Carlos Santana is a player in decline. He is 36 years old in a professional industry whose doors start closing when you hit 30.For Santana, his decline has been regular and consistent since 2019, where he has slowly but surely performed worse and worse. His wRC+ has fallen from 138 to 99 to 83 to 76, and his rolling wRC+ graph is a consistently downward spiral.
This is nothing to be ashamed of on Santana’s part. No one plays forever. That Santana was able to put up a league average slash in 2020—his age-34 season—is evidence of his sharp skills as a baseball player even as his athletic skills eroded (thanks, Father Time).
However, what Santana is doing this year might be the most fantastic feat he has ever achieved, and even as I think he has no business taking up a roster spot on the 2022 Kansas City Royals, it’s worth being impressed by how a veteran hitter like Santana is adjusting as he ages. In a way, he’s reached his final form.
Santana’s calling card as a hitter has been his plate discipline. He has posted respectable batting averages and good but not great power figures, but his on base skills have been stellar. Among all hitters with at least 1000 plate appearances since Santana’s rookie season in 2010, he ranks fifth in walk rate and is in the 93rd percentile of on base percentage. Santana has flourished with a simple but effective approach: wallop pitches in the zone, and don’t swing at anything outside the zone.
As Santana approached his mid-30s, unfortunately, he lost the ability to wallop pitches how he wanted to. This corresponds with a continued difficulty in performance against all kinds of fastballs. Per Fangraphs’ Pitch Values, Santana has performed worse than two runs per 100 pitches on four-seam fastballs, cutters, and split-fingered fastballs so far this year. It is the first time in his career that he’s been worse than average on each pitch.
Pitchers have recognized this. In a time in which pitchers are throwing more breaking pitches and fewer fastballs than ever, pitchers are thus far throwing the most fastballs Santana has ever seen, at 37.4% of all pitches.
So, how has Santana responded? He’s just not going to swing at pitches outside the zone, thank you, and when he does he’s going to do so on a controlled swing. Pitch Info Solutions has Santana swinging at 14.8% of pitches outside the zone, the lowest figure of his career. Furthermore, he’s never made contact on more than 67% of pitches outside the zone; this year, that figure is nearly 74%.
The result has been absolutely silly walk and strikeout rates. As I write this, Santana has walked 19.5% of the time and he has struck out only 11% of the time. So, even though he’s only hitting .152, he has an OBP of .317. That is wild.
What is even more wild is that Santana is doing what no one has done before, and I do mean no one. Since the 1994 baseball strike, there have been over 7000 individual player seasons with more than 300 plate appearances. In only 15—or 0.2% of all seasons—did a player walk more than 19% of the time and strike out less than 12% of the time. The list consists of the best player in the history of baseball and a bunch of Hall of Famers.
The Company Santana Keeps
Can Santana maintain this extreme level of plate discipline and, at the same time, fail to be a remotely productive hitter overall? It has quite literally never been done before. Who knows! His on base skills are the only thing keeping his wRC+ from being in the 70s to being in the 40s.
Santana is probably due for some positive regression when it comes to home runs hit on fly balls, but at some point it doesn’t matter. His expected wOBA has been significantly higher than his actual wOBA in each of the last three seasons, suggesting that luck is only so much of a factor. And should this season go on like this, I would expect pitchers to counter by throwing more in the zone—after all, you can only walk if pitches end up as balls.
Still, what Santana is doing at his age and with his diminished athleticism is nothing short of remarkable. He’s a polished hitter with the type of rare plate discipline that Royals fans never get to see thanks to the team’s organizational philosophy that discourages walks and strikeouts alike. Chances are good that he’ll be gone in the next couple months, but in the interim, enjoy how he carefully selects which pitches to swing at and which ones to take.