It’s that time of year, when baseball media members offer their respective takes on players who will either break out or break down this season. Most of the time those impressions are based upon a combination of objective and subjective criteria, from the “eye test,” to the numbers, to gut feel — and yes, even to spring training performance. I’m going to go on record stating that I have never, even been so sure about a player’s performance declining from the previous season as I am about Minnesota Twins’ shortstop Danny Santana.
First, let’s take a step back and appreciate the fact the Twins are to be commended for signing the then 16-year-old Dominican youngster and molding him into a major leaguer and a true organizational asset. Just because I expect him to take few steps backward this season doesn’t mean Santana lacks value.
He was a true “level at a time” prospect, first reaching the full-season minor leagues in late 2010, when he played for Low-A Beloit, and not getting to the upper minors until 2013, when he spent the entire season at Double-A New Britain. He mostly played shortstop during his minor-league career, though he got occasional reps at both second base and in center field.
Each season, I compile my own ordered list of minor-league, position-player prospects, based on OBP and SLG relative to the league and level, adjusted for age. It basically serves as a follow list, with the order then adjusted based on traditional scouting methods. Santana qualified for this list twice, but only in its lowest regions, at No. 286 in 2010 and No. 235 in 2012. His youth relative to his level — rather than this production — was the reason for his inclusion, and basically marked him as a name to monitor rather than a significant major league prospect.
It’s not unusual for a glove-oriented shortstop or catching prospect to appear only at the low end of my minor league rankings and then go on to a solid big league career. The problem is, Santana was never seen as a defensive wizard as he progressed through the minors. He’d flash some tools, along with plenty of inconsistency.
I scouted him at Low-A Beloit. On the positive side, he could fly, he’d flash some serious athletic ability in the field and he made fairly authoritative contact even though he was one of the younger players. On the other hand, he was crude in all facets of the game, occasionally losing focus, and swinging at absolutely everything. I saw him as a future major-league player, a multi-positional type who could be a Swiss-Army-knife-type player coming off of the bench. Honestly, his .319/.353/.472 season for the Twins last season hasn’t done much to change that prognosis, at least from my perspective.
Let’s put that campaign under the microscope and look at his plate-appearance frequency and production by BIP type information to get a better feel for his true offensive talent level. First, the frequency info:
|FREQ – 2014|
What stands out here is Santana’s poor K/BB ratio. He struck out 22.8% of the time, for a 78 percentile rank. His walk rate also was a minuscule 4.4%, an 11 percentile rank. Only seven American League batting-title qualifiers had a lower walk rate than Santana, and all of them had lower K rates. Of those seven, Adam Jones‘ K rate was the closest to Santana’s — and let’s just say that Jones hits the ball a little harder than Santana.
Santana’s 2014 BIP frequency profile was quite vanilla. His popup and liner rate percentile ranks of 49 and 47, respectively, are basically average, and he showed a fairly significant ground ball tendency (75 percentile rank), which is fine, considering his speed.
To complete the picture, we need to get a better feel for Santana’s batted-ball authority, which can be inferred from his production by BIP type data:
|PROD – 2014|
|D.Santana||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
Santana’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
This is where the real fun begins. For most hitters, there are some subtle contextual differences between their actual and context-adjusted production. With Danny Santana, it’s like we’re comparing Darryl Strawberry to Rafael Santana.
The Twins’ rookie batted a fairly healthy .357 AVG with a .786 SLG on fly balls last season, for a 142 REL PRD. His hard and soft fly ball rates paint a much different picture; his context-adjusted fly ball ADJ PRD is a lowly 47, which would have placed him just outside the bottom 10 among AL batting-title qualifiers. Santana was helped a bit by his home park, by his opponents’ unfamiliarity with him and also by random chance.
He batted an absolutely ridiculous .767 AVG-1.183 SLG on liners, for a 156 REL PRD. That ranked third among American League hitters with 215 or more batted balls last season, with fellow 2015 crash candidate Steve Pearce (.855 AVG-1.273 SLG, 186 REL PRD) leading the way. While you can certainly make a case for Santana’s isolated power on liners being unusually high because of his speed, their actual authority suggests a much humbler 83 ADJ PRD level. That would rank way down at the bottom of AL qualifiers, in the Alejandro De Aza–Elvis Andrus–Adam Eaton zone.
Then there are the grounders. Santana batted .353 AVG-.397 SLG on the ground in 2014, for a whopping 213 REL PRD. That would be first in the American League last season, just ahead of a guy named Mike Trout. Again, Santana ranks way down at the bottom of the AL in average grounder authority, ahead only of players such as Adam Dunn and Nori Aoki. Santana can really run, though, so we have to give him some credit — but there are an awful lot of guys who can fly and did way less damage on the ground last season.
So Santana was wildly fortunate not just on one, but on all major BIP types last season. Put it together, and he batted an absolutely insane .416 AVG-.617 SLG on all BIP last season (161 REL PRD) despite well below MLB average BIP authority that supported a 75 ADJ PRD level. That actual 161 REL PRD figure was bettered by only two AL regulars last season: Trout and Jose Abreu. Two others who didn’t qualify but had at least 215 BIP, J.D. Martinez and Pearce, also bettered it, but unlike Santana, they heavily impact the baseball. Santana is an outlier among outliers.
Santana’s actual production on all BIP was so good that even when you add his poor K and BB numbers back into the equation, he retains a strong 132 REL PRD. His poor context-adjusted 75 REL PRD, however, takes a further hit down to an unsightly 66.
So Santana, who batted .319/.353/.472, would have batted .227/.261/.302 if he produced at MLB-average rates based on his batted ball exit speed/angle mix. That would be unfair to him, though, as it would not take his speed into account.
To account for his speed, let’s allow Santana to retain his higher than average actual isolated power levels on fly balls and liners, and also credit him for 50% of the difference between his actual and projected grounder production. Making these adjustments makes Santana a .249/.283/.354 true-talent hitter in 2014, for an 82 ADJ PRD.
Now if Santana can go out and be an 82 OPS+ hitter and play a credible defensive shortstop (and/or center field) for the Twins in 2015 at a near-minimum salary, he will have value. In spring training, he’s picked up right where he left off last season, flirting with a .400 average. Steamer pegs him for 1.4 WAR this season, in 420 plate appearances, with a slightly higher offensive projection. He is part of an interesting group of Twins’ youngsters who are at or just below the big-league level — all of whom could play a part on the franchise’s next contending club. I’m not here to slam Danny Santana. I’m only attempting to identify what he really was last season so we can have a benchmark for what he will be in the future.