The 2019 season was a respectable, if not particularly remarkable year for the Texas Rangers. Following a 95-loss campaign that cost manager Jeff Banister his job, the Rangers bounced back to a 78-84 record, nowhere close to a wild card berth but nonetheless good for third place in a loaded AL West. On the whole, it’s not a stretch to say it was a successful season in Arlington — 78 wins is an impressive total for a team that lost its two best hitters in July and had exactly two non-replacement-level starting pitchers.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they were fun or interesting. Outside of Lance Lynn and Mike Minor possibly breaking WAR, the most curious thing about the 2019 Rangers may have been the truly out-of-the-blue breakout of Danny Santana. In a nutshell, after a 4-WAR debut in 2014 bolstered by a .405 BABIP, Santana appeared to be an afterthought unlikely to return to being a big-league contributor, checking in at well below replacement level over the subsequent four seasons split between Minnesota and Atlanta. Santana signed a minor league deal with Texas this past January, rewarding them with a 28 HR/21 SB season, slugging .524, and posting a 111 wRC+ across 511 plate appearances, all while playing every position on the diamond past the pitcher’s mound. Quite the turnaround!
Then again, one can’t be blamed for not paying much attention to what Jay Jaffe called “one of [2019’s] most unlikely breakouts.” In the year of the juiced ball, a light-hitting utility guy more than doubling his career home run production wasn’t as newsworthy as it ordinarily would be. Besides, most observers appear inclined to believe that 2019 was more flash in the pan than an All-Star leap. Jaffe concluded that “ability to hit pitchers of both hands will keep him relevant on a daily basis,” while remaining skeptical that another 28-homer performance or .352 wOBA output is in the cards. “A high BABIP paired with a high strikeout rate and a sudden burst of power screams regression,” Jake Mailhot recently opined. Even Rangers blogs are less than sold on his place on the team going forward.
I’m not here to tell you that they’re wrong, either. His production could fall off a cliff next season, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising. I am here to tell you that Santana is still a lot more interesting than he’s getting credit for. Here’s a collection of numbers that Jaffe ran in his August profile on Santana, updated for the end of the 2019 season:
Seems like a pretty standard recipe for an offensive breakout in the late 2010s, right? Start putting the ball in the air at the expense of a little swing-and-miss, tap into a bit more pull-side power, and you’ve got a brand-new hitter.
Except that’s not what happened! Outside of the increase in fly balls and exit velocity, his swing and batted ball profiles were more or less in line with his career norms. Jaffe observed a few noticeable changes in Santana’s swing, and I’m inclined to agree. Still, something jumped out at me about the new Santana’s numbers. With a power surge like that, we’d reasonably expect to see a bump in exit velocity. But 7 mph is a lot of extra velo! Just a few ticks of EV can be the difference between a star and a fringe major leaguer. A full 7 mph will take you from Christian Vasquez to Christian Yelich. But Santana is far from the only player to develop legitimate power seemingly out of thin air. Let’s look at some (admittedly cherry-picked) power breakouts since 2015, the first year of Statcast data, and see how their exit velocities changed accordingly:
|Player||Years||Year 1 ISO||Year 1 EV||Year 2 ISO||Year 2 EV||Δ ISO||Δ EV|
Note: I used Santana’s 2017 season as a baseline, as he only recorded 17 batted balls in 2018. But as it turns out, Santana’s added heat isn’t just an outlier, it’s truly an outlier’s outlier. Even when players start showing power seemingly out of nowhere, it’s rarely because they simply start hitting the ball measurably harder. Changing your approach or mechanics doesn’t typically change how big or strong you are. If it’s true among players who had a significant power surge, it’s not surprising that it’s equally true for all hitters across the board: among all players with at least 200 batted balls between 2015-18 and 50 batted balls in 2019, hardly a single player added even half of the exit velocity Santana did:
|Rank||Player||15-18 EV||19 EV||Δ EV|
There’s a lot of noise, but there are also a few identifiable types on that list. We’ve got some older offense-first catchers rediscovering their stroke after a few injury-plagued and/or ineffective seasons in Vogt, Castro, and (apparently) Bryan Holaday. Bell and Urshela are beefy corner infielders who made mechanical adjustments to tap into their natural power. And in Buxton, Jones, and Marte, we have young, athletic, up-the-middle power/speed guys who started to really figure out how to hit big league pitching. Santana vaguely fits with this latter group, but not really: when Santana had his 2014 breakout, all three hadn’t even reached the big leagues. Not only is the velocity itself an outlier, but it doesn’t fit within any typical or linear developmental framework, either.
Let’s put it like this: over four years and 515 batted balls, Santana ranked in the eighth percentile for exit velocity. Over his next 328 batted balls in 2019, he ranked in the 91st percentile. He went from hitting the ball softer than Cory Spangenberg, Leury García, and Adalberto Mondesi to making the same kind of contact on average as Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, and Javier Báez. That kind of jump simply doesn’t happen overnight — and at least this year, it really didn’t happen at all. In the 332-hitter sample of batted balls between 2015-18 and 2019, hitters had a mean exit velocity change of about +.504 mph, with a standard deviation of roughly 1.61 mph. Santana’s change in exit velocity was roughly four standard deviations above the mean, so assuming the exit velocity changes in this sample are normally distributed (they are), we’re talking about less than a .3% chance that a hitter does what Santana did. Whether you think it’s sustainable or not, that is something!
To conclude, let’s circle back to a quote cited in Jaffe’s article. “’Before I tried to pound the ball, get on base and steal bases,’ [Santana] told Weaver. ‘Now what I’m doing this year — and maybe this is the difference — I’m trying to hit the ball hard.’” Imagine that. A guy decides to swing harder, and all of the sudden, he doubles his career home run output in a single season. Hey, Charlie Morton went from journeyman groundballer to filthy Pitching Ninja favorite because he decided to start throwing harder. Stranger things have happened!
That’s not to say that Danny Santana is about to be the offensive incarnation of Charlie Morton. I feel pretty comfortable saying Santana won’t be having a top-three MVP finish anytime soon. He strikes out too much and walks too little to not look at the sustainability of this newly minted slugger with a healthy dose of skepticism. Steamer agrees, projecting him for just a 78 wRC+ in 2020. Still, if we know anything about Santana now, it’s that his breakout was atypical in a way that seems like it might be mildly important. Even if it’s ultimately insignificant, we’re still talking about watching a guy who went from doing this:
To doing this:
Can’t say that’s not fun to watch! Needless to say, I’ll be keeping an eye on Danny Santana next season, no matter what Steamer says.
Zachary Hayes is a graduate student at Brown University specializing in sports, analytics, culture, and society. His blog will be live in short order, and in the meantime, he can be contacted here.