The Unheralded Key to the Indians’ Lineup

After completing a sweep of the Boston Red Sox to advance to the ALCS, the Cleveland Indians effectively shocked the baseball world. Without two of the better pitchers in the American League in Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco and the man who had established himself as their best hitter before an injury-plagued season in Michael Brantley, they were able to take down what was arguably the most talented team in the AL. Many people were surprised that their lineup was able to get to Cy Young favorite Rick Porcello and $217 million man David Price the way it did, as it’s littered with castoffs like Coco Crisp, Brandon Guyer, and Rajai Davis. They certainly have their share of big producers too, as Jose Ramirez surprised people by putting up Michael Brantley-esque numbers, Mike Napoli had over 100 RBIs, and Francisco Lindor was an all-star who hit over .300. But this lineup still seems undermanned on paper, and no one expected them to finish 5th in the MLB in runs at the beginning of the season. While Ramirez, Napoli, and Lindor have all received a lot of credit for this (and rightfully so), one man’s contributions have flown under the radar: the team’s longest-tenured hitter, Carlos Santana. A streaky producer since 2010, Santana took a step forward this year after back to back disappointing seasons, providing this lineup with quality production and unheralded versatility.

Santana has always had good power, averaging 22 homers per season from 2013-2015. However, he took that to another level this season, hitting 34 home runs while posting a career-best .239 ISO. Perhaps what’s most surprising is the fact that he was able to do this while lowering his strikeout rate to a career-best 14.4% (good for 32nd among all qualified hitters), and maintaining his excellent plate discipline (9th among qualified hitters with 14.4% walk rate). Given that he made more contact and hit the ball harder, it can even be argued that he got unlucky with a .258 BABIP that came in 11 points below his career average, meaning his .259 batting average (which represented a marked improvement over the .231 he hit in his previous two seasons) could’ve been even better. All told, Santana ended up leading the Indians in both WRC+ at 132 and fangraphs’ Offensive Runs Above Average stat at 25.6, indicating that he was the most valuable offensive player on his team.

Yet, his base numbers don’t even due his value justice: his ability to shape-shift depending on his spot in the lineup makes what he did all the more impressive. Despite being a power hitter and only having one season in which he eclipsed 10 stolen bases, he served as the Indians’ leadoff hitter for over half of his games (86). This may not be the “traditional” role people would expect someone of his skillset to have, but he was able to thrive, posting a .385 OBP from this spot while scoring 57 runs in 327 at bats and being a good enough baserunner (only slightly below average with a BsR of -.9). His other common spot in the lineup was 5th (59 games), where he was able to collect 37 RBIs in only 216 at bats while maintaining a batting average of .259 that matches his season output. Very few players could transition so seamlessly between roles with such contrasting requirements, and this was especially valuable for the Indians given their lineup aforementioned lack of depth.

So, when looking to dole credit for the Indians’ successful season, don’t forget about Carlos Santana’s contributions. Sure, Terry Francona’s shrewd bullpen management, timely performances from fill-in starting pitchers, and the aforementioned strong performances of other position players have also played integral roles. But as arguably their most productive and versatile offensive player, Santana’s production has flown inexplicably under the radar. As someone who spends a significant amount of time at DH and is a below average defender at first base, his overall value will likely never eclipse that of a two-way star like teammate Francisco Lindor (who finished 8th in MLB in WAR), but his contributions to a lineup that would have no business ranking top 5 without him have been a key part of his team’s success.

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