Along the branches of the Cicere family tree, some have had a tougher time letting new roots spread.
I was a huge fan of Buck Showalter. I still am. He’s probably among the top three people in the history of the world that I’d like to have beer with, and when I say have a beer with, I mean like seven. As one of the last “old school” archetypes to see his way out of baseball, he showed us that a baseball guy can still make instinctual baseball decisions, and things can still turn out OK.
But that isn’t baseball anymore in 2019, and some of the elder Ciceres have had a harder time accepting this circumstance.
Two of my favorite Baltimorons haven’t cozied up to the idea of Brandon Hyde, his forward-thinking staff, and an organization embracing numbers. Just the other day, I asked my dad what my uncle, his brother, thought of a more progressive Baltimore baseball team and he responded with a “meh” that reeked of disappointment. “Why!?” I asked, as if no other opinion could be correct. My dad said, “He just loves Buck.”
Rumor has it this same uncle may have even sent a strongly worded e-mail to the season ticket staff to express his dismay regarding Buck’s departure, but my sources have yet to confirm the story. Even so, I would have to imagine that Buck still has a hold on many like those in my own family, and for good reason. Showalter’s unceremonious exit may have had some questioning the meaning of life, but Hyde and his coaching staff are at least giving those same folks some answers.
Over the winter, we discussed the theme of player development and how it related to the new staff. Each and every one of the new coaches on the field, from pitching coach Doug Brocail to third base coach Jose Flores, have player development backgrounds. Their jobs were to make players better in order for them to reach the big leagues.
They’ve all worked in the minor leagues in this modern era of teaching, and some even came with glowing reputations, like field coordinator and catching instructor Tim Cossins. The Orioles have assembled a group of industry-approved up-and-comers who’ve proven they can develop players, and we may have already started to see some results.
Anthony Santander holds the title for the “most surprising month of March,” as well as the “last player I truly stanned for.” Two years ago, Santander was my boy, or at least I told my dad he was every time he came up to the plate. “That’s my boy,” I would say, like any father in approval of his large adult son. Last year though, it became a lot harder to admit, “Yeah, that one’s mine.”
After a late-season debut in the fall of 2017, Santander broke camp with the Orioles after a stellar spring, helping Santander to fulfill his Rule 5 obligations. He had every opportunity to play, too. From March 31st to May 12th, Santander played in 33 games with 108 plate appearances, though only recording a 48 wRC+ with a strikeout to walk ratio of nearly four to one. He stunk, and the Orioles never bothered to let him see major league time again despite the club winning only 47 games.
Still, Santander is just north of 24 years old and has a measly 139 major league plate appearances. His switch-hitting bat suggests there might be something there. Early on this spring, the new coaching staff might have found something.
The Venezuelan has 11 hits in 24 at-bats, including six doubles and two home runs, equating to a 1.458 OPS. Santander has been on the kind of tear that has naturally caught the attention of his manager.
“(Santander)’s swinging the bat really well,” Hyde said. “I was just talking to Don Long about him. They did some nice adjustments with him on his left-handed swing. It just seems like his barrel is in the zone a long time.
Jon Meoli reported last week that Santander has been taking to these adjustments, so I started to wonder myself; what exactly did Don Long and the rest of the staff try to do?
Here we have the Santander of last April, likely the same hitter he’d always been. In the past, Santander initiated his swing with an exaggerated toe-tap as his hands drifted back from his midline. Right away, it’s possible to narrow down some fundamental critiques. Santander hits with swagger, but he was pushing it. His hands were traveling quite a ways back, and trying to sync his top half was made more difficult with an unsteadying lower-half. The best hitters in baseball always hit with rhythm, and Santander had none.
One of the things that Hyde said that was particularly interesting was his emphasis on Santander’s bat and how “his barrel is in the zone a long time.” That is to say, Santander’s swing had gotten long, and there are receipts.
The above is Santander’s fastball heat map against right-handed pitching over the course of his 108 plate appearances last season. As is shown, Santander was pummeled with fastballs inside and it probably had a lot to do with his incapability of doing any damage on the inner-half. Santander’s left-handed swing will make or break whether he stays relegated to Triple-A, or if he sticks around. It’s no coincidence the Orioles have chosen to focus on his left-handed approach.
So, Don Long has pinpointed said problems and turned them into advantages.
Now, Santander looks much more athletic in the box. His hands are already behind him, trimming the distance of how far his bat moves to load. Santander’s mixed in a bit of a leg lift in substitute of a toe-tap, sort of blending the two. When he comes to set he’s in a more advantageous attack position, as he’s also cut down his head movement. More easily said, he looks like a hitter better prepared to consistently impact the baseball. There’s a rhythm.
This swing is particularly interesting, because Santander didn’t have any hits as a lefty to left field in 2018. He’s always been seen as more of a pull hitter, but his hands work too well for his skill set to be so one-sided. On a running fastball, he unloaded a monster oppo bomb.
The broadcast was sure to mention how far the ball landed, saying that it wasn’t a spring training wind-aided home run. He actually hit that ball like 415 feet the other way. Santander trusted his hands enough to allow the baseball to sink into the strike zone, a skill he didn’t have a season ago. In 2016, before Santander was selected in the Rule 5 draft, he managed a 137 wRC+ with 20 home runs at High-A. It’s no secret why the old Orioles wanted to make sure Santander stayed in the organization, and why the new regime could potentially reap the benefits.
It would be unwise not to mention that Santander was in a similar scenario a season ago. An .847 OPS in 65 at-bats, mostly comprised by power, made the decision to bring Santander north last spring an easier one. But he failed, drastically.
Is there a chance Santander is brought back to Baltimore and again disappoints? Of course. But at the very least, we know this coaching staff will try to make adjustments. Real adjustments. As I’ve said before, the potential developments of Santander, Cedric Mullins, Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays or whomever else is what makes the thought of losing much less consequential. How do these guys get better, and will they get better?
Sorry fellow Ciceres, but I have a little more confidence in this group of coaches.