When it comes to picking the 2019 MVP for the Cleveland Indians, there’s little room for debate.
It’s Carlos Santana. By about a mile.
Sure, Shane Bieber (5.6) and Mike Clevinger (4.5) each had a higher WAR, while Francisco Lindor tied with Santana in that department (4.4).
Still, nobody did more for the Indians’ offense than their first baseman.
In fact, for large chunks of the season, Santana was Cleveland’s offense. He kept the team afloat while Lindor recovered from injury, and while Jose Ramirez endured a brutal slump.
Simply put, were it not for Santana, the midseason standings gap between Cleveland and the Minnesota Twins would’ve been insurmountable. It was without a doubt the best season of his career, made all the more surprising by the fact it occurred at age 33.
Can it be repeated, though? Can he even come close to replicating his outstanding 2019 numbers this summer? Can the Indians confidently assume Santana will once again maintain his role as their offensive spark plug?
Before addressing 2020, you have to take a deeper dive into just how good Santana was last season.
Cleveland fans were likely happy to see the Tribe bring back the popular first baseman after he spent a year in Philadelphia. However, even the most optimistic supporters couldn’t have predicted how big of an upgrade Santana would be.
His slash line (.281/.397/.515) has never looked better, as both his batting average and slugging percentage, along with his OPS (.911), reached career peaks. Santana’s wRC+ (135) and hard-hit percentage (43%) were the highest they’ve been in nine years, while his wRAA (35.4) has never been higher. He’s never been worth more wins than he was last season (4.4).
Santana finished 2019 with more hits (161), runs (110) and RBIs (93) than ever before, while tying a career high with 34 home runs.
Looking further, Santana increased his wOBA by 47 points year-over-year (.380). He not only came in 60 points above league average with this stat (.320), but also 65 points above league average for 33-year-old players (.315).
Speaking of outdoing Father Time, just look at how Santana’s slash line from last year compared to league average for players at age 33.
Age 33 Average – .261/.332/.409, .741 OPS
Santana – .281/.397/.515, .912 OPS
When Cleveland moved to bring Santana home last winter, a bounce-back season didn’t seem far-fetched. His struggles in Philadelphia could be seen as the result of playing in a new uniform for the first time since 2010.
However, assuming he’d have the best year of his career, notching his first All Star bid and Silver Slugger award, certainly felt extreme at the time.
Which brings us back to the original question. Was what we saw from Santana last season a fluke, or a sign of things to come?
For starters, FanGraphs expects regression in 2020, projecting drops in Santana’s slash line (260/.375/.482), wRC+ (121), WAR (2.7), wRAA (22.5) and wOBA (.360). This certainly shouldn’t be a surprise. It’d be lofty to assume Santana would top his career year at age 34.
When looking at his career trends, though, you see it’s more than just betting against an aging player.
To his credit, Santana has maintained the same solid plate discipline throughout his time in the majors. He did make less contact on pitches outside the zone last year, but also swung at less pitches outside the zone.
Where it gets interesting is when you examine his offensive trends across his career. Should these tendencies continue, it’s fair to expect a noticeable drop in Santana’s production this summer.
As you’ll see, barring a couple exceptions, Santana’s wOBA, wRC+ and slash line all follow similar patterns. Said stats will spike, drop the following year, slightly improve or decline the year after this before spiking once again.
While Santana’s batting average and OBP don’t see extreme fluctuations, the spikes with his wRC+ are drastic. Essentially, while he’s still consistently getting on base, his run production doesn’t follow suit.
Should these trends continue, we can expect Santana’s offensive contributions to decrease this year and next before potentially one final spike. Said spike will occur after his contract with the Indians expires, provided they don’t buy him out after this season.
Bottom line – it’s lofty to assume Santana can replicate what he gave Cleveland last year. It was beyond what anyone could’ve predicted and was a huge boost for a team which badly needed it.
It also fell right in line with his career trends, which indicate regression is indeed around the corner.