On Tuesday, my colleague Alex Church made a convincing case that, with the Orioles likely to be missing Cedric Mullins for an undefined amount of time, “peak Austin Hays” is going to be needed to supply the missing offensive punch from the outfield. I’d agree.
Now here’s one other outfield bat who can help pick up the slack: Anthony Santander. For years now, Santander has been the subject of trade rumors, and people like to grumble that he isn’t providing a ton of speed or defensive value in right field. (Actually, BaseballSavant has him as above-average in “outfielder jump.” But we digress...) Anyway, let’s take a look at what the beefy Venezuelan switch-hitter is offering at the plate right now.
Ninth-most valuable man on the team right now, with 1.0 WAR, Santander continues to score high in two offensive categories: power and plate discipline. Living up to his nickname, Tony Taters is in a three-way tie with Captain America (Adley Rutschman) and Mullins for second on the team in home runs, behind Ryan Mountcastle’s 11, and he leads the Orioles in doubles, 15. He’s second to Mountcastle in total bases, at 94, and ranks just behind Austin Hays in OPS at .853, too.
Compared to a guy like Mountcastle, Santander is a more complete hitter, not least because of his batting eye. He ranks second on the team in on-base percentage, just behind Rutschman, and third in walks behind, again, Rutschman (who has an AL-leading 43), and Mullins, whose plate discipline is at career-best levels. Santander has an often-undervalued quality at the plate: he makes pitchers work. In terms of pitches per plate appearances, only Rutschman (4.29 Pit/PA) sees more than Santander does (and Gunnar Henderson is also up there, tied with Santander at 4.14).
Among the newer stats floating around the baseball universe are those that attempt to quantify how much a particular player adds to their team’s chances. For instance, there’s WPA (win probability added), WPA Clutch (same, but overweighting performance in the clutch situation) and Base-Out Runs added (runs the batter added in a bases-occupied situation). I won’t pretend to be an expert in deconstructing these, but I can say that Santander consistently ranks in the top 3 of O’s hitters in all of these categories along with Hays, Mullins and Rutschman. In what are considered “high leverage” situations he’s hitting .313 and OPS’ing .968. With runners on, Santander’s OPS jumps to .940, and with the bases juiced, it’s a wild 2.833. Fair to consider this guy a clutch hitter? I think so.
If colors equate to heat, and heat equates to hitting, then Santander’s offensive arc this season goes from icy blue to red-hot. He averaged .213 in April, though ten walks and ten extra-base hits helped put his OPS at a not-horrible .642. But in May, he’s hitting .313 and OPS’ing .968. He’s reached base in 23 of 26 games. On Tuesday, he tied his career high with three extra-base hits in a single game, including a three-run triple. “Santander is SPEED,” gushed O’s Twitter, and with a 30th-percentile foot speed, that statement is false. But he sure is hitting.
So what is working for Santa these days? One key factor: his chase rate is way down. Most clearly, it’s down against offspeed pitches. Let’s break that down a bit. From April to May, Santander chased about 30% of fastballs outside the zone, and this number stayed consistent. But when it came to sinkers, he chased 75% of them in April and only 40% in May. The same holds when you look at split-finger fastballs and cutters. In other words, he’s seeing offspeed pitches much, much better lately and is making better swing decisions. Not surprisingly, his walk rate is up to 11.7% and his strikeout percentage is down six percentage points. His average exit velocity has spiked in May, too: he is pounding fastballs and breaking balls, with a 160-point improvement on the former and 200 on the latter.
It seems pitchers threw Santander a lot of fastballs in April and he struggled to hit them. Now they’re adjusting, increasing the proportion of offspeed and breaking pitches—and it’s working very much to their great detriment.
There’s room for improvement in Santander’s game, of course. His expected average remains low-ish, he’s still striking out at above-average rates, and he’s still chasing. Worth keeping an eye on. But if he can keep taking baby steps in this direction, he has a chance to repeat his 2020 Most Valuable Oriole season—and, along with Austin Hays, help keep this offense afloat while Cedric Mullins rests his abductor.
People have doubted Santander since he was a Rule 5 guy in 2016—but to that kind of negativity, I can’t think of any better comeback than this: