We’ve worked our way to the third installment of our Nine Positions in Nine Days series, and today we take a look at right field. Since Ramon Flores was nothing really more than a yearly fill-in and is no longer on the roster, this article will feature Domingo Santana (we’ll discuss Perez later in the series).
First, a rundown of how many starts each player had at the No. 9 position:
Domingo Santana (62)
Ramon Flores (49)
Hernan Perez (36)
Kirk Nieuwenhuis (28)
Alex Presley (13)
Jake Elmore (4)
Ryan Braun (2)
Andy Wilkins (1)
Though he was injured for multiple stretches of the year due to a nagging elbow issue, Santana still racked up the most starts in right field this season with 62 total games. We all knew that would pose as the most likely scenario, as right at the forefront of the season, Craig Counsell expressed how featuring Santana as a corner outfielder would be a priority.
Despite the lingering injuries that sidelined Santana throughout points of the year, there were still multiple signs of improvement that didn’t go by unnoticed. First off, two of the three slash categories saw an increase in production. His BA rose (.238 average in ’15 –> .250 in ’16), along with his slugging (.431 SLG in ’15 –> .443 in ’16). The combination of those culminated into yet another increase in his OPS, which jumped from .768 in 2015 to .779 this season. A further increase in batting average is a realistic hope Brewers can have for Santana moving forward into 2017.
What could be the reason behind those successes? From the beginning of the year when Counsell was experimenting with the lineup, he tested Santana as the leadoff man. Santana’s approach at the plate proved to be the first real surprise of this year’s Brewers squad. From the get go, a fresh and revamped plate discipline was evident. When he first came up to the Astros in 2014, many heralded his style at the dish as a free swinger. The stats prove it too. In that first season, Santana’s O-Swing % (remember, O-Swing % is the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) was a whopping 41.2 percent. That was then slashed to 24.7 percent the following year. Then, this past season, it dropped even lower to just 20.8 percent. Folks, that’s pretty nuts.
His new and revamped approach at the plate was more than enough to grant him benefits. You might’ve noticed that Santana seemed to hit more balls on the nose this year than last — and if you did, you’re correct. His line drive percentage leapt over 10 percent from last season (19.2 percent in 2015 to 30.1 percent this year). That goes all the way back to him working himself to notice better counts. It’s much easier to get a pitch to hit when you’re in a hitters count (2-0, 2-1, 3-1). Santana gained more opportunities in those situations and took advantage of them.
Here are some fun illustrations that show just how much Domingo improved in making solid contact. Below is his line drive percentage from 2015:
Now, compare that to his line drive heat map from this year:
Look at the elimination of blue around the strike zone. That’s pretty impressive. It also shows how he’s driving the ball more by extending the bat to the outer half of the strike zone and taking advantage of pitches in those areas. For a slugger like Santana, those are the exact kind of improvements you want to see made. Bat extension is perhaps the most vital thing in driving balls to the opposite field.
So what should the Brewers do with Santana moving forward? It’s definitely a thought provoking discussion. We all know that the Brewers’ farm system is stacked with outfield prospects and that they’ll be coming up in just a matter of time. However, Santana’s contract is more than enough of a reason to keep him a Brewer. Sure, he could be entertained as a trade chip for a missing piece, but that missing area of the roster could be filled in a few years down the road when the Brewers are beginning to contend. Remember — thats’ one of the reasons David Stearns is accumulated as many assets as possible since he began his tenure. Santana has shown signs of improvement — who knows how many more steps forward he’s going to take. But right now, his contract is too friendly to pass up on. It’s also never too smart to rely 100 percent on the idea of every prospect panning out. We all know that never works. In that process, think of Santana as an insurance policy if, say, Brett Phillips fails to live up to expectations.
As I mentioned in the above paragraph, the Brewers have the assets. They’re no longer going to be in sell mode at the deadline, unless the team takes a major step back and is on pace to lose well over 100 games come late July (that even might be a big if). The team already has the top-ranked minor league system in all of baseball. At some point, you have to keep fallback options just in case some of those prospects fail to produce. If later down the road it seems more fit to make a move involving him, it can be done. However, right now, the process doesn’t have to be rushed. Domingo Santana remains an integral piece of the Brewers and their roster moving forward.