On the heels of a 95-loss season, the Rangers’ 2019 campaign has been a pleasant surprise. The team is 58-54, and if they don’t exactly look like Wild Card contenders — their playoff odds are just 0.2% — then at least the stellar performances of Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, and Joey Gallo have offset disappointments like Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, and, well, Joey Gallo’s oblique muscle and hamate bone. But one of the most unlikely breakouts has come from a player who spent the better part of the past four seasons burrowing below replacement level when he wasn’t shuttling between Triple-A, the majors, and the disabled list. If you didn’t know that Danny Santana was back in the bigs and thriving as a super-utilityman, you do now.
Since the start of July, the 28-year-old switch-hitting Santana has been red hot, batting .380/.394/.740 with 14 multi-hit games in 22 starts. Overall, he’s hitting .321/.349/.589 with a career-high 17 homers, 12 steals, a 133 wRC+, and 2.0 WAR. His slugging percentage is high enough that he cracks the AL top 10 even with the addition of 28 phantom at-bats (he’s got 319 PA and needs 347 to qualify), and among AL players with at least 300 PA, his un-adjusted slugging percentage is in a virtual tie for third, his batting average in a virtual tie for second, and his wRC+ 16th. He’s done this while playing all over the diamond: 20 starts at first base, 16 in center field, 15 at second base, eight in left field, five at shortstop, and four in right field. Eleven times, he’s switched positions mid-game, and he’s taken four different positions after entering as a pinch-hitter. Lately, he’s been working out at third base, and playing time there appears inevitable given the recent release of Asdrúbal Cabrera and the fact that he’s played the hot corner six times in his major league career.
If you can’t quite place Santana on the space-time continuum, you’re forgiven, as it’s been awhile since he was relevant. In May 2014, as the Twins were busily beating a path to their fourth straight season with at least 92 losses, they were receiving very little production from both shortstop Pedro Florimón and center fielder Aaron Hicks. In early May, they recalled the 23-year-old Santana, whom they’d signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, and initially used him at shortstop, but when Hicks continued to struggle after suffering a concussion induced by his crashing into an outfield wall, they gave Santana a shot at center, a position he’d played all of 23 times in seven minor league seasons. Thanks to his natural athleticism, he held his own in the middle pasture, and just kept hitting. By the time the season ended, he owned a .319/.353/.472 line with seven homers, 20 steals, a 132 wRC+, and 3.9 WAR, that while making 62 starts in center field and 31 at shortstop. He got a bit of down-ballot consideration in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, finishing seventh while Jose Abreu won unanimously.
With Hicks and Byron Buxton representing the future of center field in the Twin Cities, Santana returned to shortstop in 2015, but he scuffled mightily and was optioned back to Triple-A twice. Between his .215/.241/.291 (38 wRC+) line and dreadful defense (-6.5 UZR, -15 DRS), his season was every bit as dismal as the previous one had been promising; his -1.3 WAR was the majors’ fifth-lowest mark. Largely back in the outfield for 2016, he was limited to 75 games by bilateral hamstring strains and an A/C joint sprain in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, and finished with offensive numbers nearly as bad as the year before.
In May 2017, he was traded to the Braves for lefty reliever Kevin Chapman and cash, but his season was marred by a bacterial infection in his leg, and then a quad strain; his bat failed to recover, too. Largely consigned to Triple-A oblivion, he only played 15 major league games last year, taking just 32 plate appearances for the Braves. For the 2015-18 period, Santana hit just .219/.256/.319 (49 wRC+) with -2.3 WAR in 735 PA. Among players with at least 500 PA across that span, only Omar Infante (47 wRC+), Alexi Amarista (48), and Jeff Mathis (49) were as bad or worse and only Victor Martinez (-3.5 WAR), Amarista (-2.7), and Mike Aviles (-2.4) returned less value.
The Rangers — who, again, lost 95 games last year and seemed capable of doing it again — signed Santana to a minor league contract in January and invited him to spring training, the kind of warm-body move that’s typical for the genre. But this one turned out to be something besides garden variety. Santana, whose plus speed and versatility intrigued the team, caught the attention of new manager Chris Woodward. “When we met him in Spring Training, I didn’t know him at all,” Woodward told MLB.com’s Jessica Camerato in June. “[Bench coach Don Wakamatsu] was like, ‘I don’t know what it is. There’s something about him. He’s got a lot, a lot of talent.'”
The Rangers also noticed that Santana was relying upon his hands too much in his swing. Via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson:
“We saw some flaws that were preventing him from having success,” Woodward said. “His go-to when he struggled was, ‘Go with your hands.’ That’s not the correct sequencing of the swing. It actually is the worst thing you can do.”
Santana has good hands, Woodward said, and the longer he can delay them and use his lower half to decide whether to swing or not, gives him better strike-zone recognition and keeps him from chasing bad pitches.
He has been able to work himself into hitters’ counts and is taking advantage. Quieting the hands, which he referred to as “the dance,” has allowed his timing to improve.
“I have worked a lot,” said Santana, who came to spring camp on a minor-league deal. “It has helped me a lot, and I want to stay like that the whole season. That’s the only change. I’m on time more. It’s more quiet. It’s a little more direct swing to the ball.”
Now, I’m no hitting coach, nor did I spend the night at a Holiday Inn Express, poring over video. To these eyes, Santana’s swing still appears to be very arm-based, with a pronounced bat waggle before he loads, and a minimal stride when he swings. Here’s his big night from July 25, when he hit a grand slam and a two-run double against the A’s:
And here’s a big game from June 4, 2017 featuring multiple extra-base hits as well:
His right-handed swing mostly looks the same, at least to me, and the same can be said for his left-handed one. I’ll leave it to somebody else to break down the changes in greater detail; there’s no shortage of video out there.
The video is only part of the puzzle anyway. As it turns out, Santana was hindered by more than mechanics. From The Athletic’s Levi Weaver (emphasis in original):
After that successful rookie season, Santana says he was paralyzed with anxiety and pressure to reproduce the results from that first season. “I felt like I couldn’t even talk,” he admitted earlier this month. “Like I was suffocating.”
Meetings with team psychologists in Minnesota and Atlanta weren’t immediately successful – “It takes time,” Santana volunteers – but eventually, some of the breathing techniques he learned began to sink in and allow him to stay calm during the game. To practice, Santana says he would go home after a game and think through every at-bat, every play in the field. As he felt the anxiety return, he would practice his breathing, practice calming down.
Eventually, the practice at home began to translate to a calmer player in the field. So much so that manager Chris Woodward has mentioned on multiple occasions this season how Santana — as much as, if not more than any other player on the team — is the guy Woodward wants at the plate in a high-pressure situation.
By the numbers, Santana has become an almost completely different hitter:
Statcast doesn’t cover Santana’s rookie season, his only good one prior to this year; including those numbers in the first line, he had a 50.5% groundball rate, a 27.5% fly ball rate, a 1.83 ratio, and a .291 wOBA. He was a guy who hit the ball on the ground and utilized his speed, or at least hoped to. “Before I tried to pound the ball, get on base and steal bases,” he told Weaver. “Now what I’m doing this year — and maybe this is the difference — I’m trying to hit the ball hard.”
This year, Santana has hit well from both sides of the plate while showing more power against southpaws, that despite also hitting the ball on the ground against them with more frequency:
Six of his 17 homers have come against southpaws, one for every 15.2 PA; meanwhile, he’s homered once for every 20.7 PA against righties. He’s certainly taken advantage of the hitter-friendly environment of Arlington (.329/.363/.712, 13 HR, 158 wRC+), but he’s been solid on the road, too (.314/.335/.471, 4 HR, 110 wRC+).
Now, through all of these splits, you’ve probably noticed the very small gap between Santana’s batting average and on-base percentage. Indeed, he’s walked in just 3.8% of his plate appearances, the majors’ eighth-lowest rate at that 300 PA cutoff, and swung at 41.6% of pitches outside the strike zone (virtually tied for the 11th-highest rate). Meanwhile, he’s struck out in 27.6% of his PA; his 7.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the third-highest among that group of 203 players, after Jorge Alfaro (10.7) and Tim Anderson (8.5). His .399 BABIP trails only Fernando Tatis Jr. (.419) and Bryan Reynolds (.413). Sustaining that is likely to be difficult, though his 75th percentile sprint speed can help.
Per Weaver, the Rangers considered trading Santana at the July 31 deadline, but resisted the urge to sell high because, well, they liked him. Said general manager Jon Daniels, “[W]hat we’re intrigued by is: One, he’s a great dude. But how many guys are there that can plus-run, plus-throw, can switch-hit and legitimate play the middle of the infield and legitimately play center field? That’s a really unique skill set. And now he has developed some power and ability to kind of get the ball in the air. So we decided we want to see it out.”
Where Santana, who has two more years of club control remaining, will fit going forward is an open question. The small-sample defensive metrics say that second base is his best position, but with Odor, Mazara, first baseman Ronald Guzmán, and center fielder Delino DeShields all producing 0.7 WAR or less, the Rangers have enough areas of concern that more multiposition duty isn’t out of the question, and Santana’s ability to hit pitchers of both hands will keep him relevant on a daily basis. Regression may eventually take a bite out of his performance, but for the moment he remains as compelling a reason to watch the team as any.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.