“Santana was a huge piece, lead-off hitter, speed guy who would play adequate center field,” Ryan said during the Offseason Handbook interview. “All of a sudden we just couldn’t get him going.”
It is easy to forget looking back now that heading into the season, Danny Santana was counted on as being a significant contributor. In addition to being a table-setter atop the lineup, he was called upon to anchor the infield at short. While his time as a lead-off hitter was brief and the title of starting shortstop lasted just over two months, it likely cost the Twins some in terms of the standings. What went wrong with his year and is it too little, too late for the 24-year-old middle infielder?At the beginning of the year, Paul Molitor made it known that Santana was the guy he would write in at the top of the order. His speed was clearly a big factor but Molitor also felt that Santana, while not one to draw walks, would be pesky enough to find ways to reach base at a steady clip. Santana’s regular appearance at the top of the order would last 21 games. In that time the switch-hitter posted a .267 OBP while striking out in 24 of his 78 trips to the plate. He failed to even draw one walk in that stretch. That, combined with shoddy glovemanship in the field, brought the experiment to an end.
The Twins weren’t fooling themselves on what they believed Danny Santana could provide in 2015. After all, his .405 batting average on balls in play was an extreme rarity. “Historically my gut tells me that it's not sustainable because he didn't put up those kinds of numbers in the minor leagues," general manager Terry Ryan said October of last year regarding Santana's future. "If you're going to be true to yourself and what you know has happened with historically 95 percent of the players, you've got to expect a little bit of a back-off of those numbers, but that would be plenty good enough.”
Everyone anticipated regression. No one really thought there would be this much regression. But 2015 turned into a weird baseball version of Groundhog Day for Santana -- every day he would wake up, go to the ballpark and not hit. His aggressive tendencies prevented him from letting the count encroach upon three ball territory (he had 15 plate appearances reach three balls and managed just two walks). He chased after 43 percent of pitches that were out of the strike zone, well above the 30 percent MLB average. What he did put in play was mainly weak ground balls, a far cry from the line drive machine that arrived in 2014.
Santana, who had hit over .500 when swinging at the first pitch of the at-bat the prior year, decided to go ultra-aggressive in 2015, swinging almost 40 percent of the time at the first offering. The returns were not nearly as good as in his rookie season, posting an empty .222 average on those swings.
His two-strike approach varied radically between the two years as well. In 2014, six of his seven home runs came in two-strike counts. He collected another 16 extra- base hits and managed to hit a respectable .247 when in the pitcher’s kill zone. This past year Santana might as well have faced the final pitch from the dugout as he went back there momentarily. He hit .119 with two strikes and that was accompanied by a .280 OPS, the lowest OPS among hitters with 100 or more plate appearances with two strikes.
While pressure to perform and the competition adjusting to Santana’s tendencies -- not to mention carrying some of his fielding woes to the plate with him -- the Twins also felt there was a physical component to his swing that was affecting his production. After all, his line drive rate plummeted from 26% to 18% while his ground ball rate spiked from 49% to 58%. Meanwhile, the pitchers were attacking him in the same manner as before, he just was simply unable to do anything with those mid-zone fastballs. Something was not right.
In the first week of June, the Twins sent him to Rochester with a clear message to fix his swing. “For Danny Santana, it may very well be all in the hands,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle’s Kevin Oklobzija wrote. “Or, rather, what his hands are doing when he's staring down the pitcher in the batter's box. There's too much movement, Santana believes. He thinks that's why his average with the Minnesota Twins tumbled more than 100 points from last year to this year.”
Whereas teammates like Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas have mechanics that just scream at you with movement, Santana’s mechanics were more like a whisper. There is a brief twitch from his front foot as he transfers his weight back and then exploded forward with his quick hands to meet the ball with minimal additional effort from any other part of his body. It was repeatable, balanced. However, for whatever reason, Santana added a new element to his chain in 2015. A minor yet notable change in his system that may have been a factor in the reduced and lower quality of contact.
Watch Santana’s swing from the left side from 2014 (top) compared to 2015 (bottom).
Santana incorporated a new heel lift and in-turn on his front side as part of the loading process as the pitcher is releasing the ball. It is small, it is barely noticeable and yet it is likely playing a role in why his numbers dropped off so fast and so furious.
Download attachment: Danny Santana_2015 Lift.png
Download attachment: Danny Santana_2014 Lift.png
The intent is to generate power when loading the hips (ironically enough it worked wonders for Eduardo Escobar) but in Santana’s case the new movement is pertinent to his struggles as it creates just enough of a glitch in his swing to disrupt the system. Now he is moving while the pitch is coming, throwing off his timing ever so slightly; his head is changing planes and his hands are creating a different swing path (he is making more contact on top of the ball).
With the results of the two seasons as evidence it would seem like an easy decision to encourage Santana to work on returning to his previous swing this winter.
Santana is out of options which this makes it a vital off-season for him. Eduardo Escobar has done everything that has been asked of him and more to earn the starting shortstop position heading into 2016 but Santana has the potential to be a contributor as a utility infielder or a safety valve if Escobar regresses. The Twins do not necessarily need Santana to be a utility player but Brian Dozier’s second-half decline over the past two years suggests that some time off throughout the beginning and middle parts of the year could help extend his season. A combination of Dozier, Escobar and a version of Santana that closely resembles the 2014 model would give the Twins solid middle infield depth. At the very least, a solid performance would create some trade value.
The Twins say they want to get him going. What would you do with Danny Santana in 2016?
***For more discussion on how to build the 2016 Minnesota Twins roster, be sure to get a copy of the Twins Daily Offseason Handbook.***
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