We've reached the point in the season at which it's still early enough to write off slow starts due to "small sample size," but it's also late enough to legitimately analyze why a particular player is slumping, and, more importantly, whether that slump will continue.
Cleveland Indians third baseman Carlos Santana fits that mold entirely. Through 91 plate appearances across 21 games, Santana has posted an unusual .137/.308/.219 slash line, despite being pegged as a potential breakout player this season.
In an effort to make this as objective of an article as possible–Santana is on one of my fantasy teams–I'll cover all bases, good and bad. First, let's start with the bad: Only two qualified players have posted worse averages than Santana this season, who is currently mired in a 3-for-49 slide.
What exactly has been causing Santana's early-season slump? Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo might have the answer, via CBS Sports' Chris Cwik:
"It just seems like he's trying to do too much," Van Burkleo said. "He went into that spell where he wasn't getting hits, and those 0-fers kind of pile up, and it kind of manifests."
Van Burkleo added that he is trying to get Santana to focus on one at-bat at a time. He praised Santana for his [high] on-base percentage, saying Santana finds a way to contribute even when he's not hitting well.
The "0-fers" have indeed been piling up, leading to some pretty miserable-looking numbers: one homer, three RBI and a slugging percentage that barely surpasses the Mendoza line...for batting averages.
Even so, Van Burkleo's quote also brings us to Santana's greatest strength: plate discipline. In the past, Santana has put up below-average batting averages with respectable pop and consistently solid RBI and runs totals. However, his eye at the plate stands out, something that makes him especially valuable in formats that recognize OBP.
I'll be the first to admit that this is a completely selective table that only highlights Santana's statistical strengths, while leaving out his batting average and stolen base totals, both of which leave quite a bit to be desired. However, the above stats also show just how consistent Santana truly is, making his struggles this season appear to be somewhat of an anomaly.
Even in leagues that still use batting average, however, Santana's plate discipline can prove beneficial. Perhaps most importantly, said ability will keep him in the lineup, giving him a better chance to turn his hitting around. His high walk total this season also indicates that he's seeing the ball well, meaning his problem may be more mechanical. Tweaking hitting mechanics is much easier than completely changing a hitter's approach at the plate, which bodes well for Santana.
Furthermore, if Santana can turn it around, he provides tons of value in almost every format, as he's one of the most versatile players in fantasy baseball. Aside from his soon-to-be eligibility at third base, Santana can be slotted into the catcher and first base spots, and he's even eligible as a DH in leagues that use that position.
Also, Santana's move to third base means he'll essentially be splitting time between that position and the DH spot, a far cry from the 93 games he's averaged behind the dish over the past three seasons. That means he'll have a good chance of putting up better numbers in August and September this season with his better-rested legs, months in which he generally excels as it is.
Santana also hits significantly better against left-handers than he does against right-handers, and a disproportionately large amount of his plate appearances have come against right-handers this season (80.6 percent, compared to 66.6 percent throughout his career). As that number starts to level out, there's a distinct possibility that Santana will become more comfortable as he faces left-handers more often. Interestingly, Santana has struggled against lefties this season, which will likely also level out to his career average as the season progresses.
Finally, while it's important not to take too much stock in historical precedent, Santana has typically been a slow starter, with a .243 career batting average in April. At the very least, there's a good chance he will heat up a bit in the coming months, when he has historically been a significantly better hitter.
Santana is one of the most versatile players in fantasy baseball, he's especially valuable in leagues that recognize OBP, and a number of historical precedents say he'll improve as the season goes along. Plus, he has nowhere to go but up. If you don't own Santana, you can buy him at an ultra-cheap price, and if you have him, it would be foolish to give him away when his value will never be lower. He might not quite be Mike Trout, but the Carlos Santana we're seeing right now isn't the one you'll know by the end of the season.