Carlos Santana was expected to be a key catalyst to this Royals lineup when he was acquired as a free agent this Winter. After all, he was kind of the antithesis of what Royals fans were used to from free agent signings. Santana was a proven veteran who had mostly played on winning squads, most recently in Cleveland. He was known for a supreme eye at the plate, as his BB/K ratio has been over 1.00 four times in five years from 2016 through 2020 (and his career low BB/K ratio was 0.73, which occurred in his sophomore season back in 2011). He was a far cry from the typical Royals hitter who contributed to a lineup that often finished near the bottom of the league in walk rate during the Dayton Moore-era.
At the very least, Royals fans figured that Santana would be a professional hitter who would be able to get on base frequently, while also adding some pop to the top to middle of the lineup (from 2016 to 2019, he hit 34 homers in a single season twice, which included 2016 and 2019).
Granted, Santana started off his Royals tenure splendidly. During the month of April, he posted a 133 wRC+ and in the month of May, he posted a 122 wRC+, according to Fangraphs. Additionally, during the first two months, Santana hit 10 home runs, drove in 34 RBI, accumulated 38 walks, and only struck out 35 times (a BB/K ratio of 1.09). Thus, it seemed like the Royals had gotten exactly the player they signed this off-season, and the Royals’ record at the end of May reflected that for the most part (26-26, but they did have a 15-9 April, which was Santana’s best month).
Unfortunately, as the Royals’ season started to go south (a 7-20 June was the primary culprit), so did Santana’s production and fortunes at the plate.
In the month of June, Santana’s wRC+ dropped to 81, and while his July was slightly better at 85, his plate discipline eroded in the process. His BB/K ratio went from 1.08 in June to 0.55 in July, which was particularly highlighted by a massive spike in strikeout rate, as it rose from 11.3 percent during June to 19.8 percent during the month of July. That decline in batting eye should have been a concerning sign for Royals fans, even if the wRC+ was a slight improvement from the previous month.
In August, things tanked completely for Santana, as he posted a 39 wRC+, which has been a season-low when comparing Santana’s months during the 2021 season. His power numbers over that sample were particularly concerning. He failed to not just hit ZERO home runs in 100 plate appearances during August, but he also only posted an ISO of .043 as well, which demonstrated that he did get many extra base hits at all during that month of play.
While Santana didn’t command a whole lot of money this off-season, he was by far the Royals’ most high-profile free agent signing in maybe five years. Thus, his freefall over the past month is probably making Royals fans wonder: is Santana truly on the decline? Or was his horrendous month of August a bad slump which he can bounce back in September, which hopefully will build some positive momentum for the 2022 season?
Let’s take a deeper look into Santana’s profile and see if there’s any hope on the horizon for him at the plate in September and beyond.
When looking at Santana’s overall metrics this year, there are still some positive signs that he hasn’t been as bad as his most recent stretch. Here’s a look at his percentile rankings via Baseball Savant:
As one can see, when it comes to plate discipline, Santana has been doing some things pretty well overall. He still doesn’t chase out of the strike zone much (82nd percentile), he still walks a lot (93rd percentile), and when he does swing, he doesn’t whiff a whole lot either (71st percentile). So, Santana to a degree is still doing what he was expected to do when the Royals signed him this past winter.
However, the batted ball metrics are a bit more concerning. The hard hit rate and average exit velocity percentiles are mediocre, and his barrel rate is pretty low, which was a concern some Royals fans had about Santana from last season.
After ranking in the 67th percentile in barrel rate in 2019, he fell to the 41st percentile in 2020. Granted, it was a shortened season, so some Royals fans (including myself) figured that the barrel rate would correct itself over a 162-game season. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case, and Santana has actually seen his barrel rate regress from 2020, which is not an encouraging sign for September or 2022.
