The Change: Finding the Next Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana had/is having quite the season. It’s his best by virtually any metric. Pick slugging, isolated slugging, strikeout rate, batting average, hits, home runs, even baserunning runs, and you’ll get either a career-best or second-best effort this year. He ended up the 10th-best fantasy first baseman and we have so many positive changes to choose from if we want to say why he was so good this year.

Here’s my guess: he swung more this year. I’ll explain, but it’s clear from his career-low walk rate and career-high swing rate that he was more aggressive. That might have been more important than anything else he did, and that might give us a road map to finding other mid-career breakouts like Santana.

Should we be careful to not make too much of the power surge in a time when everybody is hitting the ball harder and further? Coming into this year, Santana had a .188 isolated slugging percentage, which was 30% better than league average over that time frame. This year, he had a .239 ISO that seems like a huge improvement — and is, despite the rise in league power. He was 47% better than league average when it came to power last year.

He’s always had power, and even though he improved his launch angle some from 2015, his 1.04 ground balls per fly ball are in line with his career numbers (1.09). He traded some line drives for fly balls, maybe. Statcast says his average launch angle went from 9 degrees to 13 degrees on average, and that is good not only because it puts him in the line drive / power angles more often (10-25 for line drives, 25-35 for homers), but also because it’s not so extreme that it means he’s hitting a lot of infield flies (he was 147th of 373 in average launch angle last year).

Still, that’s a tough one to use going forward to find other Santanas. Look for players with power whose launch angles went down from 2014 to 2015? They could bounce back like Santana did?

2016’s Biggest Launch Angle Droppers
Name Count Launch 16 Launch 15 16-15 Dif
Jeff Francoeur 199 8.5 13.6 -5.1
Ryan Raburn 126 8.4 13.2 -4.8
Travis d’Arnaud 179 8.8 13.4 -4.6
Delino DeShields 110 6.7 11.2 -4.5
Jace Peterson 254 5.3 9.7 -4.4
Chris Coghlan 157 8.7 13.0 -4.3
Seth Smith 268 7.6 11.9 -4.3
Carlos Gomez 238 8.8 13.1 -4.3
Eddie Rosario 219 9.4 13.5 -4.1
Gerardo Parra 256 6.5 10.5 -4.0
Brett Gardner 393 6.6 10.4 -3.8
Andres Blanco 127 6.6 10.4 -3.8
Rene Rivera 120 9.1 12.8 -3.7
Yasiel Puig 224 9.9 13.4 -3.5
A.J. Pierzynski 200 7.9 11.4 -3.5
SOURCE: Statcast
Average launch angle, minimum 100 balls in play in both seasons

It’s not worth going through these guys one by one because so many of them have established power levels that aren’t very interesting in fantasy. Other than the three highlighted players, it’s possible that Brett Gardner hits a few more out next year, maybe, and that Jace Peterson shows a bit more than no power, but neither is going to hit 34 homers next year. I’d eat four hats. The highlighted three won’t hit 34 either, but they could hit a bunch more next year than they did last year.

It’s possible that injury affected all three, actually. Travis d’Arnaud has had a shoulder injury forever, and he even changed his swing to deal with it. It didn’t work. Listen to the news to hear about his offseason surgery plans, and if there are none, and he looks/feels healthy in the spring, consider that he had a .218 ISO in 2015, and is projected to have above-average power. If he hits for sub-.100 ISO again next year, the bet here is the next announcement is shoulder surgery.

Carlos Gomez faces an offseason of doubt. One of the teams that could most use him — the New York Mets — has already labeled him as injury-prone and unattractive to them. He was better with the Rangers than the Astros, and his talent is undeniable, so a team will sign him. But for how much and how long? And where he ends up might be very important, considering his power tool is the one that has suffered the most lately (other than perhaps his hit tool).

The best comp here might be Yasiel Puig, considering that he debuted with .215 ISO and then saw that slowly fritter away along with the health of his shoulder and hamstrings. If he can push closer to one ground ball per fly ball, he can take advantage of his prodigious tools, and a breakout season at 26 years old is still very possible. I’m still a friend to Puig.

