Realistic Expectations for Brewers OF Domingo Santana

The Milwaukee Brewers made the move to promote their #4 overall prospect, Domingo Santana, prior to yesteday’s game. Santana was the first of the quartet of prospects acquired from Houston in the Gomez/Fiers trade to make his debut for Milwaukee, and he made it a memorable one. Starting in center field, Santana homered in his third at bat as a Brewer, hitting a laser down the line in left field.

Many fans have been clamoring for Santana to be added to the Brewers’ outfield fold since being added to the system, and his eye-popping AAA statistics were certainly deserving of attention. In 95 games between Fresno and Colorado Springs, the recently turned 23 year old crushed opponents to the tune of a .333/.426/.573 with 18 home runs among his 45 extra base hits, walking 54 times in 411 plate appearances. Santana led the PCL with his .999 OPS, .437 wOBA, and 168 wRC+ upon being recalled.

While it is not at all unreasonable to be excited about Santana’s long term future with Milwaukee, it’s important to recognize that there are flaws in his game that have already shown themselves at the major league level. Santana has demonstrated significant contact issues in his minor league career, striking out 872 times in 699 games, or over 29% of his career plate appearances. This swing-and-miss tendency has been even more evident at the big league level, where Santana has struck out 32 times in 65 plate appearances between HOU and MIL, including one K in five at bats in his Brewers debut last night. Santana has been particularly susceptible to breaking and offspeed pitches low in the zone.

Domingo Santana career whiff rate per swing against off-speed and breaking pitches, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

Because of the holes in his swing, both Fangraphs and MLB Pipeline grade Santana’s hit tool as below average. Though Santana has shown some improvement in his strikeout rate at AAA this season, it will take continued refinements to ever be close to MLB average. Domingo has youth on his side, so there is at least a glimmer of hope. His high minor league batting averages have been driven in large part by a BABIP that’s bested .375 in five of his seven minor league seasons. While Santana makes plenty of hard contact and has nearly a 28% line drive rate this season, it’s not realistic to expect those batted ball results to continue. Major league average has been a .298 BABIP this season, and Santana’s career big league BABIP of .308 is a much more realistic expectation going forward.

At present, Santana looks like the kind of hitter that could settle in somewhere between a .240-.250 average, which will hopefully be just enough for his 60 grade power (on the 20-80 souting scale) to be displayed. Santana’s plus power has always been his calling card, and will be what drives his value at the major league level. If Santana can make enough contact, he has the ability to be a 25+ home run hitter in an everyday role. Combine this with an above average ability to get on base (10.8% walk rate and .373 OBP in minor league career), and Santana could potentially become a high power, high strikeout, solid OBP right handed slugger in the vein of…Khris Davis this season?

At the plate, Davis looks like a good comparison for the type of production we should look for from Santana. While Davis has produced a low batting average at .240, he’s used his strong 10.9% walk rate to produce an above average .323 OBP this season. With 14 home runs and a .229 ISO in 82 games this year, Davis has flashed the sort of power this season we will hopefully come to expect from Domingo Santana in the coming seasons.

Though Santana started in center field last night, we shouldn’t expect him to be a long term answer in that position going forward. He has made only 12 career appearances in center field in his minor league career, and his below average speed doesn’t profile well for the position. Santana does have a plus arm, however, and profiles well in the corner outfield spots, especially in right. Domingo’s big arm and solid capability in the field could be what helps him leapfrog Davis on the outfield depth chart before long, if his bat proves to be up to par.

Scouts are split on just how to predict the course of Santana’s future. His strikeout issues have been enough for Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel to grade Santana’s future value at just 40+ at this point, while MLB Pipeline gives him an overall grade of 55. GM Doug Melvin compared Santana’s skill set to Nelson Cruz after he was acquired, though McDaniel notes how rarely this type of prospect enjoys such success. “Boom or bust” would probably be an apt description for the young outfielder.

Domingo Santana could certainly be an important piece of the puzzle going forward for the Milwaukee Brewers, but it’s best to proceed with cautious optimism. While Santana displayed his prodigious power in his Brewers’ debut last night, he also gave us a glimpse into the swing-and-miss tendencies that have been prevalent throughout his minor league career. A realistic hope would be for Santana to turn into a Khris Davis type at the plate: someone capable of hitting .240/.330/.450 with the ability to hit 25+ home runs. It will take a lot of work for Domingo Santana to be able to produce consistently at the big league level, and if he is unable overcome his big time strikeouts and make enough contact, he becomes just another Wily Mo Pena. Should he prove able to adjust, however, Santana’s big time pop and solid defense could yield an annual 3-4 WAR contribution.