On August 21st, 2015, Domingo Santana made his debut with the Milwaukee Brewers. Santana had just arrived to the organization a few weeks before, coming over as a part of the blockbuster deal with the Houston Astros that sent Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to the Lone Star state. Domingo had long been considered a top prospect while with Houston, including getting ranked as the #50 prospect in baseball at the end of 2014 by MLB Pipeline. His debut with the Brewers was very highly anticipated after he posted a .333/.426/.573 slash with 18 home runs in 95 games in AAA in 2015 (including a .380 average and 2 homers in 20 games with Colorado Springs after the trade). And wouldn’t you know it, the then 22 year old even socked a home run in his very first game with Milwaukee for good measure.
Injuries robbed Santana of about half of what was his first full major league season last year, but when he’s been on the field for Milwaukee his bat has been largely productive. He’s posted a .242/.339/.443 slash with 22 home runs across 519 plate appearances for the Brewers, which translates out to an above-average 108 wRC+. Santana’s defense in right field hasn’t graded out very well, however, weighing down his overall value according to WAR. Still, he’s still been a positive contributor overall with 1.5 WARP, 0.4 bWAR, and 0.5 fWAR while with Milwaukee. Yet less than two years after he became the first legitimate top prospect to debut as part of Milwaukee’s rebuilding effort, a good chunk of the fan base is already prepared to move on from the now 24 year old outfielder.
An extremely cold start to the season this year may have helped to drive that narrative a bit more. But Santana’s lackluster batting line in the early going actually hid some important offensive improvements that the right fielder has begun to make this season. Domingo’s hit tool was always a significant question in the minor leagues due to his high volume of strikeouts, and those concerns carried over to the big leagues as he struck out in roughly 33% of his plate appearances with the Brewers during 2015-16. This season, however, he’s cut that total all the way down to 25.8% while also slicing some two points off his swinging strike rate, down to a manageable 10.9%. Domingo hasn’t been one to chase a ton of bad pitches in his career (24.7% rate of swings at pitches outside the zone, league average 29.0%), but this season both his contact rate (74.2%) and contact rate on pitches inside the zone (84.0%) are both at career-best levels and inching towards the league-averages (77.7% contact, 85.8% z-contact).
The improvements have come primarily against secondary pitches. Santana crushed has generally crushed fastballs in his career, but offspeed pitches, particularly changeups and sliders, have given him fits in the past. This year, Santana has seen his whiff rate increase a touch against four-seamers (from 9.59% to 13.51%), but he’s swinging and missing at a much lower rate against sinkers (9.56% to 7.81%), sliders (15.69% to 9.78%), changeups (26.54% to 22.86%), curveballs (14.03% to 7.89%), and cutters (13.71% to 10.71%). Not only is he making more contact with those pitches this year, but he’s doing a lot more damage when he does, as well. His Isolated Power totals against each one of those pitches is currently well above his previous career averages.
Santana’s hard contact rate of 35.1% this season is right in line with his career average of 35.9%, so the fact that his current BABIP of .231 is nearly 100 points below his career average probably has more to do with bad luck than anything else. Even in spite of that poor batted ball luck, Domingo is still boasting a .213/.312/.463 slash line for a league-average 100 wRC+ thanks in large part to his five home runs and current career-best 11.8% walk rate. Given his contact profile and the fact that he’s putting more balls in play than he ever has before, both the BABIP and overall batting line should be due for some positive regression.
Domingo Santana is just 24 years old, has top prospect pedigree, and has actually been an above-average hitter during his time in the big leagues. Not only that, but he appears to be improving as a hitter at the big league level right in front of our eyes. Santana just hasn’t been lucky enough yet for the results of those steps forward to actualize in terms of increased batting average and on-base percentage, coloring many people’s judgement of the young outfielder if they aren’t looking deeper into the numbers. If Santana can shore up his defense in right field to match the “plus arm, potentially average defender” grades that he was given as a rising prospect, then the profile is there for Santana to be an average to above-average regular in right. With his bat, even an improvement from "poor" to "marginal" in the eyes of the metrics will have a significant impact on his overall value.
With five more years of control (including the 2017 season) the Brewers should feel no sense of urgency to trade or move on from Domingo Santana at this time. Sure, there’s plenty of outfield prospect depth in the minor leagues. But until one or more of those players comes up and proves that they can handle big league pitching, like Santana did in the end of 2015 (which lead to the trade of Khris Davis to clear a regular spot in the lineup), there’s no reason to shop a controllable, above-average power bat that’s batting near the middle of the league’s #2 ranked offense.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball