The Enpumpkining of Carlos Santana

In 2020, Carlos Santana had a down year. That happens to players all the time, and it’s particularly excusable in the pandemic season. Sixty games can make anyone look bad, and that’s before you get into the vast changes in routine. So while a .350 slugging percentage is obviously concerning, particularly from a first baseman, it’s nothing that you couldn’t hand-wave away by whispering his walk rate or xwOBA to yourself in a soothing voice.

In 2021, Carlos Santana is having a down year. If once is a coincidence, twice is a trend, and this certainly looks bad. The Royals’ problems don’t start at first base, but he certainly hasn’t been the answer there, and I’m skeptical that things will get better. Yes: Carlos Santana has turned into a pumpkin.

It sounds weird to say on the surface. Santana is still doing plenty of good things. He barely strikes out — 15.4% of the time so far this year. He walks a ton — 13% is a top-20 mark in the majors. Isn’t that exactly what you want your good hitters to do? Santana doesn’t waste many at-bats, and he gets on base for free a goodly amount. When do we get to the bad part?

The bad part? It’s everything else. Santana’s contact quality has completely tanked this year, and no matter the plate discipline, a first baseman needs to produce on contact. His overall line — .223/.326/.370 — works out to a 92 wRC+. Even with the eye-popping walk rate, he gets on base only slightly more often than league average, and that slugging number is abysmal.

To end up with that line despite so few wasted at-bats, you have to be doing something really wrong when you put the ball in play. Indeed, Santana has the eighth-worst production on contact in all of baseball, and the guys in front of him are mostly glove-first shortstops or other players undergoing their own awkward declines:

Worst wOBA on Contact, 2021
Player wOBACON ABs
Kevin Newman .244 419
Andrelton Simmons .251 323
Elvis Andrus .274 378
Maikel Franco .287 313
Jeff McNeil .295 284
David Fletcher .301 499
Jason Heyward .302 251
Carlos Santana .304 404
Isiah Kiner-Falefa .306 476
Nick Ahmed .314 318

Okay, fine, maybe he’s having a particularly unlucky year with the bat, or woke up on the wrong side of the bed every day in the month of June or something. Only, it doesn’t get better when you add 2020 into the mix:

Worst wOBA on Contact, ’20-’21
Player wOBACON ABs
Kevin Newman .245 557
Andrelton Simmons .270 425
Elvis Andrus .271 466
Carlos Santana .300 568
Victor Robles .303 353
Cody Bellinger .312 370
Isiah Kiner-Falefa .312 656
Nicky Lopez .315 487
David Fletcher .317 684
Jurickson Profar .317 404

MVP alert! But Dan Szymborski already covered Bellinger’s struggles, and we’re here to look at Santana. There are no two ways about it: For the last two years, Santana has produced like a light-hitting middle infielder when he makes contact. What could be the reason for that?

Over the course of Santana’s career, he’s been a fearsome fastball hitter. That’s partially because he does an excellent job making pitchers throw him strikes, but it’s also because he knows what to do with them: swing frequently, rarely whiff, and do damage when he connects. He still saw a good number of heaters, because he does a great job of getting into favorable counts, but pitchers were simply choosing their poison. Better to meet him in the zone and take your chances with a ball in play than miss and give him a walk.

That trend no longer holds. He’s having his worst season against fastballs since 2015, one of his worst pre-decline seasons. What’s gone wrong? Pretty simply, everything. His swinging strike rate on fastballs is the highest of his career (excluding a partial 2010 rookie season). His whiff rate when he does swing is a ghastly 17.5%, even with his 2011 season and worse than any effort since. We only have barrel data since 2015, but his barrels per swing mark is quite poor too: 3.4%, ahead of only his 2018 season and in the bottom third of the league.

Pitchers have noticed. Of the fastballs they’ve thrown him this year, 27.2% are right down the heart of the plate, the highest mark of his career. Including secondary pitches, 25.6% of the pitches he’s seen are over the heart of his plate, also the highest mark of his career. Pitchers aren’t dummies; if you don’t swing much and don’t produce when you do, they won’t play your wait-and-walk game.

