BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Why Mariners should seriously consider bringing Carlos Santana back

Oct 19, 2022, 10:15 AM
Mariners Carlos Santana...
Mariners DH Carlos Santana reacts after hitting a double against the Astros in Game 2 of the ALDS. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Mariners’ wild, roller coaster season is done after a three-game ALDS sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros.

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The series showed that the Mariners can hang with baseball’s best in a playoff series, which makes the series loss both easier and harder to swallow. And with the season done, that means eyes turn to the offseason and what the team will do to build off this year into what should be very high expectations for 2023.

Will the Mariners target a big bat or two in free agency, especially with four All-Star shortstops hitting the open market? What happens with the No. 5 spot in the rotation? Will they add to the bullpen to take some pressure off go-to relievers Andrés Muñoz and Paul Sewald?

And then there are the players who were on the roster in 2022 and are set to hit free agency.

Mitch Haniger headlines that list. Adam Frazier is a former All-Star who had some big moments for Seattle in the postseason. Matthew Boyd is a hometown favorite who clearly loved joining the team he grew up rooting for.

But what about first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana? In my opinion, bringing the 36-year-old switch-hitter back should be one of the Mariners’ priorities this offseason.

At first glance, it may seem odd to say Santana should be an important player to bring back. And trust me, I get it. In 131 games this year, he slashed .202/.316/.376 (.692 OPS) with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs.

After being traded by Kansas City to Seattle, he slashed .192/.293/.400 (.693 OPS) in 79 games for the M’s with 15 homers and 39 RBIs. And boy, did many of those home runs and RBIs come in key situations for the Mariners.

His 2022 season was actually a lot better than it appears, too, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that he’ll be even more productive in 2023 at 37 years old.

For my fellow Statcast/advanced metric nerds, you may know this already. But Santana’s underlying metrics were pretty dang good in 2022.

He hit the ball hard, as evidenced by his 81st percentile average exit velocity (90.7 mph). His hard hit rate of 44.9% was in the 76th percentile in baseball and his barrel rate of 9.3% was in the 60th percentile.

Santana was also elite at controlling the strike zone. His strikeout rate was in the 74th percentile, his whiff rate was in the 71st percentile and his chase rate was in the 87th percentile. He worked walks with the best of them, too, as shown by his 97th percentile walk rate.

So yeah, Santana hit the ball hard regularly, worked walks, swung at strikes and didn’t go out of the strike zone very often. And for some context, Santana had a better average exit velocity than Mookie Betts and was in the same percentile in hard hit rate.

No more shift

So why didn’t Santana’s statline match up with these metrics?

Well, Santana got the majority of his plate appearances against right-handed pitching, meaning he hit from the left side. And no one was shifted against at a higher rate than Santana was as a left-handed hitter.

Opponents shifted against Santana 98.3% of the time when he hit left-handed, per Statcast. And as a fun note, Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh had the fourth-highest shift rate when he hit left-handed.

Santana pulled the ball 47% of the time and up the middle 34.2% of the time, so the ball was going to the right side of the field far more often than not.

The shift played a major role in Santana’s batting average of .202 being much lower than his expected batting average of .253, per Statcast. Same with his slugging percentage of .372 being much lower than his expected slugging percentage of .438.

Why do I bring all this up? Well, the shift as we know it is dead at the MLB level starting next year.

Starting in 2023, infielders can no longer play in the shallow outfield, meaning left-handed hitters won’t be robbed of singles by infielders playing in front of the right fielder. Infielders have to play with both feet on the infield dirt or infield grass, but not in the outfield. Additionally, teams must have two players on each side of second base.

With Santana being the most shifted-against player in baseball while hitting left-handed, you have to imagine he’ll be one of the biggest beneficiaries of MLB’s new shift limitations.

Clubhouse leader

If you have heard Mariners players, coaches and front office members talk about Carlos Santana, you usually hear two things.

First, he has a knack for coming up clutch in late situations, primarily with the long ball.

And second – and arguably more importantly – he was a leader and “glue guy” in the clubhouse despite not joining the team until June.

To help with what I’m saying, here’s what shortstop J.P. Crawford said about the veteran slugger after the Mariners’ Game 2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays to advance to the ALDS. Oh, and in that game, Santana had a clutch three-run home run that sparked the Mariners’ comeback.

“What he’s done on the field this year is unbelievable. But to be honest, he’s been a better leader,” Crawford said. “He came in, and he made our team 10-times closer. He’s such a good leader, man.”

Crawford told reporters that when he was a young player in Philadelphia, Santana was there and took him under his wing.

“And he got over here and I was so happy because I just know that I have that older brother I can go to for anything,” Crawford said. “If I have any questions, (need) any advice or anything, you go to Carlos.”

The big on-field dance celebration the Mariners broke out after each win? That came from Santana, too.

“He was the guy that had the idea of the winning dance,” Crawford said. “He just gets everyone closer. He brings everyone closer together. You need those types of guys on your team.”

Back in July during a series with the Blue Jays – in which Santana had multiple big homers – manager Scott Servais voiced how important Santana was to the Mariners.

“Carlos has been great. I really love what he’s brought to our team, our clubhouse,” Servais said. “For a guy who’s played as long as he has, you can see that he loves playing baseball. And that’s contagious.”

It’s also notable that Julio Rodríguez, who became an All-Star and face of the Mariners at just 21 years old this season, is very tight with Santana. Servais thought it was big that those two paired up during Julio’s rookie year.

“He’s known Carlos for a long time, they work out together in the offseason, they have the same agent, so bringing Carlos over here, it just helps,” Servais told Seattle Sports’ Bump and Stacy in early July in the midst of Seattle’s hot streak.  There’s a veteran guy that, you know, Julio’s got questions about what’s going on or what to do or what not to do – it’s so easy when you can go to a teammate, and certainly one you already have a relationship with.”

So why not keep the party going in 2023?

The impact Santana made in the clubhouse and dugout in 2022 outweighed his on-field production – which was notable in its own right – and I think his metrics show he’ll benefit from shift restrictions in 2023. I think that he should receive those benefits in a Mariners uniform.

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