Carlos Santana’s Walks Will Trick Youon August 13, 2020 at 6:39 pm

Carlos Santana’s Walks Will Trick You

It’s always important to remember that statistics can lie. They’re interesting, and if used with caution they can reveal all kinds of truths. Most statistics are silly, though. When we mock old guard baseball minds who quote eight-plate-appearance samples of one batter against a particular pitcher, or what Mike Moustakas has done in home day games this year, it’s implied: those statistics don’t tell you anything meaningful. So here’s what we’ll do today: I’m going to tell you a statistic, and then we’ll try to find out if it’s meaningful.

Carlos Santana has walked in 30.4% of his plate appearances this year. If you hear that and think “Wow, that’s a lot of walks,” you’re absolutely correct. Santana has always walked a lot, but not like this. Walking that often hardly looks like baseball. It lets him run a ludicrous, .182/.430/.255 slash line. The question is, does it mean anything?

Here’s a simplistic way of looking at it: Santana has batted a lot of times in the major leagues. He’s up to 6,226 plate appearances over 11 seasons of work. How many times has he walked this often in a 19-game stretch? Exactly none:

Think of it this way. Before the season, we projected Santana for a 14.8% walk rate. You can use a binomial probability calculator to estimate how likely it is he’d sustain a 30.4% walk rate over 79 plate appearances. As you might expect, it’s wildly unlikely — if his true-talent walk rate is still 14.8%, there would be a 0.03% chance of this happening.

Case closed, right? Santana is doing something new, and now he’s going to walk all the time forever. That’s not how it works, though. This is the problem with statistics: they’ll twist you around, tell you something is obvious when it’s not even necessarily true.

This particular lie is one I’ve run afoul of before. There’s a missing piece of data: Santana isn’t the only baseball player playing right now, and there are plenty of batters who aren’t putting up game-breaking walk numbers despite 79 plate appearances to play with. No one’s writing an article about Alex Verdugo and his 6.8% walk rate, even though that’s a data point every bit as much as Santana’s line is. It’s important to be skeptical when you cherry-pick extreme statistics.

Okay, so we can’t simply take the fact that he’s putting up an extreme number as gospel and call it a day. Still, 0.03% seems pretty unlikely. Players don’t put up 30.4% walk rates every day, or it would feel far less extreme to us. Joey Votto, the active career leader in walk rate, has only done it three times, and he’s been playing since 2007. Mike Trout has never done it, though he’s gotten close a few times. There really might be something here.

Here’s a slightly different question: Is Santana doing something that could lead to this sudden pile of free passes? If he’s keeping everything the same, it feels far less real. Has he made some change in his behavior at the plate that could credibly lead us to a 30.4% walk rate?

As always, it’s complicated. There’s no one change that can make that happen; otherwise, a lot more people would be doing it. Not only that, but Santana has made a bunch of changes this year, at least relative to his career level. Most importantly, he’s swinging less, both at pitches outside of the zone and at pitches overall. He’s been this patient before, but only rarely:

Unfortunately, merely swinging less isn’t enough to guarantee a lofty walk rate. Pitchers have to cooperate; if they react to a batter’s passivity by throwing everything in the zone, it’s an unhappy ending for the batter. So let’s break down Santana’s behavior by count to see if pitchers are letting him off the hook.

On 0-0 counts, Santana is no Howie Kendrick. He’s swung at 21.5% of the first pitches he’s seen this year. One interesting tidbit: all of those swings except one have been at pitches in the strike zone. That one hardly counts as a swing:

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In other words, he’s presenting pitchers with a tough conundrum. Throw something in the zone, as they’ve done half the time, and he’ll swing pretty frequently; his 39.5% swing rate on first-pitch strikes is roughly average. Throw him something out of the zone, and he’ll spit on it. He’s at one swing in 37 pitches out of the zone so far this year, and while he’s unlikely to sustain that rate, the last time he topped 10% was in his abbreviated 2010 rookie season.

When the count gets to 1-0, Santana is trying something new so far this year. He’s uncharacteristically passive on pitches outside of the zone — one swing in 19 opportunities. That’s the lowest rate of his career by a good margin. How has he done it? By dialing back his aggression on pitches in the zone — he’s swung at only 27.8% of such pitches, the lowest rate of his career and miles below the 60% league average.

This newfound behavior — swinging at almost nothing on 1-0, regardless of where it is — should be exploitable. Santana isn’t such a bruising hitter that allowing a swing at an in-zone fastball is a disaster. Pitchers should simply flood the zone, as much as possible, and dare him to swing.

Of course, they haven’t. This wouldn’t be an article about Santana if they’d reacted appropriately. He’s seeing pitches in the zone on roughly 49% of his 1-0 counts, below the league average. It doesn’t get any better for the pitchers in other hitter’s counts, either (league averages here are for 2019-2020):

In every single hitter’s count, pitchers are avoiding the strike zone. For Carlos Santana. Let that sink in for a moment. Here’s a guy who basically doesn’t swing at all, and isn’t exactly Aaron Judge when he does. He should be seeing a steady diet of pitches in the zone, even if he does some damage on them, because the alternative is going to be a walk. You simply aren’t getting him to swing at a pitch outside of the zone often enough for it to be profitable.

You might think that this is a case of Santana facing a particularly wild slate of pitchers, but that isn’t the case. The pitchers he’s faced this year have, on average, a 50% zone rate, extremely close to the league average of 50.2%. They haven’t been particularly cautious with him overall; he’s seen a 49.3% zone rate overall, again very close to average.

As soon as he gets ahead, however, that rate falls to 43%. That’s not how pitchers are supposed to work; they should throw more pitches in the zone when behind in the count. Indeed, the league rate is 55%. In the end, pitchers seem to have contracted a strange madness about Santana. They’re pitching him wrong, and he’s reaping the rewards.

See what I said about statistics lying? This is an article about how Carlos Santana is great at walking. That’s true — Carlos Santana is great at walking. But the 30.4% walk rate that piqued my interest isn’t solely because of his great batting eye, and he didn’t discover some new skill or tactic to deserve this rate. Pitchers are simply pitching him wrong, and he keeps ending up on first base.

Over time, pitcher behavior will normalize. Pitchers have flooded the zone against Santana when down in the count for his career as a whole, and he’s more passive than ever. At some point this year, pitchers will adjust and start peppering him with pitches in the zone. He’ll hit some of them hard, and watch some of them fly by, and his stats will start to look a little more normal. But it won’t be anything new he’s doing. Carlos Santana has an excellent eye. But nothing he did this year justifies a 30% walk rate. It’s just another reminder that baseball stats can trick you.

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