Are the Royals smart to count on an offensive rebound from Carlos Santana?

The Royals' big free agent bat is coming off the worst season of his career.

Let’s look at a couple of stat lines; a compare and contrast sort of thing. Can you guess the players?

As you probably know, this is a trick. They’re the same player! Sorry about that! Both stat lines belong to newly acquired Carlos Santana. (I mean, the headline probably gave that away.) The top line was Santana’s offensive production from 2019 while the bottom line was his performance over 60 games in 2020.

It kind of makes your head spin. At the very least, it turns you upside down.

In 2019, Santana posted what was arguably the best full year of his major league career. He finished that season with career highs in slugging percentage and on-base percentage. He also had a career-best 93 RBI and 110 runs scored.

Then came the flip side.

It’s not necessarily fair to draw any kind of conclusions from a less than normal 2020 season, but the numbers are the numbers. They at least merit a look. And in Santana’s case, we’re discussing a career-worst OBP and slugging percentage. The drop in 40 points of wRC+ is concerning, but from looking at Mike Petriello’s list of 10 hitters who had the sharpest decline from ’19 to ’20, it’s at least somewhat of a relief that Santana doesn’t make an appearance.

The Royals gambled $17.5 million over the next two years that the 2020 season was an aberration for Santana. Was it?

Here’s what we can expect as Santana prepares to don the Royal blue in 2021.

Santana warms up with the weather

Santana is typically a slow starter. That’s not to say he would never have a strong first or second month of the season, but his career splits underscore exactly how rough April and May can be for him.

There are enough plate appearances (over 1,000 in every month but April) that this is quite informative. Santana’s power doesn’t truly get going until the weather warms up. Same for his on-base percentage. The tOPS+ tells the real story. That’s the split relative for Santana’s total OPS+. That’s not measuring him against the league like OPS+, that’s measuring him against himself. And that shows he’s generally nine percent below his typical production in the first two months of the season.

Santana’s wRC+ tells a similar story of a slow start over the first two months of the season, although it underscores that he still outperforms the league, no matter the month.

With the 60 game COVID-shortened season, Santana pretty much played for… two months. Add in the false start of spring training and a shortened summer camp and routines were clearly disrupted leading up to the season.

Now Santana is going into his age 35 season. It wouldn’t be unexpected for his production to drop at this point in his career. But this much?

Santana hit into some bad luck

A lot of Santana’s key batted ball numbers collected by Statcast (and found on his page at Baseball Savant) were down from 2019. You would expect that given the fact his overall production dropped. But the declines have to be taken in stride since they’re measured against the best offensive season of Santana’s career. Again, it helps to look at the larger picture.

Santana’s average exit velocity was 88 mph in 2020. That was down almost four mph from the previous year. That would be alarming, but like almost all of his production in 2019, that was insanely inflated. At the age of 33, it was an outlier of a season…the numbers had to drop. Looking at his seasonal averages going back to 2015, while the 88 mph exit velocity last summer was low, it wasn’t so low as to raise a red flag. Especially when factoring in a traditional slow start. He’s averaged an exit velocity of 89.8 mph since they started tracking.

His Hard Hit % was down to 36.6 percent, over eight percent off his 2019 pace. Again, a massive drop, but one that doesn’t seem so harsh against the perspective of his career-best season. Although comparing his rate from last year against his career Hard Hit % of 40.9 percent does give pause—he was over four percent off his career rate. That’s a large hole to dig out of had it been a normal season. But given his track record, it’s not inconceivable to think he couldn’t have made up some of that lost ground. His line drive rate actually increased from 2019. Eventually more of those would have dropped for hits.

Again, the rate that jumps off this table is the 2020 Hard Hit %. It’s just so low. But it is close to what he posted in 2017 and 2018…close enough that you could expect that rate to increase with his typically hot June or July.

Then there are his expected rates from Savant. You can see from the table below his Expected Batting Average (xBA) outpaces his actual BA by about 0.014 on average. His Expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG) leads his actual slugging percentage by about .018. The differences in 2020 were…substantial.

Finally, one other thing to consider. When we talk about luck in hitting, people generally default to Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). Conventional wisdom holds the average hitter has a .300 BABIP. That’s not exactly the case. For Santana, his career BABIP is .266. He had a .293 BABIP in 2019. Last year, his BABIP cratered to .212.

The key rates for Santana in 2020 were just so…off. Sure, it could be a sign of a precipitous decline. But I’m of the belief that it’s more a product of a season cut short by a virus.

Santana likes hitting in Kansas City

In Santana’s introductory press conference, he spoke highly of hitting at Kauffman Stadium.

“I love to hit there because I see the ball well. I know a lot of people are afraid to hit in Kauffman because of how big it is, but I feel comfortable because I see the ball so well and I’ve had a lot of success there.”

A lot of success? I’ll say! Of parks where Santana has had at least 100 plate appearances, nowhere has he found success like at The K.

Kauffman is the park where Santana performs the best. And it’s not even close. It’s crazy that he’s hit more dingers at The K in roughly the same number of PAs as at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and Guaranteed Rate Field on the South Side of Chicago, both parks are not exactly known to be friendly to the pitcher. Sure, the Royals haven’t always been running out exceptional pitching staffs during that time, but there’s still something to be said about that level of offensive performance. The numbers are legit.

Give Santana a full season where he’s playing his home games at The K, and I believe we can expect a return to “normal” production. At FanGraphs, ZIPS projects .250/.367/.418 with a wRC+ of 108. Steamer projects .245/.366/.443 with a wRC+ of 113. I’ll go full-bloom optimism here and lean into the latter projection. The on-base percentage of both feels right, but I think Santana’s power will return to close to his career slugging percentage of .446, if not a little better. A wRC+ of 120 isn’t out of the question.

The Royals are wagering on a return to offensive form for Santana. The smart money says that’s a wise bet.