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Phillies Nuggets: The debate on Carlos Santana has gotten out of control



Carlos Santana has become a polarizing figure in his first season in Philadelphia. (Arturo Pardavila III/Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a debate to be had about Carlos Santana’s first season with the Philadelphia Phillies. But the Overton window in which the debate is happening has shifted so far off of a cliff that no reasonable discourse is taking place currently.

Let’s start with this: Santana’s first season in Philadelphia has been disappointing to a degree. After Sunday’s loss to the San Diego Padres, Santana is hitting just .215. There’s no world where that aspect of his season has been successful. However, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is just .217. Santana has never hit for an especially high batting average, but his career BABIP is .264. His BABIP in 2017 was .274. Santana may need to make adjustments to his approach this offseason, but he has been objectively unlucky this season. Those type of things don’t always even out over the course of an individual season, but they will over the course of his three-year/$60 million contract (more on the contract in a minute).

To simply look at Santana’s batting average when evaluating his performance in 2018 would be unfair. While a .215 batting average is a difficult pill to swallow, it’s easier when he still has a .351 on-base percentage, the third best mark on the team.

That on-base percentage remains high thanks in large part to his 88 walks, which are the most walks a Phillie has had since Jayson Werth walked 91 times in 2009. Santana is likely to pass that mark at some point this week. Would you sacrifice some of those walks for extra-base hits? Sure, but there’s a growing group of people acting as though walks are useless. Walks – whether you consider yourself an old school baseball mind, pro analytics or somewhere in between – are good. You get on base while forcing the opposing pitcher to throw at least four pitches.

From the cleanup spot, where Santana has received 239 of his 409 at-bats in 2018, you unquestionably want a higher batting average than .215. On a contending team, you would want more than 17 home runs and 65 RBIs from your No. 4 hitter. But while down from what he’s traditionally posted, Santana still has a 2.6 offensive WAR and is getting on-base. Him hitting in the fourth spot reflects the Phillies need to add another big bat to the middle of their lineup, which is why the Phillies are widely expected to pursue Manny Machado or Bryce Harper (or maybe even both) this offseason. In a perfect world, Santana would probably hit out of the No. 2 spot, with Rhys Hoskins hitting third and another star hitting fourth. Given that this is just the first year of the Phillies window of contention, they haven’t yet reached “perfect world” status.

It is a fair criticism to say that signing Santana pushed Rhys Hoskins to left field, which has been rather disastrous. Defensive metrics suggest that Hoskins has performed like Pat Burrell did in his worst seasons in left field. FanGraphs says that Hoskins has been the worst fielding left fielder in baseball. In fact, he’s been one of the worst fielders at any position. The Phillies upgraded defensively with Santana at first base, but on a team that’s altogether been one of the worst fielding teams in the sport, Hoskins has graded out as the team’s worst fielder.

With that said, while there is a criticism to be made of the Phillies front-office’s decision to sacrifice fielding in 2018, there have been some leaps made when discussing some of the side-affects to the Santana signing.

Perhaps the biggest stretch is the growing suggestion that by signing Santana, the Phillies front-office stunted the growth of Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr. Williams’ future on a contending Phillies team may still be as a fourth outfielder – he’s hitting .400 as a pinch-hitter in 2018 – but he’s gotten ample chance to start. Williams seized the starting right fielder’s job from Altherr and is slashing .263/.335/.460 with 16 home runs and 45 RBIs. While he still doesn’t walk at the clip that the Phillies would like him to and grades out poorly as a fielder, he’s had a solid, but not spectacular offensive season. Altherr, on the other hand, was optioned to Triple-A late in July after hitting just .177 in 210 at-bats. Since going to Triple-A, Altherr is hitting .254. Altherr will return to the Phillies at some point in the coming weeks and could prove to be a spark. Even if 2018 proves to be a lost season, Altherr could still factor into the Phillies plans in the future.

