Paul Molitor recently shared the characteristics he is looking for in an ideal leadoff hitter: They enjoy long walks on the beach and an on-base percentage that is .370 or higher.
While Molitor might have difficulty finding that type of player within the Twins’ roster -- just 19 players managed to produce OBP .370 or above last year -- his rationale behind that statement is a welcomed bit of logic in Twins Territory. After all, his predecessor fell in love with batting Jacque Jones first because “he can make it 1-0”, inferring the solo home run would put the Twins up quickly (to his credit, Jones did hit 20 career home runs as the first batter of the game). The former manager also had a penchant for placing speed above all when it came to filling out his lineup at the top. Hearing Molitor's preference for on-base abilities over speed was a breath of fresh air.
Based on Santana’s rookie season, it is not difficult to see the reason to want to put him at the top spot but if the actual desire is to have a hitter with a .370+ OBP batting leadoff, Santana is probably not the right candidate.
The Twins organization obviously expects regression.
"Historically my gut tells me that it's not sustainable because he didn't put up those kinds of numbers in the minor leagues," general manager Terry Ryan said last fall regarding Santana's future. "If you're going to be true to yourself and what you know has happened with historically 95 percent of the players, you've got to expect a little bit of a back-off of those numbers, but that would be plenty good enough."
Dating back to 1961* Santana has had the third highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Read that again: Dating back to the John F. Kennedy administration, Santana has been able to reach safely when putting the bat on the ball more frequently than all but two people. Given the amount of scouting, video, and data available in this era to figure out how to pitch to and defend against hitters, it is somewhat remarkable that there are hitters now who can put the ball in play and it winds up a hit 40% of the time.
What is even more remarkable is that there were two last year who managed to do that:
Santana, of course, and Colorado’s Drew Stubbs were the two players joining Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (2012), Jose Hernandez (2002) and Manny Ramirez (2000) to achieve a batting average on balls in play over .400 since the turn of the last century.
To contextualize: Since the 1961 season, there have been 33 occasions when a hitter with a minimum of 400 plate appearances has managed to produce/get blessed with a BABIP over .390 in a season. That is a small pool of players. The pool grows even smaller when you consider that four players managed to reach that milestone twice in their careers (Bobby Abreu, Derek Jeter, Roberto Clemente, and Rod Carew). Only Abreu managed to perform the feat in consecutive seasons (1998 and 1999).
While there are legendary hitters on that list like the aforementioned Jeter, Carew and Clemente, there are plenty of other one-hit wonders that managed to catch lightning in a bottle. There’s Reggie Jefferson who had a breakout year with Boston in 1996. Milwaukee’s Hernandez reached the list by limiting the number of balls he put into play (he struck out 188 times that season). Shane Mack, Mariano Duncan, BJ Upton, Phil Bradley -- there’s no rhyme or reason to this list.
The takeaway is that batting average on balls in play is comprised of some element of luck. You can be a great hitter with amazing speed like Ichiro Suzuki and manage to obtain a .390 BABIP just once in a 14 year career. Or you could be like Jefferson who, in 1996, figured out that if you can bang it off the Monster it won’t get caught and it will stay in play.
This is all to say that repeating the numbers Santana posted 2014 feels virtually impossible -- like finding a place that serves decent unicorn burgers. (So hard to find in the western suburbs.) It takes an uniquely talented hitter with a special level of luck to repeat that sort of action. So the question is: Is Danny Santana a uniquely talented hitter?
Ryan said his evaluators like Santana’s surprising power potential. “I think the one thing that people didn’t realize up here that hadn’t seen him, he’s got strength,” Ryan said after last season. “He can drive the ball. He’s not a banjo hitter, he’s not a singles guy. He can drive the ball from both sides. He can reach the fences so he’s going to keep the defenses honest.”
More at Twins Daily:
- Nick Nelson reviews Alex Meyer's most recent spring outing.
- Seth Stohs introduces us to Twins pitching prospect Tyler Duffy.
- Follow along during this afternoon's Twins vs Pirates on the Twins Daily Game Thread.
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