5 reasons to root for Santana in Derby

July 5th, 2019

When eight sluggers step to the plate at Cleveland’s Progressive Field for the T-Mobile Home Run Derby on Monday night, will be right at home.

The 10-year veteran has spent nine of his 10 Major League seasons with the Indians, playing nearly 600 games at the stadium. He knows the ins and outs and should have the Tribe crowd behind him every step of the way.

Those Cleveland die-hards will have their minds made up, but what about everyone else? Here are five reasons to root for Santana:

1) You can’t resist a hometown hero

Remember Bryce Harper last year at Nationals Park? Before he became a National League East rival with the Phillies this past offseason, Harper and Washington fans enjoyed a lovefest at the 2018 All-Star Game, and particularly at the Derby, which Harper won in dramatic fashion over Kyle Schwarber in the final round. And three years earlier, then-Reds third baseman Todd Frazier soaked up the atmosphere while winning the Derby at Great American Ball Park, in what turned out to be his final season in Cincinnati. The Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg in 1990 is the only other player to win the event at home.

Participating in the Derby at Progressive Field will mean a lot to Santana, who called it “a great opportunity.” And few players have produced more at the ballpark. Since it opened in 1994, Santana ranks third in games (598) and plate appearances (2,526), eighth in hits (526), second in walks (391), sixth in RBIs (295), and most importantly, fourth in home runs (97), behind only Jim Thome (190), Manny Ramirez (132), and Travis Hafner (97). Imagine if he added a Derby title to those accomplishments.

2) Ending a drought

It’s not just that the Indians are one of 11 teams never to win a Derby. It’s that in recent years, they haven’t even gotten a spot in the competition.

How long has it been? The last Indians player to take his cuts in the Derby was Grady Sizemore, who was eliminated in the first round in 2008, at the old Yankee Stadium. And that appearance also ended a decade-long drought. The six previous Indians appearances all took place between 1993-98, a surge that coincided with some great Indians squads, and which featured two trips to the Derby finals that both came up short (by Albert Belle in 1995 and Thome in ‘98). Unfortunately for Tribe fans, when the All-Star festivities last were in Cleveland in ‘97, hometown hero Thome didn’t hit a single homer.

Santana will try to put that all to rest on Monday and send the crowd home happy.

3) He’s waited a long time for this

Santana admitted that he got emotional on the team flight when he received the news that he would start at first base for the American League in the All-Star Game, and why not? Santana is 33 years old and has been in professional baseball since signing with the Dodgers out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. He made his debut with the Indians on June 11, 2010, and since has established himself as one of the game’s most steadily productive position players.

But he had never been an All-Star, and never had the chance to take his cuts in the Derby. At the time of his selection, Santana had played the fifth-most games of any player without an All-Star nod, and had accrued the second-most WAR in that group, according to Baseball Reference. Now he’s finally in the spotlight.

4) Rocking the ball like never before

Santana’s year-to-year stat line since his first full season has been awfully smooth. From 2011-18, he appeared in at least 143 games, posted an OBP of least .350 and an OPS+ of at least 102, and smacked at least 18 homers each season.

But things have looked a bit different for Santana in 2019. Whether he’s been rejuvenated by his return to Cleveland, made an adjustment, or simply gone along with the rising home run tide across baseball, Santana’s pop production has been on another level. He’s hit more first-half homers (19) than in any season other than 2016 and is on pace to have career bests in batting average, OBP and slugging. Going back to when Statcast began tracking in ‘15, Santana owns single-season highs in average exit velocity (92.5 mph), hard-hit rate (46.3%) and barrel rate (10.0%), according to Statcast.

5) Choosing sides

Fittingly for such a consistent player, the switch-hitting Santana has nearly even splits from both sides of the plate over his career, on a rate basis. But due to the quantity of at-bats against righty pitchers, 75% of Santana’s career homers from the left side of the plate, including 15 of 19 this season. So which side will he choose for the Derby?

Either way, Santana -- along with the Pirates’ Josh Bell -- will be battling history in the Derby. No switch-hitter has even participated in the event since Carlos Beltran in 2012, and the only switch-hitting winner was Ruben Sierra, who shared the title with Eric Davis way back in 1989. That was the fifth season of the Derby, and both players hit just three homers. It will take many more for Santana to join them.