Who Should the Red Sox Pursue, Brandon Belt or Carlos Santana?

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Aug 8, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt (9) hits a 2 RBI home run during the second inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox are suffering from a home run drought and need to add a big bat. Two of the options are Brandon Belt and Carlos Santana. Damian Dydyn takes an in-depth look at what each player would bring to Fenway Park.

The Boston Red Sox are in the market for a bat. That bat could either be a first baseman or a designated hitter. Given Hanley Ramirez’s limited defensive ceiling and propensity for getting hurt, Dave Dombrowski is likely more interested in someone who can man the bag than someone who would force Hanley back out there. And there appear to be two rather interesting options emerging: Brandon Belt (in a potential swap for Jackie Bradley Jr.) and Carlos Santana (as a free agent). Both have their pros and cons, but which one is the better fit for Boston?

Statistically speaking, this will take some digging. Last season they were remarkably similar, with Santana posting a 117 wRC+ to Belt’s 119. Santana accrued 4.8 UZR while Belt had 7.6. You might look at those two stats and assume that Belt is the slightly better option, but looking deeper you’ll see that they took different paths to those numbers.

Santana had the advantage in OBP, .363 to .355. He also led in AVG, .259 to .241. Belt had the higher SLG, .469 to .455, despite hitting five fewer home runs. That can mostly be chalked up to Belt playing in 104 games to Santana’s 154. The higher rate of HR/PA could suggest a change in Belt’s approach, given the context of the movement around the league toward greater loft in swings seeking steeper launch angles. But aside from a slightly higher rate of pulling the ball, there aren’t a lot of significant differences between Belt’s 2016 and 2017 profiles. An 11.7 IFFB% does stand out, but is more likely a shift in luck considering his overall FB% only went from 46.0% to 46.9%. In fact, he hit 4.4% fewer line drives and 3.4% more ground balls.

This was also Santana’s 5th straight season of at least 152 games played, which is a significant point in Santana’s favor; Belt has only reached 150 twice in the last five years, with one season at 61 games played. Whatever the differences, though, their overall offensive performances in 2017 amounted to a difference of only 2% above league average between them.

With health favoring Santana, it would be easy to decide that he’s the guy and move on to the next question, but one season does not tell the entire story and health alone does not make our decision for us. When we look at the last three seasons things get a little fuzzier. Now Belt enjoys a 131 to 118 advantage in wRC+ and the slash stats look a little different: .268/.371/.474 for Belt, .250/.352/.450 for Santana. Where Santana shines again is in home runs and time on the field. Belt belted 53 blasts in that span, playing in 397 games, while Santana slugged 76 over 466 games. Belt’s ISO is slightly higher at .206 compared to Santana’s .200.

Also worth looking at in this three year sample are some ancillary stats and some rates along with defense. Not that either player is a burner on the base paths, but Carlos Santana has 21 stolen bases to Belt’s 12. More importantly, we see some separation in their strikeout rates. While their walk rates are separated by only 1%, their strikeout rates are vastly different. Belt has been punched out in 24% of his plate appearances over the last three years, while Santana has done so just 15.6% of the time. That’s a huge difference, especially when you consider that the Red Sox face the Yankees at least 18 times a season, and New York had the third highest K/9 in the majors last year.

When we look at defense, again using UZR, Belt comes out ahead at 21.0 to 10.9. That breaks down to 7 per season for Belt and 3.63 for Santana. Both are good defenders at first, but Belt is clearly better, especially when we consider that UZR is a counting stat and his time off the field is costing Belt in his totals. Fangraphs has Belt as a 9.2 UZR/150 (innings) defender while Santana sits at 4.9.

So, which is the better fit for the Red Sox? Belt comes out ahead at the plate, though their isolated power is similar and so their home run rates could be going forward as well. Belt also wins the defensive showdown. He’s likely the more talented of the two but he has far more trouble staying healthy and his high strikeout approach might not fit as well with Boston’s high contact rate offense (even if Tim Hyers will be tweaking them toward the launch angle revolution end of the spectrum this spring). For a team looking to win right now, that ability to stay on the field might trump the advantage Belt has in the rate stats, but what the Red Sox really need to add this winter is home runs. They were 27th in the majors last year.

We know that Belt has the higher SLG and ISO, but Carlos Santana actually enjoys the advantage in HR/FB, 13.9% to 12.0%. How would each have performed in Fenway last season?

Belt doesn’t appear to lose any home runs when his home run spray chart is overlaid with Fenway Park:

 

Santana does, but not many:

Both are pull hitters, Santana more so than Belt. Santana also makes harder contact on average, ranking at 128th in MLB last year with an 88.4 MPH exit velocity, giving him a slight lead over Belt (144th with 88.2 MPH). Belt has a higher percentage of balls hit at 95 MPH or higher, 40.9% to 38.4%. He also has more barrel hits per PA according to Baseball Savant. Brls/PA is a way of measuring contact which, historically, has led to a batting average of .500 or more on balls in play. In this case, Brandon Belt has 6.9 Brls/PA (or a barrel 6.9% of the time he’s at the plate) to Santana’s 5.4.

