Danny Santana Will Regress, But Not By That Much
People no longer spend offseason staring out the window and waiting for baseball. Nowadays, we spend winter talking about projection systems, top prospect rankings, guys in BSOHL, and which breakout players from the previous season will come back down to earth.
Danny Santana has been a lightning rod of those discussions this winter. The 24-year-old shortstop is coming off a stellar rookie campaign where he hit .319/.353/.472 and 7 long balls in 430 PA while swiping 20 bases in 24 attempts in order to land at the 31st spot in our consensus shortstops rankings and 442nd in Bret’s top 500 overall rankings.
You don’t often see a guy like Santana, the owner of a career .275/.318/.395 minor league slash line, blossom into a solid offensive up-the-middle player overnight. In fact, his 2014 was fueled by a thermospheric .405 BABIP, the third-highest single-season mark among players with at least 400 PA in the last 85 years. Since 1901, just 2 hitters had a BABIP north of .4 in consecutive seasons: Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911-1912 and some fellow named Tyrus Raymond Cobb in 1910-1913 (4 years in a row!). The game has changed dramatically since their days, and Santana’s talent level compared to his peers is nowhere near these Hall of Fame-caliber superstars’. These factoids make you think that it’s inevitable that his BABIP will go down. But for some reason, I don’t think it will regress back all the way to the mean.
If you look at Santana’s batted ball data, you’ll notice a trend. Last season, more than a quarter of the balls he hit into in play were line drives. His 26.0% LD rate was 5.8 points higher than the league’s total, good for 14th highest among hitters who had more than 400 PA in 2014. As you may already know, line drives are less likely to get caught by fielders than flies and grounders. The league as a whole had a .690 AVG and a .683 BABIP on line drives last year.
Additionally, Santana also hit ground balls at an above league average rate, although not by much (45.9 GB% to 44.8). Santana is a young, athletic up-the-middle guy, not a Molina. Hitting lots of grounders favors a fast guy like him as he gets more chances to beat them out for infield singles. Among players with 400 or more PA in 2014, Santana’s 12.7% IFH rate was tied with Carlos Gomez for the 6th best clip in baseball. All the players in baseball, for comparison, combined for mere 6.5%. These two factors lead me to believe that Santana is a guy who puts up an above average BABIP generally.
One can argue that Santana hasn’t accumulated enough plate appearances to believe in his batted ball profile. Yes, 430 PA is still a relatively small sample size, though, we all know that it’s large enough to stabilize most batted ball stats, including LD% and GB%, thanks to Russell Carleton’s laborious research. This tells that his batted ball profile was close to his true talent level rather than a random variation of statistical noise.
Another concerning fact is his batted ball ratios in the minors. According to Minor League Central, Santana had a pedestrian 13.8 LD% in career 1660 MiLB PA, nearly half of his MLB number, while his GB ratio was much closer to what it was in the majors, at 46.3%. What does this mean? Santana’s LD% in the bigs was a total fluke? But as I wrote in the previous paragraph, you can’t have a 26.0 LD% by accident. One hypothesis here is that he’s had a mechanical change and is able to see the ball better and smack it harder. At the age of 24, there’s a plenty of room for him to improve.
Now, let’s focus on how much he will regress in this coming season. As I mentioned, no one in the last 100 years had back-to-back years with a .400 BABIP. Santana’s numbers are destined to fall down in 2015. But how would he look like once his magical carriage turn back into a pumpkin?
To inspect this study, I took a look at players with similar batted ball profiles to Santana’s 2014, let’s say LD% between 24 and 28, and GB% between 45 and 47 in at least 400 PA since 2002, the first year of FanGraphs’ batted ball era. I know that the lines are arbitrary, but sometimes you need to draw them.
The research gave me 23 players, not including Santana himself for an obvious reason, in this group. Below are the results.
|2005||Paul Lo Duca||0.288||24.3||45.3|
The average BABIP of these players was .332, while the median came in at .333. As I already noted in this article, players with Danny Santana-esque batted ball profiles tend to post high BABIP.
I investigated another study. This time, I looked at those who posted a ridiculously high BABIP, set the arbitrary line at .390 or higher, in the last 20 years, with no batted ball limitation, minimum PA at 400. In addition to Santana, I also excluded Drew Stubbs, who had a .400 BABIP season in 2014 as well. The results follow:
|Year||Name||Year 1 BABIP||Year 2 BABIP||Diff||Year 1 AVG||Year 2 AVG||Diff|
There are various types of players on this chart. From future Hall of Famers to near replacement guys. You’d see that the falloffs are more precipitous at the bottom end of the chart, where the replacement guys hanging around, than at the top , where the HOFers sitting on thrones. I’m not crazy enough to think Santana is more Derek Jeter than Roger Cedeno. But please examine the chart carefully, some of the players at the bottom (have) enjoyed solid careers for several years after their out-of-mind BABIP campaigns. You can point out that Santana doesn’t have the plate discipline of Castillo or Figgins, however, he hits for more power than both of them.
Obviously, there are bunch of cons about Santana. His over-aggressive approach could eat him alive. Or he might see his line drive ratio fall back to MiLB career level. But even after considering these negativities, I see something more than an utility infielder in him. Especially with the Twins’ shallow depth at shortstop. Oh, I think I need to tell you that the guy who’s writing this sentence doesn’t usually put much stock on free swingers. I believe that Danny Santana can be a solid contributor from up-the-middle position who shows some pop and swipe 20 or so bases yearly. He has a chance to be the second best Santana in the Twins’ franchise history.