When Johan Santana first started pitching for the Twins, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. In his first year with the team, 2000, he was a 21-year-old Rule 5 pick with no experience above Single-A, and had to stay with the team for the entire season or risk being returned to his original team. He made five starts that year, but was mostly used as a mop-up man. Santana threw hard and, at times, looked like someone who could become a useful player, but most of the time he was just another 21-year-old with a good arm and no idea how to use it.
Then, surprisingly, Santana stayed with the team in 2001, despite the fact that, if they wanted to, the Twins could have sent him to the minors. He struggled with injuries, once again split time between the back of the bullpen and the rotation, and put together 43.2 unspectacular innings.
At the end of two years with the team, Santana had appeared in 45 games, totaling 129.2 innings with a 5.90 ERA. He threw hard, but also got hit plenty hard, giving up 152 hits, while striking out just 92 and walking 70. If you’d have told me at the end of the 2001 season that Santana was going to become a great pitcher, I might have believed you, but I also might have believed you if you’d told me he would never pitch in the major leagues again.
And then, in 2002, something happened. Santana finally went to the minor leagues for the first time since joining the Twins, getting a chance to fill in the blank space on his resume between “Single-A” and “Major Leagues.” While at Triple-A Edmonton, Santana learned and perfected a spectacular changeup, to go with his blazing fastball.
After years of mediocrity — along with that 5.90 ERA in the majors, he also had a 5.09 minor league ERA — Santana put up the following numbers at Edmonton …
IP W L ERA SO BB 48.0 5 2 3.14 75 27
Those 14 strikeouts per nine innings were apparently enough to get the Twins’ attention again, and they called Santana up for his third stint with the team. Suddenly, after two years of being the last man on the pitching staff, he was in the starting rotation and pitching right in the middle of a pennant race.
On August 22, 2002, during the very first month of my blog’s existence, I wrote about Santana while watching him pitch against the Kansas City Royals. Here’s a little of what I said:
I suspect that many of you are not very familiar with Mr. Santana, but with the way he has pitched this season, that might change very quickly.
Little did I know that this guy who seemingly came out of nowhere to capture my attention would become perhaps the most frequent topic of my writing over the next two years. Little did I know that this guy who intrigued me so much, impressed me so much, and had me thinking about just how great he could possibly become, would actually go on to become that great.
Because Johan Santana, that guy no one knew about in August of 2002, that guy I’ve been writing about for the past two years, that guy I begged the Twins to put in the starting rotation, that guy I dubbed “The Official Pitcher of Aaron’s Baseball Blog” long before he was a household name, is now the best pitcher in the American League.
Yeah, you heard me. The best pitcher in the league.
It started out slowly too. So slowly, in fact, that I was getting angry e-mails from everyone who had followed my advice and drafted Santana onto their fantasy teams. It was two months into the season and Santana was struggling — 2-3 with a 5.61 ERA in 11 starts. Then, just like in 2002, something clicked for Santana and he became a whole different pitcher. Since the beginning of June, Santana has the following numbers …
GS IP W L ERA SO BB OAVG 13 98.0 9 3 1.93 129 23 .134
You might want to take a look at that last column again — Santana has held opponents to a .134 batting average in his last 13 starts. That’s one-thirty-four, as in 44 hits in 328 at-bats. During that stretch of 13 starts, he has averaged over seven-and-a-half innings per start and has struck out 10+ batters nine times. He also has given up more than four hits in a start just two times.
Despite his horrible first two months, Santana is now leading the American League in the following categories …
Strikeouts 1st Strikeouts Per 9 Innings 1st Batting Average Against 1st On-Base Percentage Against 1st Slugging Percentage Against 1st OPS Against 1st Win Shares 1st VORP 1st WHIP 1st Component ERA 1st Average Game Score 1st
And he is among the league leaders in the following categories …
ERA 2nd Quality Starts 2nd DIPS ERA 2nd Strikeout-to-Walk Ratio 3rd RSAA 3rd Innings 4th
Santana has done all that while pitching his home games in a ballpark that has favored hitters this season. In fact, the Metrodome has played as the sixth-best for offense in the AL so far this year, increasing run scoring by 5% over a neutral park. Of Santana’s 159 innings pitched, 68% of them have come at home.
