What do the Pittsburgh Pirates potentially see in Dennis Santana?

The Pirates recently claimed Dennis Santana from the Yankees, but is there something more they potentially see in the right-handed reliever?
Apr 29, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA;  New York Yankees pitcher Dennis Santana (53) throws as eighth inning pitch against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 29, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Dennis Santana (53) throws as eighth inning pitch against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports / Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
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The Pittsburgh Pirates recently claimed Dennis Santana from the New York Yankees. Santana has never been able to solidify himself in the Major Leagues. He has a career 5.34 ERA, 4.21 FIP, and 1.42 WHIP in 177 career innings pitched for the LA Dodgers, Texas Rangers, and both New York teams. He only has struck out 20.5% of the batters he’s faced, with a mediocre 11.5% walk rate. His best ability so far has been limiting quality contact with a 0.76 HR/9 rate, 87.4 MPH exit velocity, and 6.4% barrel rate.

The Pirates made this move to add depth to the team, with the only expectation for him to be able to handle low-leverage situations. But is there more here than meets the eye? Is there something with Santana that could make him stand out and provide something beyond just a low-leverage middle reliever?

The first thing is pretty obvious: He was formerly a high-ranking prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system; in 2018, MLB Pipeline ranked him as the organization’s seventh-best prospect, Baseball America ranked him as their ninth-best prospect, and FanGraphs ranked the right-hander as the Dodgers’ 12th-best prospect. At the very least, there’s some prospect pedigree, which is fine for a pitcher who won’t likely see many close games.

Another thing that the Pirates might see in Santana is that his stuff is really good. Stuff+, a stat on the same scale as wRC+, OPS+, or ERA+ that measures how good a pitcher’s offerings are based on velo, spin, movement, release point, and other factors, puts Santana at 104. His four-seam fastball came in at 124 in the eyes of Stuff+. The only Yankees pitchers higher ranked in fastball Stuff+ were Luke Weaver and Luis Gil. His sinker has the 34th most horizontal movement, while his slider has 36.6 inches of drop. Santana’s cutter has above-average vertical movement and average horizontal break, too.

Do the Pirates see something worthwile in Dennis Santana?

Some of Santana’s offerings have been very effective, too. His cutter, which he just added last year, has held opponents to a meager .158 batting average, .211 slugging percentage, .253 wOBA, and 81.2 MPH exit velocity. His four-seamer has induced a .434 SLG%, but a .154 BA and .230 wOBA. His change-up has only been used 8.7% of the time, but when he has used it, batters can’t hit it. They’ve managed a .182 BA, .273 SLG%, .196 wOBA, 38.9% whiff rate, and 81.1 MPH exit velocity.

Most of Santana’s struggles have been because of his sinker and slider. These two pitches are responsible for both home runs allowed and 20 of the 27 hits he’s given up. Unfortunately, these have been his most used offerings so far, at 26.2% and 25.5% each. Maybe putting them on the back burner could do Santana some good.

All of this isn’t to say that Santana is truly a diamond in the rough and that the Pirates might have struck gold. While it’s totally unknown if they did, I doubt they did. Santana might not all of a sudden shock the world, but he has some positive qualities to his game, such as a few solid offerings that have so far induced good results. We shall see what happens, but there are far worse low-risk, low-leverage relievers out there than Dennis Santana.

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