Santana Claus: This trade will keep giving and givingby Chris Baud
February 11, 2008
The plans are all set. I'm taking a week off from work and dragging my wife and 14-year-old son with me on a baseball pilgrimage.
It'll start with a night in Queens to watch the Mets honor Johan Santana at CitiDubai Field. I'm sure I'll be misty-eyed watching them unveil that big No. 57 next to No. 41 on the outfield wall, where it'll also join David Wright's recently retired No. 5.
Then we'll head up to Cooperstown to see the five-time Cy Young winner inducted into the Hall of Fame as a beloved Met.
OK, OK. So I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Johan Santana's Mets career hasn't even begun yet. I don't have a kid; hell, I'm not even married yet.
But I figure that a little advance planning for 2025 or so can't hurt.
If, as a Mets fan, your initial reaction to the Santana deal is to think, "This is too good to be true," it's time to pinch yourself.
What else can you say about the actual trade? The Mets secured Johan Santana, filling their biggest need in the best way possible, without losing anyone likely to be a big contributor in 2008 and while keeping their two best prospects (Fernando Martinez and Mike Pelfrey).
Through some combination of patience, shrewd negotiations, serendipity and pure dumb luck, the Mets were left as the only potential trading partners for the best starting pitcher in baseball.
Note: that description is important to keep in mind. While Dan Haren or Erik Bedard might have much smaller contracts and even provide more "value" in some arcane wins/dollar formula, they aren't as good as Santana. You can't just go to the Cy Young farm and find another ace pitcher. The Mets, playing in the quaint market of Queens, can comfortably afford to pay Santana.
(If the price tag is really buggin' you, think of it this way: In 2007, the Mets paid $23.25 million to Tom Glavine, Paul Lo Duca and Shawn Green. In 2008, they'll be paying roughly the same amount to Santana, Brian Schneider and Ryan Church.)
What about the length of the contract? Is it too long? Is it risky to give pitchers long-term deals?
A lot of people seem to believe so. In fact, it seems to be something of a recently developed “conventional wisdom:" pitchers aren’t consistent year to year, and it’s risky to give huge contracts to free agent pitchers.
Some of this may be true, to a certain extent. Early in free agency, there were some spectacular busts of signings: Andy Messersmith, Dave Goltz and Wayne Garland chief among them. Don Gullett and Catfish Hunter were briefly successful for the Yankees, but they soon broke down.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that these guys declined after signing big contracts. Most of them were putting up huge workloads that seem insane by today’s standards: 38-39 starts a year, 280-300 innings per year, 20 or so complete games. Gullett was the exception; he wasn’t putting up 300 innings a year, but he had reached the majors very early and was worked hard at a young age (243 innings at age 23, a key age according to the Nate Silver “injury nexus” theory).
There’s also, of course, the recent example of Barry Zito.
But do any of these guys have anything to do with Johan Santana? Is there any reason to think that we’ve already seen the best of him and that he’s likely to be on the decline for the rest of his career?
Not really. Among the examples given, none was ever the best pitcher in baseball.
And as Bill James has said on numerous occasions, career length for starting pitchers is basically a function of strikeout rate. He says, in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, that fans not noticing that pitchers who strike out a lot of guys tend to have the longest careers is akin to basketball fans not noticing that NBA players tend to be tall.
Santana is baseball’s reigning strikeout king, having led the American League in whiffs from 2004 to 2006, finishing just four strikeouts behind Scott Kazmir last year. He’s also been voted the Cy Young winner twice, both times unanimously. In short, he’s a very special pitcher.
What if we were to compare him to other pitchers who have won multiple Cy Young awards? Two Cy Young awards is the basic definition of a Hall of Fame-type pitcher. There are occasions where voters might make get hypnotized by win-loss records and make a bad choice, like La Marr Hoyt or Bob Welch, but you have to be the real deal to win two Cy Youngs.
