skills. This home run, just for the sake of including a visual example, is an impressive home run.

One thing Sano has been able to do is elevate — his ground-ball rate is 34%. Santana’s career mark is 47%, and last year’s mark was 44%. But perhaps even that is changing!

santana-gb

I don’t want to make too much of that small sample. After Santana came off the DL the second time, though, his wRC+ was 122, and his grounder rate was 36%. His up-the-middle approach yielded strongly positive returns, and it’s with that momentum Santana will try to enter 2017. He’s going to play a lot, and if he stays healthy, he should be ticketed for at least 500 plate appearances. Those could be greatly productive plate appearances.

Santana, like Sano, has work to do. He could make himself a better defender, and at the plate, he could tweak his selectivity. The Brewers don’t want him striking out a third of the time. It’s almost impossible to be a good everyday baseball player while striking out a third of the time. Santana will never be a contact hitter, but he could stand to be more aggressive at times. Last season, Santana ranked 64th in the percent of plate appearances that ended with a swinging strikeout. He ranked first in the percent of plate appearances that ended with a called strikeout. Santana should mind the edges, and he needs to fight some pitches off. There’s no assurance he’ll ever take the next step.

If he could do it, though, the Brewers would have a building block. As long as we’re throwing comps around, peak Justin Upton’s within reach at the plate. Santana has the eye, and he has the consistent pop. What he doesn’t have so much is the polish, but that can just be a synonym for “experience.”

We hoped you liked reading The Brewers’ Potential Breakout Slugger by Jeff Sullivan!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

newest oldest most voted
Bortky
Member
Bortky

I’ve been waiting for a post on Santana, Thank You! His September contact rate gives a lot of hope.