When Dayton Moore signed Carlos Santana to two-year deal this off-season, his intention for the acquisition was pretty obvious: the club needed someone who could help the Royals lineup when it came to plate discipline and drawing walks. In fact, almost immediately after the regular season was over last year, Moore was pretty adamant about the need to improve the Royals’ ability to get on base, as evidenced from his talk with the Royals beat writers at the club’s end of the season press conference:
…Moore spoke more directly of a need to upgrade multiple spots in the batting order.
“We definitely need more on-base guys,” Moore said. “We need more quality [at-bats] from probably two other spots in that lineup.”“Moore: Royals Need To Improve OBP, Supplement Bullpen” by Steve Adams; MLB Trade Rumors
While Moore did also acquire Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor to boost the lineup, Santana probably fit that Royals “OBP” need best this off-season. Over 12 seasons in the Major Leagues, Santana sports a career OBP of .366, and he has lead the league in walks twice (2014 and 2020), according to Baseball Reference. While Santana’s batting average and home run production has fluctuated over his career, his ability to generate walks and showcase supreme plate discipline has remained consistent. Furthermore, considering the Royals’ history for preferring and developing free-swingers at the big league level, especially under Moore, the Santana signing was not only a breath of fresh air, but also a signal of change when it came to the organization’s priorities on the offensive end.
So far this year, Santana has been as good as advertised, even though he is coming off a final season in Cleveland where he posted a 96 wRC+, which was the lowest of his career, according to Fangraphs.
Going into Tuesday’s series opener against the Pirates, not only is Santana posting a wRC+ of 136 (which matches his All-Star campaign from 2019), but he is also putting up a slash of .230/.356/.486 with five home runs and 18 RBI in 90 plate appearances as a Royal. Of Royals hitters with 30 or more plate appearances, Santana has been the most productive thus far on a wOBA, xwOBA, and wRC+ end.
Thus, what has helped Santana experience such a surge at the plate in his first season in Kansas City, especially after a rough 2020 in Cleveland? And furthermore, how has Santana’s presence boosted the Royals lineup as a whole in 2021?
Let’s take a deeper look at Santana’s success in 2021 and how the Royals lineup has also developed through the first 21 games of this season as well, thanks to his contributions.
Barreling and launching balls more than ever
When it comes to walking and striking out, Santana is pretty much doing the same thing as always. His K rate is at 16.7 percent, which is 0.2 percent lower than last season, and his BB rate is 16.7 as well, which is actually 1.7 percent lower than 2020. However, while he is walking slightly less (and whiffing more, as his whiff rate is 3.2 percent higher than a year ago), he is demonstrating power behind the ball, which was largely missing during the shortened 2020 campaign.
First off, Santana’s average exit velocity on batted balls is 91.1 MPH, which is 3.1 MPH higher than a year ago. While the extra velocity on Santana’s batted balls is nice to see, how it combines with his average launch angle this year is what makes his start this year even more intriguing.
So far, Santana’s average launch angle on batted balls is 16.1 degrees, which would be a career high and 3.9 degrees higher than his mark in 2020. As a result, he has produced a barrel rate of 13.3 percent, which is not only higher than last year, but would be a career high, as well. Ever since Statcast started tracking batted balls in 2015, Santana has never posted a barrel rate over 9.8 percent. If this rate sticks (or remains around this level), it would not only be the first time his barrel rate was in the 10 percent range, but it would also be 3.5 percent better than his career high.
Thus, Santana is experiencing a renaissance at the plate in regard to power, which isn’t easy to do in a home park that is difficult for home run hitters. His five home runs is tied with Salvador Perez for the club lead, but while Salvy is displaying power at the expense of plate discipline (0.17 BB/K ratio, which is higher than only Kyle Isble and Hanser Alberto), Santana has been the best of both worlds. He not only can hit the ball out of the park, but he can draw a walk, which gives him the kind of skill set that the Royals have not seen consistently at the plate, especially since 2018.
Additionally, Santana’s streak doesn’t seem too fluky either, especially when one looks at his last 250 plate appearances. Let’s take a look at Santana’s percentiles via Baseball Savant.
As one can see, all of Santana’s hitting percentiles hover in solid territory, which makes this start not only feel legitimate, but sustainable as well over the course of a full 162 game season. Furthermore, his xWOBA over his last 250 plate appearances also demonstrates that this great start to 2021 is an extension of what he has done since last season. Even tough there are big spikes in his last 50 and 100 plate appearances, there isn’t much of one in Santana’s past 250 plate appearances, as it remains not only stable, but also considerably above the league average line.
That shows that Santana’s not only consistent, but he has a recent history of being a well above average hitter when it comes to production.