But there’s one other way that Santana really changed himself last year. He’s always had good plate discipline, but he added that aggressiveness in a way that really served him well. Let’s put his swing rates up on the board, with one little wrinkle. Let’s divided his swings on pitches in the zone by the ones out of the zone. That is the ultimate ratio — how many times can you swing at the right pitches vs the wrong ones? Santana is good at this and got better with some aggression:

Carlos Santana Swing Metrics
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z/O Swing% O-Contact%
2010 22.1% 62.8% 2.84 39.1% 67.70%
2011 21.3% 58.3% 2.74 37.6% 63.20%
2012 21.2% 61.2% 2.89 38.9% 66.20%
2013 25.2% 58.1% 2.31 39.1% 71.70%
2014 21.7% 58.9% 2.71 37.4% 72.00%
2015 21.1% 57.9% 2.74 36.7% 69.90%
2016 19.8% 64.0% 3.23 39.1% 66.50%
Total 21.7% 59.9% 2.76 38.2% 68.40%
Z/O is zone swing divided by outside of zone swing rate.

The road map here is clear. Look for a batter with a low outside-swing rate that could up his zone aggressiveness and put a ton of pitches in the strike zone in play. Here are the batters with a sub-25% reach rate last year, sorted again by zone swing percentage ascending. Basically, these 20 batters are a little *too* passive and have also shown a great sense of the zone.

Carlos Santana Swing Metrics
Name O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z/O Swing%
J.J. Hardy 23.60% 49.30% 2.09 36.40%
Joe Mauer 23.20% 50.80% 2.19 35.80%
Brett Gardner 24.00% 54.10% 2.25 36.80%
Jayson Werth 23.80% 54.60% 2.29 38.20%
Ben Zobrist 20.50% 56.10% 2.74 35.50%
Shin-Soo Choo 23.10% 57.20% 2.48 38.50%
Curtis Granderson 20.90% 58.10% 2.78 36.60%
Carlos Ruiz 17.60% 58.40% 3.32 36.80%
Jose Bautista 20.20% 58.70% 2.91 36.60%
Logan Forsythe 22.10% 58.70% 2.66 39.60%
Matt Carpenter 22.60% 58.80% 2.60 38.60%
Russell Martin 21.40% 59.10% 2.76 38.90%
Jung Ho Kang 25.00% 59.10% 2.36 40.70%
Robbie Grossman 20.50% 59.30% 2.89 37.60%
A.J. Ellis 17.90% 59.40% 3.32 38.30%
Chris Heisey 22.90% 59.50% 2.60 41.40%
Chase Utley 22.20% 59.70% 2.69 40.20%
Angel Pagan 24.70% 59.80% 2.42 40.50%
Travis Jankowski 22.10% 60.00% 2.71 39.00%
Hyun Soo Kim 23.10% 60.10% 2.60 39.40%
Z/O is zone swing divided by outside of zone swing rate.

Well, fine, I guess Brett Gardner is going to hit 34 homers next year. Put some pickapeppa on that stove pipe.

Again we have a lot of later-career guys here, and it’s not too surprising. The one thing that does improve over time, mostly, is plate discipline. Players take more pitches every year they stay in the league, for example. It’s worth noticing that Jose Bautista just swung at pitches in the zone less than he has in the last four years, and second-least since he joined the Jays. Being more aggressive could be part of a bounce for him. This feels like a trick Matt Carpenter could pull, too, since he just homered on the first 3-0 swing he took all year.

But the two mid-career veterans with short histories are the most interesting here. Logan Forsythe took a step forward by being patient, but he’s never swung at bad pitches in his career (23.1% career reach rate). He’s swung at more pitches in the zone in the past, and perhaps that will be how he maintains his excellent work even as pitchers try to adjust to his patience by filling up the zone.

With a high swinging strike rate but a good reach rate, it’s not entirely clear that Jung-ho Kang should get more aggressive, but it does speak to a way — just like Forsythe — where Kang could do well to be more aggressive once the pitchers come in the zone. In a little over a season and a third, Kang has 36 homers, though, and that’s something worth pointing out here in case you forgot.

We hoped you liked reading The Change: Finding the Next Carlos Santana by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Rufus T. Firefly
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Rufus T. Firefly

And Forsythe runs a bit, too. He could be a really sneaky value as he seems so boring. Even his name sounds boring.

rustydude
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rustydude

But his nickname, “LoFo”, is very cool.