Is it time for slumping Carlos Santana to abandon third base move?
After beating the Tigers in 13 innings via a walkoff balk on Wednesday, the Indians won another 13-inning contest on Thursday, outlasting the Orioles via Carlos Santana's two-run double and withstanding a solo homer by Nick Markakis in the bottom of the frame. Building upon their three-game sweep of Detroit, the win extended Cleveland's streak to four in a row and lifted its record to 23-25.
Hits of any kind have been in rare supply for Santana this year. Even with two on Thursday, the 28-year-old switch hitter is batting a grim .153/.304/.276 through 207 plate appearances. His batting average is the lowest among qualified jotters, his slugging percentage the fourth-lowest. He does have 37 walks, the AL's second-highest total; thanks to that, his 68 OPS+ is only the 13th-worst among qualifiers. Still, it's a far cry from the 137 OPS+ he put up last year in batting .268/.377/.455, or his 130 mark from 2010-13 on a similar .254/.367/.446 line.
So much has gone wrong for Santana that it's difficult to know where to begin, but even amid small sample sizes, the trends are clear. Taking his left-and right-handed results together, he's been a victim of a .172 lowest batting average on balls in play, the lowest among qualifiers by 11 points (Jedd Gyorko is next at .183), and 109 points lower than his previous career mark. He's not hitting for power (.124 isolated power, 69 points below his previous career mark), and he's striking out more often (20.8 percent of all plate appearances, up from 17.8 percent previously), but he's also walking more often (17.9 percent, up from 15.1 percent previously). He's swinging less often, not only at pitches outside the zone but inside it as well. Via the PITCHf/x data at FanGraphs (the first row is from 2010 to 2013, the second from this season):
We can't get inside Santana's head, but the data suggests he's taking a more tentative approach because he's had such lousy results when putting the ball in play. Indeed, it's worth noting that he's averaging an AL-high 4.60 pitches per plate appearance, up from 4.27 prior to this season.
Once he puts it into play, Santana been woeful from both sides of the plate, but in keeping with his career pattern, he's been worse against righties than lefties — in large part because he's frequently shifted against when batting from the left side:
|vs RHP 2010-13||1407||.238||.356||.437||.793||14.4%||19.9%||.264|
|vs RHP 2014||131||.133||.305||.248||.553||19.8%||21.4%||.149|
|vs LHP 2010-13||694||.285||.390||.465||.855||13.8%||13.4%||.310|
|vs LHP 2014||76||.185||.303||.323||.626||13.2%||19.7%||.208|
From either side, Santana's batting average on balls in play is down by more than 100 points from his previous career norm, and his OPS by around 230 or 240 points. He's putting the ball in play considerably less often against righties, with increased walk and strikeout rates, and whiffing far more against lefties than he ever has before. He's also pulling the ball with even greater frequency from both sides of the plate; where he has generally done so about three times as often as he's gone opposite field, he's doing so about five or six times as often this year:
|vs RHP 2010-13||39%||49%||12%|
|vs RHP 2014||48%||43%||9%|
|vs LHP 2010-13||32%||56%||12%|
|vs LHP 2014||48%||44%||8%|
As for those shifts while batting lefty, via data from Baseball Info Solutions, in 262 career plate appearances where he's been shifted against, he's put the ball in play 98 times and is hitting .112 on groundballs and short line drives, the lowest of any major leaguer who has faced such shifts at least 100 times in that span; the next-lowest qualifiers are the just-demoted Mike Moustakas (.130) and power-hitting Edwin Encarnacion (.139). By comparison, Santana is hitting .216 on the same type of balls without the shift. This year, he's just 3-for-32 on grounders and liners against the shift.
I'll avoid the temptation to get more granular by digging into pitch type and location, since switch hitters generally offer twice the data at half the sample size, but suffice to say that Santana is so lost that his face could appear on a milk carton. It's worth wondering whether his problems have anything to do with this year's move back to third base, where he last played with any regularity in 2006; he dabbled there in 2007 and 2008 while converting to catcher in the Dodgers' organization.
Not surprisingly, Santana's fielding numbers at the hot corner are quite bad (-5 runs in 26 games according to both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating) but the samples again are small; he has also spent time behind the plate (10 games), designated hitter (10 games) and first base (three games), all of which are familiar to him. In general, he's shown himself to be a competent first baseman but a below-average catcher, particularly once pitch framing and pitch blocking are brought into the equation.
Santana's move to part-time duty at third base was designed to get the defensively superior Yan Gomes more playing time behind the plate while maintaining the flexibility that has been the hallmark of Terry Francona's time with the Indians. Per 7,000 pitches – roughly a full season for a catcher — Gomes' career averages are 12.6 runs above average in framing and 2.4 runs above average in blocking, while Santana is 16.4 runs below average in framing and 1.7 below average in blocking. The total swing would be about 33 runs a year if Santana were kept away from any catching duty and didn't create other problems elsewhere in the field.
Speaking of which, it's not as though the Indians don't have alternatives at third base. Lonnie Chisenhall, a once-touted prospect who hit a combined .244/.284/.411 in 682 PA from 2011-13 while failing to seize the job, is batting a sizzling .376/.442/.545 in 115 PA while splitting time between third — where he's been roughly average through his career — and DH more or less equally. Wisely, Francona has almost completely shielded him from facing lefties, limiting him to seven plate appearances against them.
Elsewhere, Gomes (.280/.329/.476, 128 OPS+) has been a productive hitter, and in fact the Indians have gotten above-average production from all of their regulars save for Santana and first baseman Nick Swisher (.211/.313/.322, 83 OPS+). Reserve infielder Mike Aviles (.275/.299/.383, 95 OPS+) has done a respectable job as the platoon complement to Chisenhall — playing third against lefties as Santana DHs — and the fill-in for injured Jason Kipnis at second base.
Kipnis, who has been out since early May due to an abdominal strain, is set to start a rehab assignment on Friday, and if all goes as planned, the Indians will activate him on Monday. Once they do, they should consider abandoning the Santana hot corner experiment and moving Chisenhall and Aviles into a straight platoon at third base. Santana and Swisher could split first base and DH duties with occasional forays behind the plate for the former and to rightfield for the latter if flexibility is needed. There's no guarantee such a move would jump-start Santana's bat, but at the very least it would help a defense that ranks dead last in the AL in both defensive efficiency (.664, 24 points below the league average) and Defensive Runs Saved (-38), not to mention a pitching staff is allowing 4.83 runs per game, the league's second-worst rate. Without doing something to improve their run prevention, the Indians don't stand a chance of returning to the postseason, and while they might contend without Santana's bat, they'd be far better off with him back in form.