If you were a Pirate’s fan and blinked this year, you may have missed the rapid ascension of Santana though the minors, as the 24-year-old sailed through three levels, and ended the year at Triple-A Indianapolis before being added to the Saguaros’ roster this fall. And in his first appearance in the AFL, he made it pretty clear why, pounding the zone with a plus to double-plus fastball and above-average slider combination that generated four strikeouts and two soft hits in 2.2 innings of work on October 12, while throwing 26 of his 32 pitches for strikes. And he hasn’t let up in his three appearances that followed, striking out 10, walking none, and allowing seven hits and no runs over 6.2 total innings.
Santana has a lean, unassuming frame, with rolled shoulders filling out an average-sized upper body, though he has a thicker, more developed lower half. He has smooth mechanics with a medium leg lift, a full arm circle that does not hide the ball much, and long arm action that is quick through his 3/4’s slot. He generates good momentum to the plate with an average stride, with his momentum causing some slight head whack, and causing his plant foot to spin out as he finishes his delivery to the first base side.
His plus to double-plus fastball sat in the higher end of a 94-to-96 mph velo range (T97) in my 10/12 viewing, and he challenged hitters on both sides of the plate by spotting it inside with some run to the arm side, and using it to set up his slider, which has the makings of a plus pitch when the command is on. He showed excellent feel for the offering, with 3/4 depth and sharp bite in the 86-to-88 mph range, and the pitch had some added deception to it in that it held its fastball look out of hand, and he worked it to both sides while staying in the lower third of the zone. It was particularly effective in this view against lefties as a ball-to-strike pitch to the outside corner of the plate (lefties hit just .185 against him this year in 136 PA’s). To righties, he was working the fastball to the outside corner, and burying the slider to both sides of the plate to get swing-and-miss.
By showing such improved command of, and confidence in, his two pitches, Santana is definitely reassuring the Pirates that his move up the ladder was justified, despite numbers suggesting that he was less effective as he advanced this year (BAA of .169 (High A), .216 (Double-A), and .328 (Triple-A), and WHIP of 0.67, 1.04, and 1.75 – though his Triple-A numbers were accumulated in just 16 innings of work). The AFL is a small sample size to gauge performance, and his lack of experience adds some risk to his profile. But if he can prove that the command/control profile is here to stay, all that should stand in the way of a spot in the Pirates’ 2017 bullpen is an early-season return to Indianapolis to gain more confidence against advanced bats. If he can do that, a call-up could be in the making before the All-Star break, where a test in the ‘pen as a late-inning relief option for manager Clint Hurdle would be waiting.