Right now, the only thing keeping Santana from running away with the AL Cy Young award is the fact that the Twins haven’t scored him any runs. He ranks 33rd in offensive run support among the 43 AL starting pitchers who have enough innings pitched to qualify for the ERA title, which has led to his winning “only” 11 games (sixth-most in the league).
If the Twins’ offense — something Santana has absolutely no control over — had actually scored him some runs, Santana would likely have 14-15 wins right now, and he’d be going after the pitching Triple Crown (leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA). As it is, he’ll have to settle for the strikeouts and ERA.
During his amazing 13-game streak of dominance, the Twins averaged just 4.3 runs per game and were held to zero, one or two runs three times. And, sadly, the lack of wins will likely keep Santana from winning the Cy Young, as the award typically goes to the best pitcher with the most wins, as opposed to the best pitcher, period.
Santana figures to have around 11-12 starts left this year, and even if he continues on his recent tear and goes 7-2 or something, he’ll end up with just 18 wins. In some seasons, that might be enough to sway the voters, but Mark Mulder, who is currently 15-3 for the A’s, should be well past 20 wins by the end of the year. Mulder is third in the league in run support, getting 61% more runs to work with than Santana.
So Santana may have to settle for simply being my favorite pitcher, the frequent target of my attention, and the official pitcher of some blog he’s probably never heard of, but exactly how good has he been this season? Let’s take a look.
First, let’s assume he’ll make 35 starts this season. If you project his current numbers (through 24 starts) out to 35 starts, this is what they look like …
GS IP W L ERA H SO BB OAVG 35 232.0 16 9 3.34 169 267 61 .203
Let’s talk recent history. Since divisional re-alignment in 1994, here is a list of all the American League starting pitchers who had a lower batting average against than the .203 mark Santana is currently sporting:
YEAR AVG Pedro Martinez 2000 .167 Randy Johnson 1997 .194 Pedro Martinez 2002 .198 Roger Clemens 1998 .198 Randy Johnson 1995 .201
That’s a total of five times in 10 seasons, coming from three pitchers, all of whom are among the greatest dozen or so in the history of the sport. As for this year, Santana’s batting average against is 12% better than anyone else in the league.
Here’s a list of all the AL pitchers during that same time span who have had a better on-base percentage against than Santana’s current .264:
YEAR OBP Pedro Martinez 2000 .213 Pedro Martinez 1999 .247 Pedro Martinez 2002 .253
That’s right, from 1994-2003, the only AL pitcher to have a lower OBP against than the one Santana currently has is Pedro Martinez. Those three seasons of Pedro’s — 2000, 1999 and 2002 — rank second, ninth and 38th in adjusted ERA+ in the entire history of baseball.
But let’s stretch this beyond the last decade. Let’s look at how Santana’s season might compare to the greatest by left-handed pitchers in the last 30 years (among pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched) …
STRIKEOUTS YEAR SO Randy Johnson 2001 372 Randy Johnson 1999 364 Randy Johnson 2000 347 Randy Johnson 2002 334 Randy Johnson 1998 329 Randy Johnson 1993 308 Randy Johnson 1995 294 Randy Johnson 1997 291 Steve Carlton 1980 286 Steve Carlton 1982 286 Steve Carlton 1983 275 Frank Tanana 1975 269 JOHAN SANTANA 2004 267*
Normally I would make some comment about how good Santana is, but I think it’s pretty silly to look at that list and talk about anything other than Randy Johnson. Seriously, he owns each of the top eight strikeout seasons by a lefty over the past three decades. That Steve Carlton guy was pretty good too.
