Carlos Santana is the advanced metrics versus old school statistics debate.
Those who can’t see value in efficiently reaching base despise him at times, citing the fact that his batting average does not live up to old school standards. Those who dive into advanced metrics and value on-base percentage are able to recognize the profound impact he can have while batting .250. His divisive numbers peaked in 2016 with career highs in homers, runs scored, and runs batted in, obviously appealing a bit more to the old school statistics crowd.
In many important metrics, Santana was the most effective Tribe hitter in 2016. Adding to career years in the previously mentioned counting statistics (HR, RBI, R), he posted a wRC+ mark of 132. This led qualified Indians hitters and was good enough for twelfth in the American League. His .366 on-base percentage also led qualified Indians hitters and was ninth in the American League.
Is Santana’s 2016 here to stay or should we expect regression in 2017?
It is imperative to understand what made Santana so successful in 2016, despite a career-worst (but still exceptional) walk percentage of 14.4%. It may sound simplistic but Santana just hit the ball better in 2016. His hard contact percentage increased from 29.8% in 2015 to 36.3% last year, a 21.8% hike. However, there was a more important reason for the career year: launch angle.
The wonderful folks at FanGraphs created a unique metric that goes by xOBA, or expected on-base average. This metric is somewhat self-explanatory, as it classifies each batted ball’s chance of resulting in the hitter reaching base. This statistic’s usefulness is headlined by the fact that hitters have the most control of how a ball leaves the bat but no control of their fate after contact is made.
The xOBA metric is quite useful when analyzing Santana’s 2016 success because it outlines the role played by launch angle. FanGraphs’ xOBA reaches its peak with a launch angle of 24-25 degrees and great success is found between 10 and 30 degrees. Santana’s average launch angle in 2015 was 8.9 degrees and jumped inside the xOBA sweet spot to 12.8 degrees in 2016.
(Graphics courtesy of Baseball Savant)
The blue dotted lines in the above charts represent the launch angle where xOBA peaks (24-25 degrees). As is clear in the charts, Santana hit in excess of thirty balls at that peak launch angle in 2016, compared to only around twenty in 2015. This is the main reason for the 19 to 34 jump in home run total between the years. More importantly, Santana hit far more balls inside the 10-30 degree xOBA sweet spot, which created sustained hitting success outside of the home runs.
Going forward, there are no strong indicators that regression is coming. Maintaining success in the launch angle department will be the key to another strong hitting display. Santana’s 2016 numbers may seem like anomalies to some, but they are actually more in line with his career than his relatively horrid 2015 campaign, as depicted below.
Undoubtedly, Carlos Santana will continue to ignite family gatherings with discussions of batting average versus on-base percentage. Only one side of that argument, though, will truly appreciate just how good Carlos Santana has been in his tenure as an Indian. Set to be a free agent at the end of 2017, Carlos will have even more motivation to make what is likely to be his final year as an Indian a year to be remembered.