Domingo Santana and the Juggernaut Lurking Within

A wise man once told me, “Thirty is the new 20.” He spoke not of my dating prospects but of percentages — specifically, strikeout percentages. The gist of his sentiment was back in the olden days, a player’s fantasy value would have been harmed, perhaps irreparably, if he struck out 20-something percent of the time. Now, we see hitters subsist and more with 30-something strikeout rates — Joey Gallo, Keon Broxton, Miguel Sano, Khris Davis and Aaron Judge, to name a few.

We — or, if I dare not speak for you, you intellectual, you, then just I — have been forced to reassess how we (I) “scout” the intersection of contact and power for fantasy purposes. This monologue is peripherally relevant to the eventual subject of this post, Domingo Santana, because he, too, once ran a 30-something strikeout rate. He no longer does that, though, which is good. That’s part of the reason why I’m here. But it’s more of the icing on this cake, so allow me to bake the cake first.

I asked the wonderful Bill Petti to run a query for me that calculated every hitter’s rate of home runs to fly balls (HR/FB) in their first 700 plate appearances since Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) started tracking batted ball data. The query turned up 603 qualified hitters since 2002. Here were the top results:

  1. Ryan Howard, 34.5%
  2. Wily Mo Pena, 30.5%
  3. Jose Abreu, 27.2%
  4. Santana, 26.2%
  5. George Springer, 25.6%

Good on you, Wily Mo. Note: Santana’s game log turns up a 26.6% HR/FB, indicating there may be some nuances in how things are being calculated under the hood. No matter — it’s very close, and it probably wouldn’t change the fact that, through a certain lens, Santana had the 4th-best power-hitting debut of the last 15 years, one that ranks in the 99th percentile. (I didn’t ask Petti to run that query for no reason, you see.)

It’s a grandiose statement and, yes, Santana’s 700-plate appearance “debut” spanned parts of four seasons. But: Howard hit 45-plus home runs in four straight seasons; Abreu was Cuba’s most prolific slugger, averaging almost 50 home runs per 650 plate appearances from 2009 through 2013 in the Cuban National Series; and although he’s probably due for regression, Springer looks like he has tapped into his robust power even more in 2017. Abreu’s career HR/FB just recently fell below 20%, but the other three, including Pena (Mo Pena?), finished their careers or are currently sporting HR/FB rates north of 22%.

It’s reasonable to expect Santana will do the same, especially considering how consistent he has been. His HR/FB sits at 26.5% now through his first 779 plate appearances and, from 2015 through 2017, has clocked in at 27.6%, 27.5% and 25.5%, respectively. Consistency permeates his approach, having tallied wRC+ marks of 111, 110 and 114, respectively, with a balanced batted ball profile that includes perennially above-average hard-hit rates (Hard%).

The consistent batted ball profile is important, though, because it’s potentially what’s holding him back. Santana’s fly ball rate (FB%) continues to sit below 30%, effectively capping him at 30 home runs even with what might be sneakily plus power. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but being able to launch one fly ball in four over an outfield fence is a rare gift. Give Santana a league-average fly ball rate (roughly 35%) and you give him maybe eight more home runs over a full season. Give him a league-average fly ball rate and Santana goes from flirting with 30 homers to maybe flirting with 40.

Yet maybe I’m asking too much of Santana. He sprays to all fields and rarely pops up, traits which both contribute to an excellent — and, in my humble assessment, sustainable — .343 career batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It would be nice to see fewer ground balls and more power, but it’s possible such a trade-off would come at the expense of other elements of his offensive game, whether it’s in terms of contact frequency (affecting K%) or quality (affecting BABIP). Particularly in regard to the latter, tinkering with launch angle could result in Santana hitting fewer line drives and more pop ups. It’s not guaranteed whatsoever, but it could be reasonably expected to come out a wash in terms of overall production (wOBA).

Here enters Santana’s 2017 season. He’s making the most contact of his career, a marginal increase over 2016’s gains, thanks to making more contact on pitches he chases (O-Contact%). He made a nice incremental improvement in in-zone contact (Z-Contact%) last year, which, combined with this year’s gains, have whittled down his strikeout rate 7 percentage points since 2015. Moreover, he has achieved these contact gains almost identically in his splits, actually improving more versus righties (against whom he has been historically weaker). He still has pronounced splits, though not particularly steep, but his ability to hit at or above league-average against righties should keep him from ever falling into a platoon.

The optimist in me thinks we might be witnessing the precursor to a true breakout in 2018. Santana previously flashed power and batted ball skills, but his contact woes held him back. Then he improved his contact skills without sacrificing power. Given his stable trajectory, we really have little reason to dream on a 35% fly ball rate. But for a soon-to-be 25-year-old with established skills, it’s the kind of leap in logic you make to see Santana becoming one of baseball’s next big stars.

In the meantime, Santana’s skills seem so solid to me that I would already pencil him in for 25 home runs and a .265 batting average this year and beyond. He runs a bit and has upped his attempt rate this season, so a dozen stolen bases isn’t unthinkable. But if we see continued contact gains, or if Santana buys into the Fly Ball Revolution™, we’re talking significant batting average and/or power upside — 35/12/.280. That’s a discount Mike Trout (woah, Alex, too far) or a premium Justin Upton (OK, OK, I’m into it), the latter of whom was drafted among the top 20 outfielders and top 100 players overall. Even in the event of sustained performance rather than pronounced growth, Santana’s final line might have a bit of an Anthony Rendon flavor to it; Rendon was also a top-100 draftee.

Perhaps the real question you want answered here is if Santana is legit.

Yes. Yes, he is.

ESPN’s Player Rater has him pegged as fantasy’s 34th-best outfielder. Barring injury, I would be shocked if he fell out of the top 50. The HR/FB and BABIP might eventually slip a little bit, but he’s also just rounding into his prime. Keep rolling with him in all formats.

Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022, 2023). Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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Lunch Anglemember
6 years ago

Santana reminds me a lot of Tommy Pham: lots of power, excellent BABIP skills, surprising speed for their size, plate discipline/contact improvements. Who do you like more?

Lunch Anglemember
6 years ago

I think the Cardinals are finally starting to hear the chants of Free Tommy Pham!