Panic! It is two weeks into the season and Carlos Santana is batting just .157 with no home runs and a single RBI. This is the premier power hitter for the Cleveland Indians and he isn’t hitting, so something must be wrong. There are plenty of excuses people have made for this, starting with Santana transitioning to third base and now adding in a groin injury that Santana said has been bothering him. While these are things for media and the fans to debate, the Indians themselves are obviously not jumping on the bandwagon.
The quick fix to both “problems” would be to DH Santana with Lonnie Chisenhall playing third. Chisenhall leads the team with a .522 average, .542 OBP, .696 slugging percent and a seven game hitting streak, so there would be no lack of offense coming from the hot corner. Even if he wasn’t on fire right now, either Chisenhall or Mike Aviles have played in almost every game this season, so the Indians are not short on third basemen. If the Indians thought Santana’s groin or the transition to third was really bothering him, the solution would be very simple.
This move may be inevitable anyway. If Santana’s pain is severe, it seems similar to the issues Nick Swisher had last season. In an attempt to increase versatility, Swisher was used part time in right field with Santana at first. These limited forays into the outfield aggravating Swisher’s shoulder and he ended up missing playing time, contrary to the initial purpose of putting him in the outfield, which was to have him play more. It would be stupid to make the same mistake two years in a row when they have a DH available to use.
Of course, there is a chance it is all a case of bad luck. For anyone who has actually watched Santana play this season, you will know that he has been smashing the ball, just in the wrong places. In the Detroit series, he hit multiple balls that were just foul from being home runs and his line drive rate of 18% equals his career average. Considering other predictive stats, his BABIP is just .200, down from his career average .278. Batting average on balls in play is a decent predictor as it takes talent out of the equation and measures luck. There are always fluctuations in luck no matter how great a player is and Santana is right in the middle of one of those downturns. As more hits keep falling and his BABIP gets closer to the league average of about .300, his average should continue rising to about .250 (his career average is .251).
In addition, there is more, and always has been, to Santana’s game than just power. To see his true value as a batter, it is important to look at all the things he does. Santana currently ranks second in the Majors in walks with 15, giving him an OBP almost .200 points higher than his batting average. By walking in 22.7% of at bats, Santana is walking at a higher rate than any other season in his career by more than 3%. This could be a function of a lack of perceived protection in the line-up, an issue that will be fixed once American League pitchers learn to respect Michael Brantley. In addition to the increased walks, Santana has struck out less often (16.7%) than his career average (17.7%). If he was truly struggling because of distraction, one would expect his strike outs and fly balls to increase, but the opposite is true.
As is always the case, April is not the time to worry about production. Currently, Michael Brantley (14) and David Murphy (12) lead the team in RBI and they will not by the end of the season. The sample size of two weeks is almost irrelevant when considering the entire season and patience is needed as everybody starts moving back to the mean. While Chisenhall may see more playing time at third in the future, it will likely have more to do with his increased output than Santana’s struggles. Chances are, Santana will break out of his homerless streak during the next week and his average will be back to normal by this time in May. If it isn’t, this discussion can resume then.