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2019 Season in Review: Danny Santana


One of the first articles I ever published with RotoBaller was a warning. Specifically, this column dissuaded fantasy owners from buying into Danny Santana's breakout 2014 season. (Yes, I've been doing this for a long time/am old.) That year, Santana had emerged from obscurity as a 23-year-old rookie to hit .319/.353/.472 with 70 runs scored and 20 stolen bases in just 101 games.

Virtually no one had heard of Santana prior to this performance. In prospect lists published before the season began, he generally ranked in the 15-20 range for the Twins. The consensus was that he looked more like a utility player than anything else. He had enough raw ability to play a passable shortstop and enough speed to swipe some bags, but didn't hit enough as he progressed through the minor leagues to convince talent evaluators that he would be an impact player at the major-league level.

Santana's dynamic debut turned out to be the mirage many (including yours truly) pegged it for, fueled mostly by an unsustainable .405 BABIP. When that mark cratered, his entire profile followed, and he hit a pitiful .215/.241/.291 in 91 games as a sophomore. The next few years weren't any kinder, as he bounced between the bench and the minors with Minnesota and then Atlanta. Santana seemed destined to become another in the long line of one-season wonders that dot the history of Major League Baseball.

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A Shocking Twist

Of course, it didn't actually pan out that way. Otherwise, this article would have no reason to exist. Santana signed a minor-league deal with Texas last winter, and then proceeded to have another out-of-nowhere outstanding season. This time, he flashed power that had heretofore never existed in his bat. Entering 2019, he had hit a total of 13 home runs across 1,165 MLB plate appearances. So, naturally, he smashed 28 homers, while also stealing 21 bases, scoring 81 runs, driving in another 81, and hitting .283 in the first full season of his career at the highest level.

At the age of 28, five years after his only other instance of resembling a quality big-league player, Santana produced a season that qualified as a legitimate five-category effort, and did so while logging time at every position besides catcher. More than a few fantasy league winners had him playing a prominent role on their roster, which...well, Leela probably said it best.

So how did this happen? As you might expect, Santana began making harder, better (faster, stronger) contact. His barrel rate, exit velocity, launch angle, and hard-hit percentage all jumped substantially from his career averages. What's interesting is that this transformation actually appears to have begun in 2018, albeit in a comically small sample of 32 plate appearances that returned results more in line with Santana's underwhelming output in prior years. In the minors that season, however, Santana cranked 16 homers in just 82 games. It seems clear that he had already begun to make the adjustments which yielded his excellent 2019 campaign.

What is probably as important as the changes he made, though, is the one he didn't. Santana has never been what you'd call a disciplined hitter, rarely drawing walks and striking out often. Among qualified hitters, Santana had the fourth-highest strikeout rate (29.5%) and fifth-highest swinging strike rate (15.7%), and was one of just a dozen players to earn a free pass in fewer than 5% of his trips to the plate. He also posted the worst chase rate and in-zone contact rate of his career.

 

Don't Pay For A Repeat

Based on NFBC drafts so far, fantasy owners appear to be cautiously buying into Santana's metamorphosis. Across the 85 drafts that have been conducted as of this writing, he's been taken 125th on average, making him the 34th outfielder off the board. He finished 13th at the position last year according to ESPN's player rater, so if he can maintain the gains he made, that price would have to be considered a bargain.

That, of course, is very much the question. With his free-swinging ways, even moderate BABIP regression from last year's .352 mark will likely send Santana's average plummeting, and he'll be more vulnerable to extended slumps than the average player. With Joey Gallo having proven he can handle center field and offseason signings perhaps pushing Nick Solak to the outfield, it's fair to wonder how long of a leash Santana's surprising performance last season will afford him in 2020. And as is the case for many players whose power exploded in 2019, whether MLB uses the juiced ball again will likely have an outsize impact on Santana's production. His 24.3 HR/FB% last season quadrupled his career 6% mark. Even with the tweaks he made to his swing, it's hard to believe that he won't give back a substantial portion of that improvement - especially if this season's ball is less lively.

A half-decade has passed since his first breakout, but I'm just as much of a skeptic this time around. 2019 has "career year" written all over it, and there are simply too many red flags to be comfortable with spending a mid-round pick on Danny Santana this spring.

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