Brandon Belt is simply the better hitter no matter how you slice it. Same goes for defense. So he’s the easy choice, right? Well, that difference in games played is though to ignore. But we can see in Belt’s 10.7 fWAR to Santana’s 8.8 over the three-year sample that health doesn’t quite close the gap between the two. Is there another factor to consider that might help us make a decision?

In fact, there is. Carlos Santana was a recipient of a Qualifying Offer. Under the new CBA a Qualifying Offer is the average salary (on a year to year basis) of the top 125 players in the league. This winter it will be worth approximately $17.4M. The penalty for a team signing a free agent who has been made a QO is less than it used to be, but is still quite steep. This is especially true of a team like the Red Sox, who have a very poor farm system and need to maintain the ability to throw as many darts at the board as possible in the domestic draft and the international free agent signing period if they are to climb back up into the top half of the league in the yearly farm system rankings.

The maximum penalty for making such a signing, for a team that does not receive revenue sharing and went over the Competitive Balance Tax threshold the year before, is that they would forfeit their 2nd and 5th highest picks in the next draft and lose $1 million from their IFA signing bonus pool. Thankfully, the Red Sox did not exceed the threshold in 2017, so they would only give up their 2nd highest pick and $500,000. That’s still a hefty price to pay, but is not crippling in and of itself. It does, however, likely mean that the team would not also be willing to go over the $237M secondary threshold which would drop their top pick in the draft down ten slots.

And there are conflicting reports about whether the Red Sox went over in 2017 or not. USA TODAY Sports has them on the list of teams which went over. The prevailing belief among the local publications have them sneaking under. If they are in fact over, that extra pick and money could certainly alter the calculus.

With about $36M left to spend before crossing that secondary line, adding either player would chew up a healthy chunk of that money. Belt’s contract has an average annual value of $14.56M and mlbtradrumors.com estimates Santana’s AAV to be $15M. So adding either would mean that acquiring either Giancarlo Stanton or J.D. Martinez would push the Sox payroll over that secondary threshold.

So which way should the Red Sox go? This depends on how much Dave Dombrowski cares about amateur talent acquisition over the next year. If it’s not important to him, he could conceivably sign Santana and then trade for Stanton, finishing the emptying of the farm and maximizing the limits that can be put on his ability to replenish that system. This would free up the Red Sox to dump Hanley and maybe even a portion of his contract. This lineup is fairly enticing to me: Betts, Benintendi, Santana, Stanton, Devers, Bogaerts, Bradley, Pedroia, Vazquez.

It’s probably unlikely that Dombrowski, despite his reputation for veterans over prospects at every turn, would go that hard toward present value over future assets. Where does that leave us? If the Red Sox would like to sign J.D. Martinez or trade for Giancarlo Stanton, that likely rules out also signing Carlos Santana. As much fun as that lineup looks, going over the $237M secondary threshold (which seems like it might even be likely at this stage) which drops that first pick down ten spots in the draft. That almost certainly rules out signing a QO free agent like Santana and further damaging the draft. If the report of the Red Sox not actually getting under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold turns out to be true, it becomes a virtual guarantee that they won’t.

Adding the penalty for signing Santana to the likelihood of spending enough to trigger the secondary penalty and the evidence that Brandon Belt is the better overall player, despite being on the field less often, and it seems like the better path is turning Jackie Bradley Jr. into Brandon Belt (and likely a little more, given the difference in their costs in dollars per season). This would give the Red Sox a new first baseman who is just as good with the glove as Mitch Moreland but much better with the bat, and at the very least would offer the same amount of home run power.

Bogaerts, Benintendi, Betts, Stanton (or Martinez), Belt, Devers, Hanley, Pedroia, Vazquez is almost certainly good enough to make a deep playoff run, and while it may produce fewer home runs, that lineup looks longer to me with six above-average-to-great hitters, as opposed to five. Giving up a Gold Glove caliber centerfielder is a steep price to make it happen, but the ability to continue seeding the eventual rebuild while fielding a similarly effective lineup, shortening the window between this Red Sox team and the next competitive one, makes it the better approach.

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Featured image courtesy of Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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Damian grew up smack dab in the middle of Connecticut and was indoctrinated into the culture of Red Sox fandom from the moment he was old enough to start swinging a bat. A number of trips to Fenway park and meeting Ellis Burks at his dad’s bar cemented what would become a life long obsession that would pay off in spades in both the recent run of post season success and the extra bit of connection he would have with his father throughout the years.

After a brief three year stint living in the Bronx with his wife where he enjoyed leisurely strolls through the neighborhood with a Red Sox t-shirt on to provoke the natives, he settled in Roanoke, Virginia where he can fall out of bed and land at a Salem Red Sox game.

Damian is a co-host for SoSHCast (the Sons of Sam Horn podcast) along with Justin Gorman.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I wouldn’t be upset if they aimed for that and ended up with Belt and Jay Bruce as a fallback. They can’t wait out Martinez too long and risk being the one with no chair when the music stops. If it’s down to Bruce and Martinez and Boras is intent on Martinez being the last one to sign because there are more teams than players left, jump on Bruce and don’t look back.

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