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40 in 40: Domingo Santana

Seattle Mariners Photo Day
Scarcely has a bat looked smaller.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This entire article was written with the song ‘Start the Show’ by Jet stuck in my head. You may be familiar with this ditty, as I am, from the MLB 2k10 video game. Others may not get 70-80% of their music from sports video games, and that is a choice I suppose. To experience this article as it was intended, you may wish to listen to the song as you read. Thank you. -JT

The 40 in 40 series is well-designed to make a bold case for a player’s future. Mitch Haniger could be a star, Guillermo Heredia just needs a slip-n-slide, and Shawn Armstrong, well, maybe that one should be buried by history. Sometimes that goes poorly, (thanks for making me look like a real dingus, Kyle) but the format encourages a depth of study that leads to confident statements. This year, I will make an emotionally-tinged claim: Domingo Santana will bring me more excitement than any Mariners player on the 2019 Opening Day roster.

The 26-year-old Santana is built like a main attraction. He’s listed at 6’5, 220, and for an outfielder of his size, his skill-set is exactly what you’d expect. The speed is average, the arm is potent, and the defense is suspect. Walks and whiffs alike are his domain. But power - overwhelming power - has made Santana a big leaguer.

Lest you fear your eyes deceived you, that is indeed where the baseball hit the scoreboard.

Miller Heavy

Statcast listed that at 435 feet, 106.3 mph off the bat, making that only one of Santana’s most titanic blasts. But the Brewers could have kept this man in their lineup, and instead shuttled him to Seattle for Ben Gamel and a reliever without a solid breaking ball from Harvard who looked good in Everett. Seattle is the beneficiary of Milwaukee’s roster crunch, but the thrills Santana could bring spent too much of 2018 locked away. What can unlock 2017 Showmingo and soften the blow of losing Nelson Cruz with his a youthful facsimile?

It starts with contact. Despite his size, Santana’s average exit velocity numbers were only a couple ticks above-average last year and just a shade better in his breakout 2017 campaign. Still, 89.1 mph on contact is an excellent average, and if it works for Lorenzo Cain or Freddie Freeman it can work for Santana. The trouble is, it seems, consistency.

Santana has a tendency to swing-and-miss. Never has that been less damning than now, as strikeouts are recognized to be controlled, insular failures that can sometimes offer potential for production from the next batter. But Santana doesn’t display the exact characteristics of many power hitters we’re familiar with. It’s obvious from the production he was a completely different hitter in 2018 than in 2017, but the batted ball profile really hammers it home.

Domingo Santana 2017-18

Year PAs wRC+ BB%/K% Whiff% BABIP Pull/Middle/Oppo GB/FB/LD
Year PAs wRC+ BB%/K% Whiff% BABIP Pull/Middle/Oppo GB/FB/LD
2017 607 127 12.0%/29.3% 13.70% 0.363 33.4%/.38.6%/28.0% 46.6%/19.7%/31.1%
2018 235 97 8.5%/32.8% 15.80% 0.386 35.0%/46.0%/19.0% 49.6%/24.1%/24.8%

This table could include any number of other metrics, all telling the same story. His launch angle grew higher, as did his chase rate. Could it have been a concerted effort by the Brewers to continue maximizing Santana’s power by encouraging a swing change? Or Santana responding to the pressure of maintaining his spot in a packed outfield by pressing for power?

Try as I might, no satisfactory answer emerged, save for something peculiar in the calendar. Santana’s disastrous 2018 wasn’t a year-long march of misery. On April 31st, his wRC+ sat at 66, with a .590 OPS. He’d go on to post a 124 wRC+ and .859 mark the rest of the way, nearly exactly matching his 127 wRC+ and .875 OPS from 2018. Despite a grisly first month that left him scavenging for playing time and ultimately caused his mid-season demotion, Santana made the most of pinch-hitting and spot starts to hint at a return to form.

Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich are not crowding Seattle’s outfield, nor does Ryan Braun demand a cane and five starts a week in left. Domingo will have a full season and more to make his adjustments and attempt to C the Z with more aplomb. While he won’t fill the hole immediately, the Nelson Cruz comparisons are inevitable. More than simply their calm demeanors, their shared size, style, and late-blooming status build the pairing. Kate pegged Santana’s weapon of choice as the ‘Blastbranch’, but based on his love of the film Drumline, he might prefer a ‘Drumstick’, or at least a trombone.

Domingo Santana's Milwaukee Brewers player bio: "...Played the trombone in elementary school and junior high..." He put his trombone where his mouth is for CBS 58.

Posted by CBS 58 Mike Curkov on Friday, July 7, 2017

It’s unclear if there’s more potential in Santana’s musical talents, but there certainly is for him on the diamond. The Mariners have Santana under contract through 2021, so there’s plenty of time for his talents to develop, but it’s still easy to look at him and see a player who could benefit from a slightly smoother, backspin-generating swing. You occasionally see it in his power, particularly to the opposite field.

Whether he adjusts or not, we’ll see The Pen under consistent threat this year. With a bit of consistency, and perhaps a shade more contact, we could see even more.