CLEVELAND — Carlos Santana is far from a prototypical leadoff hitter, standing a stout 5-foot-11, 210 pounds with only five stolen bases to his name in 2016. But while he doesn’t fit the traditional mold, the Cleveland Indians catcher/first baseman/designated hitter has been an effective weapon hitting first in Terry Francona’s lineup this year.
Santana started 85 games as a leadoff hitter in 2016 and posted a .385 on-base percentage with 19 home runs and more walks (67) than strikeouts (60) in those games. Specifically when he was the first batter of the game, Santana hit .260/.365/.521 with five home runs and four doubles, consistently setting the table for an Indians lineup that scored the second most runs in the American League in the regular season.
So it’s no surprise that Santana, a switch hitter, is leading off as the Indians’ designated hitter for Game 2 of the World Series against the Cubs.
“He doesn’t try to force anything, waits on his pitch and when he gets it he knocks it out of the park,” Indians outfielder Coco Crisp, who himself has led off 853 games in his 15-year career, said. “I think a few teams have gone from the typical leadoff hitter, just straight base-stealer, small-ball guy and have moved their big guys to the front of the lineup. It’s a good move but you also have to have somebody like ‘Los with his ability to not only hit the long ball but be a leadoff hitter. Sometimes it’s hard to find guys who can do both and he does a great job.”
What Crisp was most impressed with has been Santana not striking out much while retaining the power that led him to slam 34 home runs in the regular season. Only four players with at least 30 home runs had lower strikeout rates than Santana (14.4 percent), and he averaged seeing 4.1 pitches per plate appearance when leading off, so at the least he regularly worked counts and allowed the rest of the Indians’ order to see some pitches in the first inning.
“For Tito to throw him in the leadoff spot, I’m glad he did that because it makes perfect sense,” Indians outfielder Rajai Davis, who led off Game 1 of the World Series, said. “When he’s getting on base and Kip’s hitting well and Lindor, and what really gets you is when the lineup turns over, now you gotta face Santana, who had what, 34 home runs this year and a number of RBIs. He’s not an easy out and that just makes it that much tougher when the lineup is turned over.”
Santana never hit leadoff before 2016, and Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said the 30-year-old was a bit surprised when Francona told him during spring training he could wind up hitting first during the season. But Santana has embraced the role, which was partly made possible by the presence of having Mike Napoli and his 34 home runs hitting in the middle of the order.
“I think it was a great idea,” Van Burkleo said. “I told him, you’re leading off, you’re getting more at-bats throughout the season then you normally would, so there’s more opportunities to do some things. He’s had a great year.
So when Jake Arrieta delivers his first pitch of Game 2, he won’t be dealing with a guy who relies mostly on speed to get on base and make things happen. He’ll be dealing with a premier power hitter who’s able to get on base quite a bit — and who’s had plenty of success hitting first in 2016.
“I think this team is well-balanced, which makes that an option,” Crisp said. “You don’t necessarily have to have him and Nap hitting behind each other all the team with 30 and 30 (home runs, you can kind of spread it out.”