The Pittsburgh Pirates recently signed Carlos Santana to a one-year deal, but what is the veteran first baseman bringing to the team in 2023?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have added a handful of first basemen over the past month. Their newest and biggest addition is veteran Carlos Santana, who recently signed a one-year deal with the Bucs. The long-time Cleveland first baseman is coming off a mediocre season with the Seattle Mariners. But what is he bringing to the Pirates?
Santana only slashed .202/.316/.376 through 506 plate appearances. It’s the second-worst season of his career, followed only by his 2021 campaign. Overall, he posted a .308 wOBA and 102 wRC+, essentially making him a league average hitter. While those are mediocre numbers, there are a handful of silver linings.
The first is he struck out at just a 17.4% rate, marking the 11th season in a row he has put up a sub-20% strikeout rate. On top of that, he draws a ton of walks. Santana’s 14% walk rate was tied with Yandy Diaz for the sixth-highest mark in 2022. He also hit for decent power with 19 home runs and a .174 isolated slugging percentage. Santana is a decent defensive first baseman as well. He racked up +4 Defensive Runs Saved and +3 Outs Above Average, ranking top 10 in MLB last season among 1B’s. UZR/150 also painted Santana in a bright light at +2.1.
The underlying numbers also suggest Santana still has gas left in the tank. The switch-hitter was in the top 81st percentile of average exit velocity at 90.7 MPH and the top 76th percentile of hard hit rate at 44.9%. With those mediocre offensive numbers but strong raw power numbers, some might be inclined to say this is a Ke’Bryan Hayes-type situation. But unlike Hayes, Santana makes both hard contact and quality contact, as he was in the 60th percentile of barrel rate.
The expected numbers love Santana. Per Baseball Savant and Statcast, Santana’s expected slash line comes to a .253/.361/.435 with a .352 expected wOBA. Baseball Prospectus’ DRC+, or deserved runs created plus, which is a more predictive version of OPS+ or wRC+, put him at 117 in 2022. That’s a very similar triple-slash to Brandon Nimmo and Rhys Hoskins last season.
But the Pittsburgh Pirates will likely get the most out of Santana in a platoon role. Despite being a switch-hitter, Santana did not hit right-handed pitching last season. He batted just .178/.288/.366 line and 89 wRC+, but hit very well against left-handed pitching. When he faced southpaws, Santana slashed .265/.387/.402 with a 134 wRC+. Given how well Ji-Man Choi hits right-handers, this is a perfect platoon set-up for the two.
Santana is also a good hitter when it matters the most. He owned a .872 OPS in high-leverage situations and .774 OPS when the game was late and close. This isn’t an outlier, either. He had a .953 OPS in high-leverage moments/.768 OPS when the game was late and close in 2021, and 1.112 OPS in high leverage, and .998 OPS during late and close plate appearances.
While Santana might not reach his 2019 peak when he obliterated 34 home runs and had an OPS over .900 (granted, 2019 was such an outlier for many players because of the juiced ball), he could give the Pirates a 115-120 wRC+ with solid defense at first base. He’ll likely not command a regular role but a semi-regular platoon role, giving Choi the bulk of appearances against right-handed pitching and seeing most of his time against eleft-handed pitching. The Pittsburgh Pirates have set themselves up for a decent duo over at first base.