To put it kindly, the defense of Seattle Mariners outfielder Domingo Santana has been problematic. A less diplomatic assessment might say he’s been atrocious in the field. Regardless of how you choose to describe his glove work, Santana deserves defending – at least that’s how I see it.
Sticking up for Santana may seem bold and a bit misguided considering his defense is the worst by a Seattle left fielder since a 41-year-old Raúl Ibañez accrued -18 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2013. Perhaps only Nori Aoki struggled more with taking direct routes to fly balls than Santana has this year.
Santana’s outfield struggles certainly rivals those of Ibañez and Aoki. Moreover, the eyeball test and stats are screaming in unison he’s a below-average defender. There’s even video evidence.
Plays like this one have been testing the resolve of Mariners fans and Seattle sports talk radio hosts since Opening Day. Yet, I’m willing to defend Santana. Why?
Yes, Santana’s routes to fly balls and his glove work need to improve. But his offense could potentially trump his defensive shortcomings. At the very least, the Mariners must explore the possibility – even if the Twitter-verse wants to move on from Santana.
Before digging into offensive numbers I’m suggesting may justify Santana’s roster spot, let’s review several metrics validating what we witnessed in the preceding video.
Anyone watching the Mariners on a regular basis has seen Santana turn the routine play into an instant classic for the blooper reel. To help illustrate this from a statistical aspect, I’m turning to a STATCAST product from Baseball Savant – Catch Probability.
Catch probability is a simple number applied to every ball tracked to the outfield by STATCAST. It’s graded on a 0-100 percent scale. As such, zero-percent catch probability is assigned to balls no one catches; 100-percent catch probability applies to those everyone snags.
Obviously, Santana’s misstep in our video had a high probability of being caught but wasn’t. Here’s a glimpse of his overall success for the season.
Santana’s issues span across the catch probability spectrum. Further evidence of his defensive issues is readily available via old school and advanced metrics.
The following table lists errors and fielding percentage, plus sabermetric values quantifying defensive value. Also included, Santana’s ranking in each category among 105 MLB outfielders with at least 200 outfield innings.
Santana’s nine errors ties him for third most in the AL with four other players including teammate Ryon Healy.
That said; Healy and everyone else tied with or ahead of Santana are infielders. In fact, the native of the Dominican Republic has more errors than the combined total of the two left fielders with the second most misplays – Kyle Schwarber and Dwight Smith Jr. have four each.
It’s important to note one glaring shortcoming with the error stat. Players aren’t penalized on balls they don’t reach, even when they should’ve put leather on the ball. That said; Santana’s nine errors are bad regardless of the stat’s overall effectiveness.
Two modern metrics – DRS and ultimate zone rating (UZR) – reflect what the standard numbers say. Santana has been one of the worst defensive outfielders in MLB this season.
The final stat was the most illuminating one for me. We previously reviewed Santana’s catch probability success from a micro-view. However, outs above average (OAA) compiles every catch probability play an outfielder makes into a single value. Doing so further validates the baby is ugly.
There are players, such as former teammates Jay Bruce and Ryan Braun, who’ve performed worse in specific catch probability categories. But the totality of Santana’s struggles are at the bottom of MLB – only Clint Frazier of the Yankees has a lower OOA (-11).
Despite overwhelming evidence suggesting Santana is a bad defender, I’m defending the guy.
To explain my rationale, please permit me to circle back to how the Mariners acquired Santana and his recent history prior to arriving in the Emerald City.
Welcome To Seattle
The Mariners picked up Santana from the Brewers last offseason for minor league pitcher Noah Zavolas and fourth outfielder Ben Gamel. Moving Santana made sense for Milwaukee since the there was little-to-no chance he’d be a regular with the organization.
Santana had a great 2017 with the Brew Crew, but lost the right fielder job when the team acquired All-Star outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich prior to the start of last season. The right-handed hitter subsequently scuffled in a reserve role, spending a considerable amount of time in the minors.
Despite his 2018 regression, acquiring Santana was an intriguing and potentially shrewd move by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. The Mariners added a young-ish corner outfielder with a power bat and a history of on-base ability in exchange for players not in Dipoto’s rebuild plan.
An Offensive Asset
Clearly, Dipoto is hoping Santana regains his 2017 form when he clobbered 30 home runs and 29 doubles. Moreover, the slugging outfielder isn’t just a slugger. In over 1,200 plate appearances with the Brew Crew, Santana posted a .354 OBP.
There are valid reasons for Dipoto to believe in Santana’s bat. Since 2014, only eight corner outfielders have bettered the 26-year-old’s .352 wOBA during their age-24-26 seasons: Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, Giancarlo Stanton, Rhys Hoskins, Christian Yelich, Michael Conforto, and George Springer. An impressive group boasting four MVP winners.
This season, Santana is batting .263/.332/.453 with 10 home runs, 13 doubles, and an above average 114 wRC+. Although his production has slowed recently, the left fielder remains a key component in the Mariners’ lineup.
Am I suggesting Mariners fans and sports talk radio hosts should ignore Santana’s proven defensive shortcomings because he can hit? No, not exactly. But let’s not over-emphasize the value of defense to the point of giving up on a good hitter.
