Phils' Santana is baseball's early hard-luck hitter

Veteran slugger is batting just .150, but ranks fourth in MLB in hard-hit rate

April 12th, 2018

Each week on the Statcast™ Podcast, hosts Mike Petriello and Matt Meyers dig into the world of Statcast™ and advanced metrics, exploring the most important topics in baseball through the lens of the groundbreaking Statcast™ technology. Download, subscribe and help others find the show by leaving a rating and review on iTunes or your favorite platform.
is off to a terrible start in his first year with Philadelphia. He's hitting just .150/.245/.375 in his first 11 games after going 0-4 with a walk in Wednesday's 4-3 win over the Reds.
Santana is also off to a fantastic start. Through Wednesday, 230 hitters have put at least 20 balls in play, and only four have a higher hard-hit rate than Santana's 61.6 percent, where "hard-hit" is defined as 95 mph of exit velocity or more. That's a big deal. Last year, the Majors had a .558 average when hitting the ball that hard, and .225 when they didn't. The more you can do it, the better.
Santana's spot on the hard-hit leaderboard is in the 98th percentile, and while it's still early, it's not too early to say that hitting the ball hard is a skill. and Tommy Pham are two of the hitters above him. and Dee Gordon are at the bottom. It doesn't take very long to know if a batter can mash or not.
So which is it? If you care about only what has happened, Santana hasn't been great. If you care about what what might happen ahead, things look a lot better. There's a big difference between hitting .150 because you're actually not hitting well, or because things just aren't falling your way.

Santana, so far, has been perhaps baseball's toughest luck hitter. He has 16 hard-hit outs, the most in baseball. Only one player, (14), is within two. No one else has more than 12.
We can quantify that pretty easily, really. The first thing we need to do is to look at Santana's contact rate, because if he's simply not putting as many balls in play, then hard-hit rate doesn't really matter so much. That's not the problem here, however; Santana has struck out in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances, basically the same as he did in 2016 and '17. That's better than the Major League average, just like it always is.
Nor is it that he's putting everything on the ground; Santana's ground-ball rate of 27.8 percent is actually down considerably from his usual 42.2-percent average. When he does put it in the air, Santana isn't just hitting the ball harder, he's hitting it farther, too. Look at his average batted-ball distance on fly balls and line drive. It's significantly better.
Santana average fly-ball/line-drive distance
2016 -- 299 feet
2017 -- 284 feet
2018 -- 324 feet
When you combine the fact that Santana is hitting it hard, often in the air, and not striking out more often, his expected outcomes look pretty good. Santana's Expected Batting Average, which includes strikeouts and looks at the usual outcome of batted balls with similar exit velocity and launch angle to Santana's, is .292. But since his actual average is .150, the gap of 142 points between expected and actual is the second largest in baseball.
Since Santana thrives on walks and power, batting average isn't actually the best way to look at his production, but a more advanced metric says the same thing. Santana's Expected Weighted On-Base Average, which includes walks and strikeouts and gives more credit for extra-base hits, is .455, which is massive -- the 2018 MLB average is .334. But since his actual wOBA is just .259, the gap of nearly 200 points is again the second largest in the game. (In both cases, the only hitter with less fortunate outcomes is , who replaced Santana in Cleveland.)
So we know that Santana deserves better. Why isn't it happening?
The first thing you'd think about for a hitter who (sometimes) bats from the left side is the shift. Putting a defender in short right field can eat up a lot of hard-hit balls that might otherwise have been hits. That's a real concern here; Santana has been shifted on 94 percent of his left-side plate appearances, the fourth most of any lefty batter. Last year, he was on the Top 10 in highest percentage of shifts faced, too.
But when you look at Santana's spray chart of hard-hit outs, you can see it's not really about the shift. It's about the outfield. It's about center field.

Santana has a few hard-hit groundouts, as most players do when they put the ball on the ground. One was a hard-hit grounder to Atlanta's that required a nice backhand stab. But for the most part, these are about poor placement, good defense, lousy weather and bad fortune.
See that purple dot to right-center that looks like it should have been a home run? It might have been if it had been hit in Philadelphia, which is the park outline you see above. Unfortunately for Santana, it was hit in Atlanta, where SunTrust Park is 375 feet from home in the right-field power alley, compared to 357 in Philadelphia. was able to make a nice play to haul it in.

Now, if you look at all of those balls clustered in center field and focus on the three deepest, they all have one thing in common. They were all hit in the span of two games on April 9-10, they were all hit between 384 and 388 feet, and they were all hauled in by . That's partially because Hamilton is a great defender, of course, but it's also because dead center is the worst place to find power. A ball hit 388 feet down the line probably clears the wall in Philadelphia by a good 60 feet.
It's also worth noting that the weather on those days didn't exactly favor the hitter, either. On April 9, the game-time temperature was 43 degrees, and the wind was blowing in from center at 10 mph. The next day, it was 47 degrees, with the wind blowing in from left at 13 mph. As we investigated during the World Series last year, temperature really does matter. Every 10 degrees can cost approximately three feet of distance, and 5 mph of wind can cost 18 feet of distance. When you see crushed balls land at the warning track, this is part of the reason why.
The drive in the video below was particularly tough for Santana, as it was hit 105 mph at a 29-degree launch angle, good for a 92-percent Hit Probability. It went to the deepest part of the ballpark, and Hamilton made it look easy.

Meanwhile, the other two Hamilton balls caught had Hit Probability marks of 74 percent apiece.
The point is that Santana will be fine. He's been an above-average hitter every year of his career, which began in 2010. Santana still has strong plate discipline -- note that even though he's seeing strikes only 42 percent of the time, well below last year's 48 percent, his rate of swings on pitches outside the zone hasn't really increased.
Santana is still hitting the ball hard, as we've shown. The weather is going to warm up. So will Santana. He always does.