He’s been in a big ol’ slump
There is not a Hall of Very Good, but if there were, it would be perfect for players like Alex Gordon and, I suspect, Salvador Perez. Players like these have long, accomplished careers with individual and team awards to put in their trophy closets but who, for one reason or another, don’t hold up to the all-time greats in the Hall of Fame.
Carlos Santana is not a Hall of Famer, but he is absolutely a first ballot choice for the Hall of Very Good. He’s been an anchor on some very good teams—Cleveland’s 2016 AL Champion squad, for one—and was an above average hitter for a decade per both wRC+ and OPS+. He’s got some nice round career numbers, and with one more season, he’ll become only the 23rd player since the 1994 strike to accrue at least 1500 hits, 1000 walks, and 250 home runs.
Santana’s flaws, such as they were, revolved around his position and ceiling as a hitter. A first base only, Santana has never won a Gold Glove. And while Santana has been a reliable hitter his whole career, his high water mark was only a 136 wRC+ from 2019. Still, those flaws weren’t really relevant to the Royals when they signed him to a two-year, $17.5 million contract last December. They needed a reliable hitter, and they needed a first baseman; as Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn have proved via their woeful performances this year, the Royals’ need was genuine.
That the Royals were able to nab Santana for only $17.5 million had to do with two things: Santana’s 2020 performance, and his age. For the first time in his career last season, Santana hit for below league average. His 96 wRC+ was the lowest in his career by 11 points—though a truncated season and a career low BABIP of .212 were big asterisks. Second, Santana is, in baseball world, old. He turned 35 in April, and the number of 35-year-olds who are still good at hitting a baseball at the Major League level are very slim.
So, how has it turned out? Well, it has not been a booming success. After Saturday night’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Santana’s line dropped to .221/.333/.370, for a wRC+ of 95. He’s still doing the plate discipline things you’d expect would age well—Santana sports a nifty 14% walk rate and an equally impressive 15.8% strikeout rate—but the average and power have fallen significantly from his career averages.
Santana started off well, but lately he has been in a deep, dark slump. And by lately, I mean “since Memorial Day”. Since May 26, a period of 290 plate appearances, Santana has an OBP below .300 (at .293) and an OPS south of .600 (at .599). Additionally, and somewhat unnervingly, this streak is the worst slump of his career. I took a look at the worst slump of every season with a minimum of 100 plate appearances, and this year’s slump clearly stands out in both length and magnitude.
No matter if you’re in the Hall of Fame or Hall of Very Good, you’re going to slump. That’s just how it is. What is also true is that no one plays forever. That’s just how it is. When a previously good player is bad for a long stretch of time, the trick is figuring out if it’s just a slump or if it’s the prelude to the Aging Concerto by Father Time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Santana rallied and had a strong September against some lesser pitchers as rosters expand (though they are only going to 28 this year, and not the whole 40-man roster). But I also wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve seen the last of Santana as an above average hitter. When 35-year-olds suddenly display the inability to do what they used to on the diamond, sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.
Santana’s truly elite on base skills will likely prevent him from being a liability in the lineup. However, there is a large difference between “not a liability in the lineup” and “can be regularly counted on to produce.” The latter may be slipping away.