Also, the way Santana has not only continued to produce, but at Kauffman Stadium this year has also been impressive. The spacious grounds of the K has tended to be challenging on new hitters initially, especially free agents. However, as evidenced by his home run against Tampa Bay’s Ryan Thompson, Santana has not only been able to handle the difficult park factors of Kauffman thus far in his Royals debut, but he has also been able to display considerable power during the rough month of April, where the weather tends to suppress power, especially home runs.
Here is Santana bucking that trend, blasting a home run to right field in the cold, Kansas City night:
Thus, Royals fans have to wonder: if Santana is producing like this now, what could he be capable of in June and July, when the weather will be much friendlier to power hitters not only at Kauffman Stadium, but at other parks around the AL Central and American League in general, as well?
Santana’s impact on the rest of the Royals lineup
Santana has lived up to his lofty free agent status thus far, and as of now, the signs look promising for him to continue this production throughout the summer. However, how has the addition of Santana affected the Royals lineup overall?
Well, it may be one of those “is it correlation or causation” kind of deals, but there are some interesting metrics to notice when looking at the Royals’ 2021 numbers with Santana and their 2019-2020 combined metrics without him.
When looking at combined 2019-2020 numbers, the Royals ranked 25th in walk rate (7.6 percent) and BB/K ratio (0.33), according to Fangraphs. Thus, it’s not surprising that the Royals during that time span not only produced paltry OBP numbers (.309, third worst in the league), but also lackluster wRC+ numbers as well (86 wRC+, which ranked 26th overall). As a lineup, it’s hard to find any lasting success when hitters not only fail to walk, but also show little plate discipline as well, which BB/K ratio measures on a general basis.
So far in 2021, the Royals rank 20th in BB rate (8.1 percent) and 12th in BB/K ratio (0.38). As a result, their OBP ranks slightly better in comparison to years past (20th), as does their wRC+ at 14th in the league. All those rankings are stark improvements from the past couple of seasons, and could get better, especially if the Royals get more help in the lineup in the middle of the order, which has been pretty lackluster this season.
Of course, the Royals lineup isn’t perfect. While the club is posting a strikeout rate that ranks second-to-last in the league, according to Fangraphs, their OBP is actually LOWER than their 2019-2020 combined mark. Thus, are the Royals truly a better club on an OBP basis? Or are the Royals simply slightly better than the rest of the league, which is overall struggling with strikeouts and plate discipline in 2021, as hinted below:
Additionally, some of the Royals’ Fangraphs rankings reveal a more “middle of the pack” club than one that ranks as one of the best in the league at 14-8, after Tuesday’s game. Hence, the Royals could be due for some regression, especially if they are unable to maintain their hot hitting against division rivals Minnesota, Cleveland, and Chicago, whom the Royals will play over the next three series after Pittsburgh.
Nonetheless, the Royals are walking more, showing better overall plate discipline (or at least according to BB/K ratio), and are overall more productive on a wRC+ basis. That is something to celebrate and pay attention to, especially if the Royals lineup in the 5-7 holes boost their production soon.
And safe to say, Santana has been a huge contributor to those improved rankings, and could be even more key to furthering that improvement over the summer months of this season if he should continue to walk and rake, as he has been doing so far this year.
What is Santana’s outlook for the remainder of 2021?
Santana may not be an All-Star in 2021, unless Royals fans flood the ballot as they have done in years past. First base, especially in the American League, is a tough spot for any player, let alone a Kansas City Royal. According to Fangraphs, Santana only ranks 6th in fWAR and wRC+ of qualified AL first baseman, which shows how insanely competitive the position is in the American League.
In fact, take a look at the graph below and how Santana ranks to those above him:
In addition, ZiPS and Steamer project that Santana’s power will cool off at some point. ZiPS only projects a rest of the season slugging percentage of .426 and Steamer isn’t much higher at .429. Most projections figure Santana will still be productive overall, but while his early start may signal Santana as a “dark horse All Star”, the ROS projections see him as a slightly above average first baseman who will produced a wRC+ of 108 and finish in the 18-22 home run mark for the year.
As of now, it seems difficult to see what Santana will do from May on. The metrics are solid, and he’s having an impact on the lineup, even if it may not be too dramatic thus far. However, considering the free-swinging nature of many of the Royals’ key hitters (i.e. Salvy and Whit), Santana will need to continue to be same kind of force in 2021 if the Royals want to stay near the top of the division. They need his patient-power combo, especially in the two-spot of the lineup.
It seems likely that the plate patience will stay consistent…
But will the power?
Royals fans are hoping…or at least crossing their fingers that it will…
For both Santana and the Royals’ playoff chances this year.
Photo Credit: Norm Hall/Getty Images