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Domingo Santana can help Brewers recharge

By Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September 1, 2015

There was a time not long ago that the built-for-power Milwaukee Brewers held a distinct advantage at hitter-friendly Miller Park.

Then the likes of Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks, among others, went away, and the Brewers lost that long-ball advantage. They have been outhomered by a whopping 96-66 margin at home in 2015.

By adding rookie outfielder Domingo Santana to the mix, the Brewers hope to fill some of that power void. The 23-year-old slugger is one of four players acquired from Houston on July 30 in the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers trade and has been getting playing time at the big-league level.

“When I saw him at (Class AAA) Colorado Springs (after the trade), I told our guys he's going to have a real advantage in our park, going the other way,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said.

“Two of his home runs have been to the opposite field (including one in Cleveland). That's good to see. He has a swing that can go that way.”

Hitting home runs has not been an issue for Santana, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009 at age 16 as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic. In 699 games in the farm systems of the Phillies and Astros, he knocked 108 pitches out of the park, including 25 in 112 games at Class AA Corpus Christi in 2013.

But Santana also amassed big strikeout totals along the way. In 2,557 minor-league at-bats, he whiffed 872 times, or once every 2.93 at-bats.

“My toughest year was probably my second year in 2010,” Santana said. “I went from rookie ball to (Class A) Lakewood (New Jersey). They were throwing me a lot of curveballs, and I had to make an adjustment.

“I couldn't make the adjustment so I went back (to low Class A Williamsport) and worked on it. The next year, I had a pretty good year. Then I got traded.”

In 103 games at those two stops in 2010, Santana batted .211 with a .663 OPS and 149 strikeouts in 351 at-bats. Back at Lakewood the next year, he made strides with a .780 OPS in 96 games before being traded to Houston as one of four minor-leaguers exchanged for outfielder Hunter Pence.

Playing at advanced Class A Lancaster (California) in 2012, Santana continued to improve offensively. He struck out 148 times in 457 at-bats but also batted .302 with 55 walks to post a .921 OPS.

Santana was learning to balance the strikeouts with getting on base more often (.385 OBP).

“It helped to get some experience,” he said. “A good breaking ball, you can't hit it. You just try to figure out which one to swing at and which one not to swing at. It's hard sometimes.”

A hamstring injury cost him a month of his 2013 season at Corpus Christi and his overall numbers slipped a bit, but Santana moved up to Class AAA Oklahoma City the next year and connected with hitting coach Leon Roberts, a former journeyman outfielder who had a couple of productive years in Seattle in the late 1970s.

“He really helped me a lot,” Santana said. “He emphasized hitting the mistakes pitchers make. He told me to be ready from the first pitch. Then if the pitcher gives you a 'cookie,' put a good swing on it.”

That year, Santana batted .296 in 120 games with 27 doubles, 16 homers, 81 RBI and a .384 OBP. He continued to balance the strikeouts (139) with getting on base regularly.

“I learned more about myself as a hitter,” he said. “I learned sometimes when you're hot you've got to learn to take your walks if they don't pitch to you. I did that and that's why I had a pretty good on-base percentage.

“I've been trying to (balance the two). My goal every year is to get 90 to 100 walks, and try to maintain my on-base percentage at .400. It's hard, but if you work at it every day, sooner or later you're going to get it.

“You're only as good as the pitches you swing at. You try to learn what you did wrong, why you missed that pitch, stuff like that. I really did work on that a lot.”

Santana was in the midst of a huge year at Class AAA Fresno (Houston changed affiliations) this year when the Brewers traded for him. In 75 games, he batted .320 with 18 doubles, 16 homers, 59 RBI, a .426 OBP and 1.008 OPS—the highest figure at his level of play.

Santana did not slow down after the Brewers assigned him to Colorado Springs, batting .380 in 20 games with five doubles, two homers, 18 RBI and .968 OPS. That was enough for Melvin and his staff, and Santana was summoned to the majors.

“(Colorado Springs manager) Rick Sweet told me this guy is a smart hitter, an intelligent kid,” Melvin said. “He makes adjustments. He doesn't just go up there whacking. He will strike out but he also has good discipline at the plate.”

The majors can be cruel to young hitters unaccustomed to that class of pitching. During a brief trial with the Astros in 2014, Santana went 0-for-17 with 14 strikeouts. Back with Houston earlier this year, he finally made contact, batting .256 in 14 games with two homers and eight RBI.

In his first eight games with the Brewers, Santana is batting only .185 with a .290 OBP but has already bopped three homers (.556 slugging percentage). Manager Craig Counsell joined Melvin in predicting success for the young slugger in future games at Miller Park.

“This is a home-run park,” Counsell said. “The alleys are among the smallest in Major League Baseball. This is a park where a guy like Domingo can take a good swing and it can go out.

“You have to have power to do that, but he doesn't have to get all of the baseball. It puts a hitter like Domingo in a good frame of mind knowing he can keep that approach to his game and be rewarded for it. That keeps you disciplined in your approach, which is a big factor in success.”

As for Santana's progression as a hitter to this point, Counsell said, “The key thing is his strikeouts have been going down a little bit and his walks have gone up. That's an overall sign that he's improving as a hitter. That's the important thing for a young hitter.

“A good example for me was watching Corey Hart as a young player. The strikeouts were there. You have to experience swinging at the slider in the dirt to not swing at it (later). You have to go through that. That's OK.”

It's the learning curve, or learning slider if you will, of becoming a big-league hitter. If Santana continues to improve, the Brewers just might regain some of their lost home-field advantage.