nugget | ˈnəɡət | nouna
small lump of gold or other precious metal found ready-formed in the earth. • a small chunk or lump of another substance: tiny nuggets of chicken and shrimp. • a valuable idea or fact: nuggets of information.
On Wednesday, MASN’s Steve Melewski wrote that the Orioles have a “future nugget” in 24-year-old Anthony Santander. Once you get past the decided old-man tenor of the expression, and/or the mental associations with chicken, Melewski makes a good point. Adley Rutschman is not a nugget. “Striking gold” implies a certain degree of luck, and a definite lack of foresight or, in this case, hype.
Against the Blue Jays on Thursday, there was an interesting moment where Mike Bordick described Toronto’s rebuild as already very advanced, youngsters like Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio forming the core of “Toronto’s lineup of the future.” As the camera panned back to the O’s dugout, there was a short pause, then Bordick, obviously at pains to come up with something, said, “I don’t know if the Orioles have found the future of their lineup yet,” but gamely speculated that Richie Martin or Pedro Severino could be those guys.
With all due respect to the Orioles Hall of Famer, he, like a lot of trained observers, is letting the badness of this team prevent him from spotting a gold nugget in the rough. Perhaps no one on this team has made a more convincing case for a long-term role than Santander.
Back in December 2016, when the Orioles picked up the 22-year-old from Cleveland in the Rule 5 draft, a giddy Dan Duquette (to the extent Dan Duquette could ever be giddy) compared the switch-hitter to fellow Venezuelan and five-time All-Star Victor Martinez. “He has a similar stance. Excellent young hitter. He was the best young player in the Carolina League,” with over 20 home runs and 95 RBIs that season.
After debuting with the Orioles on August 18, 2017, Santander served mainly as a defensive replacement behind Mark Trumbo and Trey Mancini, largely a disappointment at the plate, slashing just .214/.252./.313/.565 in 133 plate appearances in 2017-18.
Under new management, it was clear Santander was going to have to prove he belonged with this team.
Santander showed up to Sarasota 15 pounds lighter and slugged .333/.389/.697 with a 1.086 OPS, six doubles, and two home runs in 33 at-bats. Though he was in dramatically better shape, Elias & Co. still had questions about his defense and consistency, and sent him down to Norfolk to start the season.
Santander got called up for one game on May 1, homered, went down the next day, rejoined the team in June, and hasn’t looked back since.
What’s different for Santander this year? The answer is, about everything. For one thing, his defense has came along in leaps and bounds. His UZR in right field has jumped up to 2.3 from 1.5 in 2017. (That same figure is 0.0 over 66 innings in center, so jury’s still out on that experiment.) Santander is fielding 1.000 on “unlikely” balls, and his range runs score is up, too, proof that he’s providing plus defense out in right.
Let’s talk about the bat. Across most offensive categories, there is a pattern here: Santander is racking up career numbers and exceeding the league average.
First, he’s barreling up the ball: his barrel and hard-hit ball rates, and average exit velocity are career bests.
The strikeouts are down. According to BaseballReference, Santander swings slightly more frequently than most league hitters, but when he does, he’s making contact—his contact percentage, which includes foul ball and balls in play, is 81.2%, well above the league average of 75.2%. Plus he’s seeing an above-average 4.16 pitches per at-bat. All of this rings true with the pitch selectivity we’re seeing at the dish and the way he’s making pitchers work.
Santander is hitting .338 with five doubles, a triple, four home runs, and 16 RBI since the All-Star Break. Even though he walks less than others, his wOBA is also above-average, which speaks to how productive he’s been this season.
His teammates see it. Mancini says, “I’ve always thought he was a beast, from the second we got him,” calling him “physically as gifted as anyone I’ve played with.” Hitting coach Howie Clark praises his unusual work ethic. Skipper Brandon Hyde is rewarding him with consistent starts day-in and day-out. “Tony Santander. How about those ABs that that guy takes?” said Hyde on Tuesday. “He’s taking elite ABs, hitting third in the lineup and squaring the ball up a lot, and playing plus defense in the corners and in center when I ask him to, so I think there are some good things happening.”
At 24, Santander has gone from a Rule 5 pickup to a lineup fixture. And to go by the words of Mancini and Hyde, he’ll still be here when the team is back in contention. “A young guy that is just scratching the surface of the player that he can be,” Mancini calls him. “I think he’s a prime candidate to be here for the long haul.”
Not so subtly, Hyde is telling fans sick of this struggle of a rebuild season that Santander is one to watch now and going forward: “I hope the fans are grabbing onto that there is some excitement with some of our guys going forward, and that’s what this was all about, to really find players that are going to be with us when we’re winning playoff games.”
We may not have a ton to thank Dan Duquette for in terms of the farm system, but with this one, he may have panned gold.