But to suggest that Santana’s signing forcing Altherr to compete for regular playing time stunted his growth is silly. In sports, there will always be competition. Part of becoming a regular is kicking the door down and forcing your way into the lineup amid competition. Altherr was given the right of first refusal in right field in 2018, starting for a bulk of the first month of Gabe Kapler’s managerial tenure. He didn’t seize his chance to start and was optioned to Triple-A before the non-waiver trade deadline. The Phillies look a lot better for coming into the regular season with “too many” outfielders than they would have looked had that gone into the season with Altherr, Williams, Odubel Herrera and Roman Quinn.

The final aspect of evaluating Santana is to consider his contract. Yes, Santana is making $18.3 million in 2018 and will make over $20 million in 2019 and 2020. But the Phillies were so financially flexible that they increased Santana’s annual salary to get him to agree to a three-year deal, as opposed to a four-year deal, which he initially seemed likely to receive when he became a free-agent. FanGraphs says Santana has been worth a $7.8 million salary thus far. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that his deal has prevented the Phillies from making any other major transactions or that it will in the future. From here, it also seems unfair to suggest that Santana won’t have some positive offensive regression, whether it comes in the final seven weeks of the 2018 season or in the coming years.

Again, there’s a debate to be had about to what degree Santana has disappointed in 2018. But right now, the debate seems to be about whether or not Santana is a good player. And that’s not even a debate worth having.

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23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. pamikeydc

    August 12, 2018 at 9:56 pm

    I had the same exact conversation with someone last night at the baseball game. Aaron had every opportunity to win the job from Williams. Williams won. As far as Santana is like fruit of the poisonous tree. Who knows what would’ve happened if Hoskins played first base and we had Aaron Williams Herrera/Quinn in the outfield we will never know so we might as well buckle up with what we have and hope he turns it around

    • Tim Kelly

      August 12, 2018 at 11:01 pm

      Yeah, and I thought it made sense to give Altherr a chance to win the right field job. He didn’t take it. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of him, but still.

  2. Steve

    August 13, 2018 at 4:09 am

    Santana is a professional and has been a legit, if not better, MLB player for almost a decade now. Every team, especially young teams like the Phillies need a veteran and that is exactly what Santana has been. I can’t remember a time this season when he didn’t have a good at bat whether it ended with a hit or not. I think he has been great for this young team. Remember how it was watching Rupp , Galvis, Kelly, Perkins, Saunders or Joesph bat just a year ago or Ruf, Asche, Goeddel, Burriss and Lough in 2016. They never gave you a profession at bat. This is a team tied for first place and it should be a very fun rest of August and September let’s see if they have what it takes to win the division and if they come up short at least they were in contention to this late in the season and there are better days ahead.

    • Tim Kelly

      August 13, 2018 at 7:17 pm

      He often has productive outs. He hits the ball to the right side of the infield with a runner on second, he’ll make sure to get the ball to the outfield if there’s a runner on third and one out. Agreed with your point.

      • schmenkman

        August 13, 2018 at 10:00 pm

        In fact he’s one of the best in MLB at getting runners home from 3rd with less than two out.

    • Ken Bland

      August 14, 2018 at 11:45 am

      good thoughts, Steve. It’s tough from the outside to judge chemistry and leadership within, but there have been enough positive comments about Santana as a leader in his first year that they carry more truth than not, and lend toward your point.

  3. Booooooooooo

    August 13, 2018 at 6:08 am

    So Santana is not a huge disappointment because… Altherr didn’t run away with the RF job?

    Look, any way you slice it, Santana is a let down. If Santana was hitting anywhere near like a guy who’s spent all season in the clean up spot should, he’d have close to those 88 walks automatically. You can’t use BABIP to cry that he’s unlucky when similar analytics also allow a defense to shift or play more shallow/deeper or anything like that. It’s been an objectively bad year for him at the plate.

    And let’s not pretend he’s playing in Petco, a guy like Santana should be threatening 30+ homers in the Cit-hole.

    • schmenkman

      August 13, 2018 at 5:25 pm

      Santana is not a huge disappointment because he’s not far below what we would expect given his history. The fact that he bats cleanup isn’t up to him, and regardless, he has hit well with runners in scoring position (.264 average, .955 OPS), and in fact, he has hit better than most cleanup hitters in those RISP situations.

      He was a smart signing because Altherr and Williams weren’t proven, and both had red flags: Altherr’s injury history, and Williams’ bad approach and plate discipline.