A big issue for Santana this year has been his inability to put the ball in the air as of late. During the first half of the season, Santana had a GB/FB ratio of 1.04, which also included a HR/FB rate of 14.6 percent, which were both decent marks for a hitter expected to be productive in 2-5 spots in the Royals batting order. However, that GB/FB ratio in the second half spiked to 2.03, and consequently his HR/FB rate dipped to 5.9 percent as well over that time span. His GB/FB ratio was particularly bad in the month of August at 2.37, and thus, it’s not surprising that Santana didn’t hit a single home run during the previous month of play.
Lately, Santana has not been getting the lift under batted balls like he was previously back in the early months of the season. Let’s take a look at a home run he hit back in April at Kauffman Stadium, which on an 89 MPH sinker from Tampa Bay’s Ryan Thompson that was thrown right down the middle (and mind you, during an EXTREMELY COLD night):
Now let’s flash forward to August, where Zack Greinke of the Astros threw a similar pitch at a similar velocity in the same zone. And let’s see what Santana does with that pitch instead:
Yes, it’s a 2-2 count against a former Cy Young winner in Greinke, which is a lot different from a 1-0 count against a reliever like Thompson. Nonetheless, instead of getting under and going with the pitch like he did against Thompson, Santana tries to pull it, and instead gets around it and mashes it on the ground right at the first baseman for an easy groundout.
And unfortunately, that GIF above has been far too familiar an image for Royals fans, especially over the past month.
Right now, Santana is posting a .308 wOBA and 93 wRC+, which would be the lowest marks of his career if the season ended today. For the Royals to have any hope to compete in 2022, they certainly would like to see a strong finish to the 2021 season from Santana, especially with first base prospect Nick Pratto raking the ball in Omaha:
While Pratto most likely will make his MLB debut in 2022 at some point, the Royals need Santana to produce offensively, whether it’s as the Royals’ everyday first baseman or perhaps as a DH, which could be a possibility when Pratto arrives in Kansas City. Santana has one more guaranteed year on his contract after 2021 and a club option for 2023, and right now, the Royals aren’t paying him seven million next year and a possible $10.5 million in 2023 for a hitter who is posting a sub-100 wRC+ and is sub-par defensively at first (he ranks in the 26th percentile in outs above average, according to Savant).
If Santana does want to turn it around, he’s going to need to get more lift under the ball during this last month of play, as he became too much of a groundball machine in August. A way he could accomplish that goal would be focusing on performing better against the fastball during this last month of play. This season against the fastball, he is posting a .368 xwOBA, 12 degree average launch angle on batted balls, and a whiff rate of 17.8 percent.
Let’s see how those metrics against the fastball compare to the past two seasons (2020 and 2019, respectively)
- 2020: .416 xwOBA, 14 degree average LA, 15.1 percent whiff rate
- 2019: .380 xwOBA, 13 degree average LA, 15.7 percent whiff rate.
Thus, Santana is struggling more than usual against fastball-type pitches (which also includes sinkers and cutters), according to Savant. Thus, one has to wonder if Santana will make an adjustment in his approach down the stretch (maybe look for the fastball early on in the count) and if that adjustment could perhaps turn things around. By preparing for the fastball first and foremost, it is possible that he could get better timing on the pitch, which in turn will help him produce more productive swings.
Here’s an example of Santana advocating this approach from the right side of the plate, as he mashes a home run on a 1-0 count off of the Yankees’ Zach Britton at Yankee Stadium at the end of June:
Of course, this is just speculation, and I am sure Terry Bradshaw and the Royals coaching staff are working with Santana to help him improve at the plate in September. That being said, I guarantee that if he improves his performance against fastballs in September, his overall production will also increase as well.
At the end of the day, Santana is not the only Royals hitter who needs a strong finish to the 2021 season. Andrew Benintendi and Hunter Dozier also need strong Septembers, as they have also struggled over the past month, as chronicled by Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report in a solid recent post:
However, Santana could be a key cog to a solid finish for the Royals in September which in turn could build the momentum needed for the Royals to turn the corner in 2022. Santana will be around next season. If Dayton Moore didn’t think so, he would have traded him at July Trade Deadline.
Now, Santana needs to make good on that confidence from the Royals organization.
Let’s see how well he can lift fastball pitches over the next month…
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports