OAKLAND, Calif. — The offense is returning, now about the defense.
A small adjustment in his pre-pitch posture and swing load has seemed to help Domingo Santana come to life at the plate in the first two games of the series against Oakland. After a torrid start to the season, he had cooled off significantly over the past few weeks.
But after Santana and the hitting coaches looked at video of his early at-bats and compared them to his recent ones, they noticed he was collapsing too much on the backside of his swing, which led to a severely pronounced uppercut. While hitting the ball in the air is a priority these days, Santana was barely hitting the ball. The new, more balanced, approach is supposed to help with his swing plane.
Since making the change, Santana has six hits in 13 at-bats with a double, two solo homers and three RBI.
In the 20 games before this series, Santana had a .213/.272/.400 slash line with six doubles, a triple, two homers, eight RBI and 26 strikeouts to just four walks.
“He made a little adjustment at the start of the series and it’s really paid off for him,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “The issue hasn’t been his offense. It’s been his struggles defensively. That needs to improve.”
That is a slight understatement. Santana has been abysmal in left field. Of the Mariners’ 15 errors committed by outfielders, he’s responsible for nine of them. They’ve run the gamut from dropped fly balls, wayward throws and most recently an inability to glove balls bouncing on the grass cleanly. The nine errors lead all outfielders in the major leagues. Jason Heyward of the Cubs has the next most with four. In advanced metrics, Santana also is the worst outfielder in baseball with a -12.3 in FanGraphs Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) and -10.1 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and the second worst at -8 on Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).
The Mariners expected some struggles because Santana has played left field sparingly in his professional career. He’d played predominantly right field with some center field. He wasn’t a great defender in right field, but he wasn’t this bad. The struggles are frustrating for Servais because they are costing his Mariners outs and runs. Seattle isn’t playing well enough to give away those things. In the 6-5 defeat Saturday, a misplay for an error on a routine single allowed an extra base for the runners and led to an unearned run when the next batter got a hit.
“He’s been putting in the work,” Servais said. “It’s not like he doesn’t care about the defense, it is important to him. Hopefully, it gets better. He’s in between. It’s that sinking liner, ‘Should I come in and try to catch it or not?’ It’s a feel thing. The ball is coming off the bat and spinning different in left field compared to right field. All he can do is continue to work and see if it gets better.”
The situation devolved enough where they considered moving Santana to right field on occasion. But the Mariners’ roster setup isn’t ideal for it.
“It’s something we’ve talked about internally, shifting some things around and move him back to right field and do some things there,” Servais said. “But for right now, we are going to stick with where we are at and see what happens.”
Kikuchi vs. Ohtani
Even with his struggles Saturday, Yusei Kikuchi is scheduled make his normal full start Thursday against the Angels … for now.
But another one-inning outing to control his usage and workload is coming soon.
“Yes, as of right now,” Servais said. “Right now, he’s scheduled to make his next start, a full start and we’ll go from there. If things change, I will be the first to let you guys know.”
The expectation is that the Mariners would have Kikuchi make the one-inning outing in one of his two starts following his appearance Thursday.
Given the Mariners’ roster inflexibility, calling up a pitcher to piggyback off that one-inning start isn’t simple.
The decision for Kikuchi to make his normal start is huge news in Japan. It means he will face Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani for multiple plate appearances for the first time in Major League Baseball. The two men both went to Hanamaki Higashi High School in the Iwate Prefecture. Kikuchi is three years older and Ohtani considered him an idol, working to follow in his footsteps and wearing the same number. They faced each other in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball for five plate appearances. Ohtani was 2 for 5 with a double and a single, but Kikuchi struck him out the other three plate appearances.