The remedy to this is to turn and burn when pitchers challenge you. The best pitches to hit in the game are middle-middle fastballs. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his overall results, Santana hasn’t been able to do anything with them. He used to be a fly ball hitter, particularly on fastballs. In his career before last year, he ran only a 40% grounder rate when he made contact with one. This year, that number is up to 45%. That’s not a huge change, but it cuts into a huge source of value, namely potential home runs on fastballs.

Even when he does put one of those pitches in the air, it’s not the same; he’s pulling just over 30% of them, nearly a career low. Pulling balls in the air is the best way to get extra bases, and Santana just doesn’t do it like he used to — either in terms of getting the ball in the air or directing it to the pull side when he does.

This power outage is especially acute when he bats right-handed. He’s only hit righty 165 times this year, so the sample size is quite small, but hoo boy has he looked bad against lefties. He’s hitting grounders a whopping 60% of the time (and 65% of the time against fastballs). He’s pulled only two of his 33 air balls when facing fastballs as a right-hander, and 12 of 55 air balls overall. In other words, lefties can come after him with impunity.

I’m aware that this is an overload of data presented as a big pile of numbers, but that’s my goal. I want to overwhelm you with the ways that Santana is failing to punish pitchers for coming after him. As a righty, Santana has been a slap hitter who relies on BABIP to get by. He’s hitting .278/.333/.384 with a 7.3% walk rate and 10.3% strikeout rate. He has a .320 wOBACON; league average is right around .380. That list of poor production on contact was no accident; Santana keeps the company of defense-first middle infielders because that’s exactly what his batted ball mix looks like. That’s actually a better line than his lefty production. He’s still getting the ball in the air when he bats lefty, and there’s reason to believe he’s been slightly unlucky BABIP-wise, but when the good side of your switch-hitting first baseman looks like David Fletcher’s career line, it’s maybe time to panic.

There’s not much precedent for recovery from such a steep decline. Since 2015, here’s the entire list of hitters who have had a worse year for production on contact and then subsequently turned into sluggers, loosely defined:

Low wOBACON Recoveries
Player Year wOBACON Since
José Ramírez 2015 .271 .377
Aaron Hicks 2016 .293 .392

That’s it and that’s all. Also, neither really counts: both of them did it before turning into the hitters they’ve been since — they were still on an upward trajectory. In other words, no one has recently done it on the downward arc of their career and bounced back to stardom. On the other hand, there are all kinds of hitters at the ends of their careers on the list. Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jason Heyward, and Jonathan Lucroy put up worse seasons, and none were ever heard from again (my sincerest apologies to Heyward for including him in this depressing bunch).

Could Santana recover? I mean, anything is possible. It’s only one season — well, two seasons, but one was abbreviated — and he still has excellent plate discipline to bail him out. But I’ve seen enough. I’m ready to say it: Carlos Santana has turned into a pumpkin. It’s not the reason the Royals have underwhelmed this year, and it’s not their biggest problem going forward. It’s not great, though! Their big offseason acquisition, brought in to anchor their lineup, looks cooked, and he plays first base to boot. If they want offense, they’ll need to go elsewhere for it — and find some way to ease Santana out of the lineup while they do it. The Royals had little margin for error in constructing a playoff team given their starting point and payroll, and that margin for error just got even slimmer.

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

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2 years ago

Essentially, it seems the Royals best play here is to see if anyone is willing to take on ANY of the year remaining on Santana’s contract and then start next season with Pratto at 1B.

2 years ago
Reply to  tecjug

The $64,000 question is will Dayton Moore be willing to eat Santana’s 2022 salary? My guess is they’ll start Santana next year and see if Pratto comes out of the gate hot. If he does and Carlos is struggling I fully expect the Royals to bring Pratto up. This also delays Pratto’s service time clock. I don’t think it’d be wise to start out Pratto in the majors next year. Too risky if he does a Kelenic.

Six Ten
2 years ago
Reply to  CubFan

This is exactly what they will do. It won’t be about service time, it’ll be about not being willing to eat contract. And I don’t mean the whole thing, I mean the Royals would probably be unwilling to eat $3-4M. They just have no track record of being willing to do that.

2 years ago
Reply to  tecjug

wRC+ by month:
April: 133
May: 122
June: 81
July: 85
August: 39
September: 83

In late June I was still under the impression that Santana was just having a few bad weeks. They probably could have dumped his contract then. Now? He’s untradeable.