Prior to joining manager Terry Francona’s staff in November 2017, Rodriguez spent five years as assistant hitting coach with the Red Sox. In that time, he often heard Ortiz preach the importance of having a routine to prepare mentally for games.
“[Santana] is a big fan of David’s and I worked with David for a long time,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “David would always tell me that a player who didn’t have a routine would have a hard time being successful. That played a role. I told [Santana], if you have a consistent routine that works for you and you stick to it every day regardless of how good or bad a season you’re having, you’re going to be fine.
“In Spring Training, we started with the routine, which is simple. It’s mainly meant to keep him [focused] on hitting up the middle. He’s stuck to it, even when he hasn’t been doing great, and thankfully he’s been able to come out [of slumps] faster.”
Santana, who is in his 10th Major League season, is enjoying a career year. A lifetime .251 hitter, the 33-year-old entered Wednesday batting .292 with an .958 OPS. He has 30 home runs, four shy of his career high of 34. His 4.5 bWAR is his highest for a single season. And the switch-hitter earned his first All-Star nod this year, as the starting first baseman for the American League.
“He’s been our most consistent hitter from actually Day 1 of Spring Training,” said Francona.
Santana’s new approach, Rodriguez explains, is designed to yield more hard contact up the middle as opposed to pulling the ball in an attempt to hit the ball out of the park. The numbers suggest that it’s working. According to FanGraphs, 36.5 percent of Santana’s batted balls this season have been to center field, compared to 30.6 percent for his career. And he’s only pulled 44.6 percent of balls he’s put in play, compared to 51.6 percent lifetime. Santana’s 44.6 percent hard-hit rate this year is also the highest of his career.
Santana admits that he was initially skeptical about establishing a routine, but now thanks Rodriguez for pushing him to implement the new approach from the start of Spring Training. It yielded results right away, with Santana putting up the best Cactus League numbers of his career.
“He pushed me to create a routine. I didn’t want to,” Santana said in Spanish. “I was annoyed with him. He convinced me. And it was the best thing for me.”
Santana also believes starting his offseason program earlier has made a difference. In years past, he would start working out around Dec. 15. But last winter he began training in November, shortly after returning from the Japan All-Star Series.
“I started working on my preparation early,” said Santana. “Before I would start late and when I got to Spring Training I had to do everything quickly.”
Returning to Cleveland after a tough year in Philadelphia also seems to have been a boon for Santana. After spending the first eight seasons of his Major League career with the Tribe, the Dominican native signed a three-year, $60 million free-agent deal with the Phillies prior to the 2018 campaign.
In 161 games for Philadelphia, he hit just .229 with a .766 OPS. And, according to an ESPN report, at one point in September he grew so frustrated over some of his teammates playing Fortnite during games as the team was spiraling that he smashed a television in the clubhouse.
“Last year was very difficult for me,” Santana said. “A new league, a new team, a new manager, everything was new. I learned a lot.”
Santana believed he would end up with the Indians once his deal with the Phillies was up -- so much that he convinced his wife not to sell their house in Cleveland. Then, last offseason, Philadelphia traded him to the Seattle Mariners, who flipped him to the Indians for Edwin Encarnacion.
“It gave me new enthusiasm and an incredible positivity,” Santana says of his return to Cleveland. “Before I didn’t believe in my talent.”
Santana’s longtime teammates have noticed a positive shift in his approach and demeanor.
“He’s always been a good player, but his mental preparation is a lot better this year,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said in Spanish, adding, “I used to say that he would have just two at-bats [a game]. He would have two good at-bats and the rest, whatever. Now he has three to five good at-bats.”
Third baseman José Ramírez has seen a more relaxed Santana.
“When he was first with us, his attitude was different, especially when things weren’t going well for him, it was very different,” said Ramirez said in Spanish. “He’s changed. He doesn’t worry as much. He works, he knows what he has to do. I think it’s maturity and time, too. Maybe he learned from the rough year he had in Philadelphia.”
Santana’s contributions have been key for the Indians in an uneven season. On June 2, the Tribe was a game under .500 and 11 1/2 games behind the first-place Twins in the AL Central. It entered Wednesday in the top AL Wild Card spot and has reduced its deficit in the division to 3 1/2 games.
As far as Francona is concerned, Santana has helped by being the same guy he's always been.
“He had turned into kind of everybody’s favorite. When I say favorite, I just mean he had kind of turned into that guy, loveable. He doesn’t ever take a day off, so coaches and the manager appreciate him. But he’d already done that in my opinion before he left. I think coming back home has been good for him, and it’s been great for us.”