      Signing Santana added a proven hitter who could also be a clubhouse presence and mentor for the young players, and lead by example on the field with the approach that the FO wanted to instill in the team.

      In the end Altherr stayed healthy, but couldn’t replicate last year’s success. Williams made significant improvements in his game (at least at the plate), and has earned the full-time RF job, and that’s great but it was far from a sure thing coming into this season.

      • Ken Bland

        August 14, 2018 at 11:26 am

        Bravo. About the only thing you left out is he’s been an improvement over the statuesque first base play often seen around here far too often. He did have a Dick Stuart like fielding slump a few games in a row mid-season, and one base running snafu when he watched a foul pop blow back fair, but he’s been okay, and I agree on his being a smart signing but for a different reason, they needed another middle of the order bat, He’s been okay in that role, like many of his teammates, a far better player at home, and despite the .215, most of the year, he’s been what he’s always been because he was down around .160 6 weeks in.

      • johnny eagle

        August 14, 2018 at 9:05 pm

        You are correct, Santana is not a huge disappointment. He is giving us about what we could have expected. The disappointment was that he was signed. He is not good value because his was not a position of need. He has displaced Hoskins in the field. This has served to decrease Hoskins’ overall value.

        • schmenkman

          August 15, 2018 at 12:10 am

          No, adding Left Field to his resume has made Hoskins _more_ valuable, not less.

          It’s much easier to find a very good hitter who can play first base than one who can play LF.

          The need that he filled was a proven professional hitter, and he improved the lineup.

  4. Craig Glessner

    August 13, 2018 at 7:29 am

    Why not consider letting Bour at least platoon with Santana at first and have some competition at the position. It certainly helped Williams and I don’t think anyone would say Santana is clearly better than Bour, if everybody likes numbers go ahead and compare Bour’s are better on the season. Let them push each other to play better and whoever has the hot hand plays. My other question is why does Santana have to hit 4th move him down to 7th like Franco was earlier if he walks in the 7 hole the opposing pitcher now has to be careful with the 8 hitter or intentionally walking them as well to bring up the pitcher to escape an inning. That turns the lineup over at the very least. I’m not saying I hate walks but at some point to beat the better teams we need to be not even more aggressive but if you watch Franco he is taking advantage of hitters counts (2-0, 3-1) he is not taking that pitch he’s driving it. Every game is big going forward this offense needs to start producing. GEAUX PHILLIES

    • Matthew Veasey

      August 13, 2018 at 2:26 pm

      Phillies ownership and management committed $60 million to Santana for three years. They committed McKenzie Mills for Bour. I don’t think you’re going to see a platoon. Not saying that I disagree with your thought process, just don’t see it happening.

  5. Ryan Swope

    August 13, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    Carlos Santana is naturally a right handed hitter. Everytime he hits right handed im so much more confident. He has 2 times more at bats left handed but his stats right handed equal out to or are better as a Right handed hitter despite 2 times less at bats. He has a much shorter and compact swing as a Right handed hitter. His swing Left handed is very long.

    Yes I know he has never hit right handed against righthanded pitchers but I believe if he gave up left handed hitting and went right handed full time he would hit around 275 a season. It may not seem that way or work out right away and be a struggle at first but as time goes on I truly believe him hitting right handed full time would help him succeed. I love when he hits right handed! Remember Shane Victorino who was a switch hitter and naturally right handed gave up switch hitting to hit right handed full time with the Red Sox.

    Go look at Santanas stats per year on Fangraphs. Then look up his splits as a left handed hitter compared to a right handed hitter. You will be amazed at how much better they are right handed vs left handed even with more than two times the at bats as a lefty. His runs batted in & hits are close to his stats as a lefty despite way less at bats as a righty.

    • schmenkman

      August 13, 2018 at 9:41 pm

      @Ryan, I don’t know what you mean here. Overall he has hit almost exactly the same left handed as right handed.

      These are his career splits:

      Left handed: .802 OPS
      Right handed: .811 OPS

      Left handed: lower average, but more walks and more power
      Right handed: higher average, but fewer walks and less power

      But again, overall, essentially the same hitter from either side.