Since the start of divisional play—1969, also the year baseball lowered the pitching mound—there have been 11 multiple Cy Young winners. They are, essentially, the greatest pitchers of the past 40 years. Johan Santana isn’t yet 29. Let’s take a look at the other multiple winners and see how Johan compares to them at the same age:
Name W-L WP IP K BB K/9 K/BB ERA ERA+ Johan Santana 93-44 0.679 1308.2 1381 364 9.5 3.8 3.22 141 Randy Johnson 46-48 0.489 792 793 512 9 1.5 4 100 Pedro Martinez 125-56 0.691 1576.1 1818 442 10.4 4.1 2.68 168 Greg Maddux 131-91 0.59 1911 1290 538 6.1 2.4 3.02 130 Tom Glavine 108-75 0.59 1522.1 904 513 5.3 1.8 3.58 110 Roger Clemens 134-61 0.687 1784.1 1665 490 8.4 3.4 2.85 149 Bret Saberhagen 113-83 0.577 1758 1174 358 6 3.3 3.23 126 Steve Carlton 117-92 0.56 1904.2 1484 649 7 2.3 3.02 119 Jim Palmer 129-69 0.652 1866.2 1177 689 5.7 1.7 2.72 127 Gaylord Perry 60-55 0.522 1069.2 828 280 7 3 3.22 110 Tom Seaver 135-76 0.64 1931 1655 493 7.7 3.4 2.38 147(All statistics garnered from Baseball Reference.)
What does this list tell us? Well, this seems to be a group of guys who did a lot of great pitching after age 28. There are two late bloomers here, Gaylord Perry and Randy Johnson. Perry had just started making his spitball dance, breaking through with a 21-win season at age 28, but his best years (and 254 more wins and two Cy Young awards) were yet to come. Randy Johnson hadn’t even begun to harness his awesome talent; he was an inconsistent (if terrifying) .500 pitcher before breaking through with 19 wins and 308 strikeouts at age 29. His fame is almost entirely built off his post-30 career, as he won the first of five Cy Young awards at age 31.
The one guy who stands out is Bret Saberhagen. It should be noted that Sabes was the youngest member of this group to win two Cy Young awards, as he earned both of his by age 25. A decade spent constantly on the comeback trail ensued, as he mixed in effective seasons in 1994 and 1998-99 amidst long stints on the disabled list.
Greg Maddux was at his absolute zenith, putting up an otherworldly 1.56 ERA as a 28-year-old in 1994. In 1995, he picked up right where he left off, going 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA. What’s he done since then? Only another 10 15-win seasons or so.
Tom Glavine had one Cy Young under his belt but would add another at age 32.
Roger Clemens? He had three Cy Young awards already, but would add four more with three different teams.
Johnson, Maddux, Glavine and Clemens, of course, are all recent pitchers and their remarkable longevity is well known.
Pedro Martinez’s age 27-28 seasons are among the most incredible in baseball history. In 1999, he put up an amazing 2.07 ERA when the league ERA was 4.86. He bettered that mark in 2000, posting a 1.74 ERA as the league ERA went up to 4.91.
Pedro got hurt and missed half the season at age 29, but came back to win two more ERA titles. He’s been alternatively brilliant and brittle over the past several years, but he’s gone 84-37 with a 2.98 ERA since his age 29 season. Not bad for a guy on the downside of his career.
Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer were the Johnson, Clemens and Maddux of the 1970s.
Carlton won one Cy Young before age 28, and added three more. He was still going strong at age 38, winning 15 games and striking out 275 for the pennant-winning Phillies. Seaver had many more good seasons, winning 20 games twice and posting a 14-2 mark in the strike-shortened 1981 season as a 36-year-old.
As a 28-year-old, Jim Palmer inexplicably went 7-12, a down year sandwiched by eight 20-win seasons of remarkably similar quality. As a 36-year-old, he almost pitched Baltimore to the division title, going 15-5.
Want more examples? Look at other still active pitchers such as Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, Jamie Moyer and David Wells. They’re all fine pitchers, not quite in the Clemens/Johnson/Pedro class. They’ve been very effective well into their late 30s or 40s and as a group, have basically been the very definition of dependable.
So, yes, Mets fans, you have every reason to be giddy. You have every reason to think Santana will remain a great pitcher for the length of his contract. He’s in great condition, he’s healthy and, other than late-bloomers Randy Johnson and Gaylord Perry, he has the fewest innings of this group. Unlike Bret Saberhagen, Santana was babied through the “injury nexus,” as the Twins used him as a swingman before putting him in the rotation for good at age 25.
Cooperstown, here I come! (In 2025).
Chris Baud has written for the Asbury Park Press, the Trentonian and the Philadelphia Metro. He is currently an assistant news editor at the New York Daily News, and welcomes questions and comments via email.