Quick quiz for those of you confident you’ve been paying attention: Who’s the Orioles’ leader in WAR this year?
Yes, it’s early, but someone on the team clocked in entering Monday’s action at 1.0, good for eighth in the American League. Surely it’s Jose Iglesias and his .400 batting average, right? Or Hanser Alberto and his .326 average and 11 doubles? Perhaps Renato Nunez and his five home runs and .307 average?
Nope. The headline to this article probably ruined the suspense, but it’s Anthony Santander, who announced himself to Orioles fans last year and has taken another step forward this season.
In 2019, Santander emerged as a potential player in Baltimore’s grand rebuild scheme, swatting 20 home runs and compiling a .773 OPS in only 93 games and 380 at-bats. In 2020, the narrative’s only improved. Santander has seven home runs in 89 at-bats, 22 RBI in 21 games, and a .948 OPS. The season’s still young, but the sample is getting too big to shake off, and at this pace Santander would hit 47 home runs in 600 at-bats.
Even better, however, is that this isn’t some hot, fluky stretch that is making a mediocre season look better than it has been. Santander got off to a good start out of the gate, driving in four runs in the first three games and six in the first seven, but he picked up only four hits in his next 25 at-bats, saw his average dwindle to .213 and appeared headed for the “forget about him” camp.
In a sign that Santander might have real big-league game, however, he bounced back. Over the next 10 games, he batted .357. He hit five home runs, drove in 14 runs, and posted an OPS of 1.233. He’s on what is now a 12-game hitting streak. When you follow up a strong season with a good start, and then bust out of a slump in a big way, it’s pretty close to a sign that your talents at the plate have staying power.
And if that’s the case, Santander, a total find as a 2016 Rule 5 draft pick, moves himself into the center of the Orioles’ rebuilding plan.
The Orioles have some sure-fire building blocks in their blueprint for a winner — Adley Rutschman, Ryan Mountcastle and Heston Kjerstad being the most notable — but a team can only be carried so far by high draft choices alone. The depth needs to fill in the gaps, and Santander is looking more and more like that kind of player. He’s only 25 — he turns 26 in October — he switch hits, and he swings a bat that only seems to be improving.
In other words, just the kind of player a team attempting a complete course correction needs to stumble into.
He’s not alone in that category. Hanser Alberto, too, has gone from being another guy thrown into the mix to being a piece of the Orioles’ future. But unlike Alberto, who’s had a consistent theme (destroy all lefties) to his sudden stardom, Santander is showcasing some differences in how he’s gone about proving what he can do at the plate at the big-league level.
In 2019, Santander was better against lefties across the board, batting 18 points higher (.272 to .254) and posting an OPS more than 50 points better (.810 to .753) than what he did against righties.
In 2020, however, it’s been the opposite. He’s batting .293 against right-handers, and .214 against lefties (in 14 at-bats). His OPS against righties (.982) is more than 200 points higher than his .767 number against lefties. It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about his ability against southpaws based on those numbers, but the improvement against right-handers is a positive development.
The stats also show an uptick in aggression at the plate. Santander put the first pitch in play only 28 times all of last season, batting .286 with a .714 OPS. This year, though, he’s already more than halfway to that number in less than a quarter of the games, going 8-for-15 for a .533 batting average and 1.667 OPS. That speaks to confidence — if Santander gets a good pitch right away, he’s taking his cuts. And so far, he’s doing damage with them.
It continues and builds upon an encouraging development from last season. At the start of last 2019, Santander was just a temporary piece of the puzzle.
With each hit he gets this season, however, he shows that he might be a part of some bigger things moving forward.