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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