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Carlos Santana has been the step in the Mariners’ groove

The Mariners already got their missing piece, in a sense

MLB: Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners
You’re my reason for reason
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

When the Mariners (re)acquired Carlos Santana on June 27, we had no complaints, but said he wouldn’t “be setting anyone’s eyebrows or undergarments alight.” A month later, my undergarments beg to differ. After just four weeks on the roster, I now can’t imagine a world where Carlos Santana doesn’t play for the Mariners. You can’t argue with results: thanks in no small part to his five home runs (one more than he hit in twice as many PAs as a Royal this season!), the Mariners are 19-4 since he joined the team.

Perhaps we should have known Santana was born to be a Mariner. After all, he was born on the same day as King Félix (all hail the eighth of April), so of course he fit in right away. Chaos Ball may belong more to the 2021 team, since this year’s squad is more legitimately good, but it’s still undeniably a tool in this group’s tool box, and Carlos Santana is a dude who clearly groks what Chaos Ball is all about.

Santana ably filled in for Ty France during his IL stint. And now that France is back, he’s given the Mariners a legitimate bench bat and has brought stability to the DH spot. With Kyle Lewis and Mitch Haniger both on the IL for such an extended stretch, the Mariners had gotten a 67 wRC+ out of the DH spot before Santana arrived. Santana’s elite plate discipline and penchant for clutch home runs has been just what this offense was missing.

He almost single-handedly swept the Toronto Blue Jays, hitting three balls to seven inches from the midday sun.

The clutch hitting helps, but I think Santana’s bigger impact has come from his leadership. For as good as the chemistry was before he arrived, this was a team that was sorely lacking in guys who’ve Been There Before. And Carlos Santana has been there before.

Because it’s unquantifiable, there’s sometimes pushback among the analytically inclined in suggesting that team chemistry matters. And their cause is aided by the fact that winning teams always seem to have good chemistry, calling cause-and-effect into question. Moreover, there’s no reason to think the 2022 Mariners had bad chemistry and every reason to think the reverse. But sometimes a team on the edge grabs a journeyman who everyone just rallies around. To return to my favored analogy for the 2022 Mariners, this all reminds me a bit of Gerardo Parra on the 2019 Nats.

Carlos Santana answers the question, “what if Sergio Romo were still pretty OK at baseball?” These guys just love him.

The impact has been particularly large for the Mariners’ superstar rookie, Julio Rodríguez. These two have a special relationship, which is at least a couple years old, as they’ve worked out together in Florida in the last two offseasons. When Julio hugs Santana, it’s not like his other hugs. If you’ve seen your share of post-homer celebrations, you know it. With all his confidence and the ease with which he’s taking MLB by storm, it can be easy to forget that Julio really is just a kid out there. Real mentorship matters.

Toronto Blue Jays v Seattle Mariners
If you would leave, it’d be a crying shame
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

It’s great to be surrounded by smart people who you trust and who want to help you. You can learn a lot from people like that. But there’s simply no substitute for the person who, for whatever alchemical reason, gets through to you. The vagaries of leadership aren’t captured by numbers, but they’re real. When I was recently overmatched by a work foe, I got pep talks from several of my mentors. But it was only when my old boss Jeff told me he thought I could do it that I thought I could do it. For whatever reason, Jeff just gets through to me, even when he’s saying essentially the same thing as everyone else. Santana really seems to be serving that role for Julio.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Seattle Mariners
I would give my world to lift you up
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
MLB: Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners
It’s the same as the emotion that I get from you
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

And Santana’s leadership has extended beyond Julio, beyond the position players, and beyond the Latin players. He’s forced his way into the group. Do we think it’s a coincidence that Santana was the first non-infielder to join the celebration dance? Cal Raleigh may be the field general out there, but it’s clear that Santana is in charge of the team’s in-game emotional needs.

The minute Festa got into trouble, Santana got in there to pump him up. And it worked. Focus on Matt Festa’s face in these two shots.

That’s someone who hears what Carlos is saying. [Ed. note: Julio liked that tweet, indicating that the rookie very much knows what the score is regarding Santana’s leadership.]

Santana’s been leading by example too, doing whatever it takes to win. Old schoolers fawned at his hustling down the line to avoid a double play on Monday.

Despite rolling over on a ball in a critical situation, Santana made sure the run would score. That sort of hustle, showing everyone that you’re giving them every piece of yourself, is itself an important aspect of leadership. It engenders trust. To get really real for a second: Robinson Canó would never.

The next day, he was able to get the ball in the air for the walkoff, and naturally, he was mobbed. The guy who gets the walkoff RBI always gets mobbed, but because they always get mobbed, they always get mobbed. It leads to sometimes looking a little performative, as players act out what they’re supposed to do after a walkoff. On Tuesday, though, this had all the hallmarks of a real celebration. Tell me these smiles are forced.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is the sheer volume of major highlights for a guy who’s played in a mere 24 games for the club. This kind of production, especially its high-leverage nature, probably won’t last. But that’s OK, because I think the players’ love for him will. And so too will mine. At this point, for lack of a better way to put it, I would change my life to better suit his mood.