STRIKEOUTS PER 9 INNINGS YEAR SO/9 Randy Johnson 2001 13.4 Randy Johnson 2000 12.6 Randy Johnson 1995 12.4 Randy Johnson 1997 12.3 Randy Johnson 1998 12.1 Randy Johnson 1999 12.1 Randy Johnson 2002 11.6 Randy Johnson 1993 10.9 JOHAN SANTANA 2004 10.4*
Again, it’s kind of difficult to get all hot and bothered about Santana’s numbers when he’s looking up at eight different Randy Johnson seasons on this list too. Still, Santana is striking out guys like no lefty except for Johnson has done in 30 years, which is a statistical tidbit with a little bite to it.
HITS PER 9 INNINGS YEAR H/9 Ron Guidry 1978 6.15 Randy Johnson 1997 6.21 Al Leiter 1996 6.39 Sid Fernandez 1989 6.44 Randy Johnson 1993 6.52 Randy Johnson 2001 6.52 JOHAN SANTANA 2004 6.56*
This is a pretty interesting list. Johnson shows up three times, while Ron Guidry is the leader with just 6.15 hits allowed per nine innings in his incredible 1978 season (he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA). Sid Fernandez shows up just once, but he actually had a whole bunch of seasons that would have ranked among the leaders here, except he didn’t throw 200+ innings in them. During Fernandez’s career, he gave up 6.85 hits per nine innings, which ranks second all-time among lefties with at least 1,500 innings pitched, behind only Sandy Koufax.
BASERUNNERS PER 9 INNINGS YEAR BR/9 Ron Guidry 1978 8.55 John Tudor 1985 8.61 JOHAN SANTANA 2004 8.91*
This is the list I like the most, because it really shows just how dominant Santana has been. He’s striking tons of people out, he isn’t walking very many, and he isn’t giving up any hits — all of which adds up to just under nine baserunners allowed per nine innings. Again we see Guidry’s amazing 1978 season, and John Tudor‘s 1985 season, in which he went 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA, shows up for the first time.
Amazingly, Tudor finished second in the NL Cy Young voting that year, mostly because he decided to have his best season when Dwight Gooden was the best pitcher in the world. Gooden went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA on his way to leading the NL in wins, ERA and strikeouts (that pitching Triple Crown I talked about a little earlier).
STRIKEOUTS PER WALK YEAR K/BB David Wells 1998 5.62 Greg Swindell 1991 5.45 David Wells 2000 5.35 Randy Johnson 2001 5.24 Randy Johnson 1999 5.20 David Wells 2003 5.05 Randy Johnson 2002 4.70 Randy Johnson 2000 4.57 Randy Johnson 1995 4.52 JOHAN SANTANA 2004 4.36*
This might be the category Santana should be most proud about ranking highly in, because it shows how far he has come with his control. Take a look at how his walk rate has improved …
YEAR BB/9 2000/01 4.88 2002 4.08 2003 2.67 2004 2.38
And, of course, because he’s been able to slash his walk rate while maintaining his huge strikeout rate, his strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved too …
YEAR K/BB 2000/01 1.31 2002 2.80 2003 3.60 2004 4.36
Here’s another interesting list for those of you who, like me, enjoy dreaming about what might be ahead for Johan Santana. The all-time leaders in strikeouts per nine innings through the age of 25 (among pitchers with at least 600 innings) …
SO/9 Kerry Wood 10.40 Pedro Martinez 9.57 Sam McDowell 9.55 Nolan Ryan 9.32 Sandy Koufax 9.04
Santana currently has 555.1 career innings pitched and a career strikeout rate of 9.42 per nine innings. Assuming he stays healthy for the rest of the year and doesn’t start pitching like Kirk Rueter, he’ll likely finish up his age-25 season ranking right ahead of Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax in strikeout rate. Not bad for a guy who spent his age-21 and age-22 seasons putting up a 5.90 ERA with just 6.39 strikeouts per nine innings.