      • Ryan Swope

        August 13, 2018 at 11:41 pm

        Look at his average

        Compare his at bats. See he has so many more at bats left handed so yes his stats will show as if they are higher of course. But look at how good his stats are as a Right have even with more than 2 times less at bats. If he was hitting right handed full time with the stats he has as a Right hander despite on going up against left handers his stats would be better all around. You will probably say well he hasn’t faced right handed pitchers as a Right handed hitter. He has a much shorter, smooth and compact swing right handed. He hits the ball much better on a line right handed. His swing Left handed is so long and choppy. If he hit right habded full time he’d get a 270-275 hitter.

        https://www.fangraphs.com/statsplits.aspx?playerid=2396&position=C/1B&season=0

        • schmenkman

          August 14, 2018 at 8:21 am

          You cannot just look at his average. As I mentioned, from the right side is average his higher, but his other stats are _worse_, including much less power. So overall he has hit about as well left handed (.802 OPS) as he has right handed (.811).

          It would be suicide for him to suddenly try to hit right handed against right handed pitchers.

          • Ryan Swope

            August 14, 2018 at 5:23 pm

            The power yes because of how many more at hat’s ye Yas left handed. That’s why you are saying his power is lower left handed. He may be lower in power but his overall and all around hitting is better. He may not walk as much right handed because he feels much more confident when ye swings right handed. He has an all around much smoother and short compact swing right handed. Also look at his amount of runs batted in right handed to left handed this year and he has more than two times the at bats right handed. He has half of them from the right side. Same with the amount of hits. Remember power doesnt always matter. If he’s a run producer and huts for more than enough power that’s fun. He has hit several doubles with the bases loaded this year from the right side and one triple too I believe.

          • schmenkman

            August 14, 2018 at 6:07 pm

            He gets on base much more left handed than right handed:

            Batting Left: .359 OBP
            Batting Right: .331 OBP

            I would not want to him to try to hit righties right-handed.

            This isn’t a case like Victorino, who was a much better hitter right handed and had nothing to lose.

            Santana is already as good overall left handed as he is right handed.

          • Ryan Swope

            August 14, 2018 at 9:57 pm

            Look at Aaron Hicks. Amaxing that he has lot more at bats left handed but his right handed stats nearly equal his left handed. He isn’t bad left handed but if he hit right handed full time I wonder have much better his stats would be.

  6. me

    August 13, 2018 at 6:45 pm

    I’m with the fans who feel Bour should be given the chance to play over Santana. Hey! If Santana is so good at walking (with his awesome eye and plate appearances) or hitting sacrifice flies to the outfield. Then he would be the better batter to come off the bench in pinch hit situations to walk in a run when we manage to get the bases loaded or sacrifice in a run when we managed to strand a runner on third. Use Bour to play regularly, with his most likely even better batting average of .229 with potential hitting threats of Hoskins, Herrera, Williams and Franco. (Than what he had batting around him in Miami this year.) We sure as well know Santana hasn’t proven to be any fearful threat with those guys hitting around him.

  7. Craig Glessner

    August 13, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    To say that a player has to be on the field because of his contract is like making a mistake and being too stubborn to admit it. I can’t remember the last time we had an overpaid and under achieving first baseman ( oh wait there was that Ryan Howard and he totally got his game back together by playing everyday). I’m not saying Santana is as bad as Howard, but by trading for Bour and telling Santana he will still play everyday is as insane as signing Santana to begin with when you have Hoskins. Why do you think the Indians didn’t try harder to resign Santana. Tell me his numbers aren’t that bad I’ll ask why anyone is discussing this right now. Give Bour a shot it just makes sense. GEAUX PHILLIES

    • schmenkman

      August 13, 2018 at 9:48 pm

      I don’t mind Bour getting playing time.

      But Santana has certainly not been “that bad”. A bit disappointing, but overall not far from what we should have expected going into the season.

      And while not a prototypical cleanup hitter, hitter there isn’t up to him, but at least he has been very good with runners in scoring position (better than most cleanup hitters in fact).

      He’s second on the team in RBIs.

      And he’s second on the team in Extra base hits.

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