Santana has undoubtedly under-performed with his glove. That said; he’s not the first defensively challenged player kept in a lineup because he delivered with their bat and he won’t be the last. In fact, there’s plenty of players considered stars, who’ve been poor defenders.
The following illustrates players who finished fifth-or-better in recent MVP voting despite sub-standard defensive numbers.
MVP Candidates Not Known For Their Defense
It’s not just MVP candidates, who’ve thrived in the public eye despite bad defense. During the 1966-69 seasons, Lou Brock averaged 15 errors annually as a corner outfielder. The future Hall of Famer was in his prime at the time.
Then there’s Manny Ramírez, who accrued -89 DRS as a left fielder during his 19-year career.
Goofiest darn play I’ve ever seen. And I watched Manny Ramirez cut off a throw from CF! https://t.co/2Vyn5UPANC
— Mike Salk, 710 ESPN (@TheMikeSalk) June 4, 2019
Despite his reputation as a spotty defender, Manny managed to finish top-5 in MVP voting four times and was a 12-time All-Star. Winning a batting title and nine Silver Sluggers certainly helped his cause.
Am I suggesting Santana is a future MVP? No, but simply giving up on him or viewing the trade Dipoto pulled off to acquire him as a dud seems a bit harsh – at least for now. Instead, looking for a way to help Santana and the Mariners would be a more reasonable approach.
With that in mind, let’s consider a few alternatives for utilizing Santana offensive value.
First, put aside the idea of moving Santana to designated hitter. Yes, that’s a potential option for the Mariners. Then again, the team is leaning towards using Daniel Vogelbach as a semi full-time designated hitter. Let’s consider other ideas for now knowing DH is a potential fallback option.
First base is the other most obvious choice for position change for Santana. There’s even a player we previously mentioned, who recently made the move from left field to first base – Hoskins.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the outfield defensive stats for Santana and Hoskins since the start of the 2017 season – the Philadelphia slugger’s rookie campaign.
Domingo v Rhys Outfield Defense
Santana and Hoskins have each demonstrated poor defensive skills during their brief careers. However, both have delivered sufficient offense to justify keeping them in their respective lineups.
In the case of Hoskins, his defensive woes prompted the Phillies to move the 26-year-old to first base prior to this season. Ironically, the team facilitated the change by dealing incumbent first baseman Carlos Santana to the Mariners last December.
Could the Mariners consider moving Santana to first base in the future? It’s plausible, but not a certainty. Despite what fans on Twitter want to believe, transitioning to first base isn’t easy – not everyone can do it.
Hoskins had extensive first base experience with over 3,600 innings at the position as a minor leaguer. Last year, the Sacramento State alum started 133 games in left field for the Phillies and just 12 at first base. This year, he’s the everyday first baseman for Philly.
Conversely, Santana has never played first base as a professional. Moving the native of the Dominican Republic to the infield is something best executed during the offseason.
It’s possible the Mariners could move Santana to right field, where he has far more experience. However, doing so would displace Mitch Haniger – an above average right field glove and All-Star at the position last year.
We know Dipoto likes to make trades; perhaps he deals Santana at some point. After all, the Mariners should have a decent crop of young outfield prospects available within the next few years.
Braden Bishop is already banging down the door. Potential options behind Bishop include Kyle Lewis, Dom Thompson-Williams, Jake Fraley, and eventually Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. Moreover, current center fielder Mallex Smith is just 26-years-old and under team control through 2022.
On that note, Santana remains under club control through 2021 and will become arbitration-eligible after this season. As such, he’ll begin to become more expensive for the Mariners. Cost will factor into decisions regarding his future.
Still, there’s not need to hastily move Santana. Yes, the defense is questionable thus far, but we’ve already discussed his offensive value to the Mariners. Furthermore, the young prospects just mentioned have yet to prove they can hit big league pitching.
If the Mariners deal Santana, they’ll do so when the time is right. No need for Dipoto to sell low – assuming that’s the route he chooses.
Stay The Course
We’ve discussed various defensive metrics for this season and none suggests Santana is a good defender. However, he had just 104.1 innings of left field experience prior to joining the Mariners. That playing time spans five seasons dating back to this 2014 debut with the Astros.
Perhaps waiting to see whether Santana can improve in left field with more time is the most practical course of action. It’s possible he never catches on – pardon the pun. Although, keeping him in left field would be the least disruptive move to the roster in the short-term.
In the end, the Mariners can move Santana to another position or another team if he doesn’t improve. What does the team have to lose by waiting?
Games? They’re already proficient at doing that.
Social media is a breeding ground for hyperbole. That’s certainly been the case when Santana’s defense is mentioned. He’s undoubtedly been disappointing in the field; I’m certain he’d agree with that assessment. Still, let’s not paint him as the worst outfielder in the history of outfielders.
First, it’s only early-June. Santana could bounce back to defensive respectability during the remainder of the season. Am I saying he’s going to be a Gold Glover over the next four months? No, but his bad glove work thus far shouldn’t be used to project future defensive value.
Domingo Santana is the best offensive left fielder the Mariners have had in recent memory. At some point, the club will address his glove work by either by making a position change or dealing him. For now though, I suggest sticking with Santana.
Based on Murphy’s Law, Santana has a terrible game in the field immediately after you read this piece. But before you pound the keyboard to let me know about it, consider the following as you compose your message.
My Oh My…