Fun With Stats: The Case for Santana

Is Johan Santana nearing the end of the road?

You’d think so, the way some people who oppose a trade for — in case you didn’t know — the best American League pitcher since Pedro Martinez.

Peter Abraham, whose larger point was that the Yankees should keep their prospects, said Santana could become "the next Mike Hampton." Chad Finn, one of my favorite Sox bloggers, said he believes Santana showed "subtle signs of decline" in 2007.

The first point is easily refutable. As I’ve shown in the past, Santana’s worst-case scenario is more likely to be reminiscent of the careers of Juan Marichal or Ron Guidry, not Hampton. Add that Hampton at the time of his megadeal with the Rockies had had exactly two seasons as good as any of Santana’s five between 2002 and 2006, and it’s pretty obvious the true risk of such a big signing is that of a career-ending or -altering injury — which seems in this case to be as minimal as it can be, considering how well-managed Santana’s pitch counts have been.

The second is harder. We all know that Santana only won 15 games, lowest since 2003 (when he wasn’t a full-time starter). His ERA was 3.33, highest since 2001 (when he pitched 15 games, starting four). Consequently, he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, with just one vote, fewest since ’03, when he finished seventh.

But a look under the hood, so to speak, shows that Santana is either primed for a monster rebound in 2008, or is declining so subtly that he will still be a huge boon for the team that signs him.

First, here are Santana’s basic rate stats since his breakout 2004 season:

Year K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 WHIP
2004 10.46 2.13 4.91 0.97 0.92
2005 9.25 1.75 5.29 0.85 0.97
2006 9.44 1.81 5.21 0.92 1.00
2007 9.66 2.14 4.52 1.36 1.07

It’s pretty clear Santana’s poor ERA was caused almost entirely by a jump in his home run rate (he gave up 33 after comfortable averaging 23 the past three seasons). Such extreme variations are likely to even out — just ask Josh Beckett, the 36-homer man in 2006 who gave up 17 in 2007, right in line with his career numbers.

Just remove 10 solo home runs, and Santana’s 2007 ERA drops to 2.92 — right in line with his ERAs from 2005 and 2006, and a total that would have comfortably led the league. Not surprising, then, that Bill James projects a 3.00 ERA for him in 2008.

And this assumes teams would not want a pitcher who could put up a season like Santana did in 2007, home runs and all. Here’s where Santana stood in some key — and more obscure — pitching categories:

Stat Data Rank Ahead of …
ERA 3.33 7th Escobar, Kazmir
BAA .225 3rd Verlander, Beckett
Baserunners/9 9.82 1st Everyone
Ks 235 2nd Bedard, Sabathia
Pitches in Zone 54.7% 3rd Bedard, Halladay
K/9 9.66 3rd Burnett, Beckett
Opp. OBP .273 1st Everyone
H/9 7.52 3rd Verlander, Carmona
Component ERA* 2.98 2nd Beckett, Sabathia
Avg. Game Score* 59.45 1st Everyone
Pitching Runs Created** 123 2nd Beckett, Lackey
NIP RAA** -20 2nd Beckett, Haren
TBB RAA** -30 6th Carmona, Beckett

* Bill James stat.
** Hardball Times stat: NIP RAA = Runs Above Average allowed on balls Not put In Play; TBB RAA = Runs Above Average allowed on Total Batted Balls put in play.

No pitcher allowed fewer baserunners than Santana or pitched a better average game than Santana in 2007. The rest of his stats are still plenty impressive. Sign me up for that, and if it only costs Jon Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury, I’m willing to stomach it.

You’ve read it here first: The team that doesn’t land Santana for next season will wish it had.

15 comments… add one

  • Nice post Paul. Ive been on board with you from the beginning as far as Santana’s prospects to remain dominant. Anybody who has seen this guy pitch over the last 5 years should know as much. I think as far as his pure stats go, Fenway could have a negative effect on him. However, even if his stats declined (or stayed the same) due to a fenway effect he still would be a dominant pitcher that would carry the Sox even further. I really hope he doesnt go anywhere and the yanks throw a bucket of cash at him next winter….

    sam-YF January 9, 2008, 1:13 am
  • The problem is still one of philosophy.
    Santana is easily worth the top prospect (by which I include players like Hughes, who aren’t really prospects any more) in each (NY and Boston) system, and those who argue otherwise are being unreasonable. And both teams are probably willing to part with that prospect to get him.
    And it’s probably safe to say he’s worth 2 of the top 3 prospects in each system. The problem is, both teams have just finished rejuvenating their farm system, and, more importantly, have refocused their organization’s attention on the importance of developing talent within that system.
    I think this is a no-brainer if any other team had Boston or NY’s stock of young talent and a longer recent history of talent development. But when you’re still trying to repair years’ worth of damage from trading away young talent at every opportunity, and are just starting to reap the rewards of having a well-stocked farm system, it’s easy to be wary of a trade which would require emptying out the top tier of that farm system.
    I don’t really think either team will trade away 2 of their top 3 prospects for Santana, if only out of fear that it will trigger a return to old habits. At this point, they can just wait until either Minnesota caves and sends Santana away for a bargain, or until Santana goes on the open market next year. Then they can keep their young guys, and just get into a bidding war for him.

    KurticusMaximus- YF January 9, 2008, 2:03 am
  • “and if it only costs Jon Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury, I’m willing to stomach it.”
    it will cost more than that. 140 Million smackeroos more (and a few more prospects in addition). It will mean signing a pitcher to a 6- to 7-year contract, paying him $22 million per year (if hit by luxury tax) for a couple of seasons when he’ll be past his prime.
    I’m pretty torn about what to do because I agree with Paul that he’s going to be a monster for the next couple of seasons. But I don’t think it’s a slam dunk case because of the issue of the extension combined with the prospect package.

    Nick-YF January 9, 2008, 8:35 am
  • However, even if his stats declined (or stayed the same) due to a fenway effect he still would be a dominant pitcher that would carry the Sox even further.
    This has been my feeling ever since Santana’s name started getting tossed around last year. In my opinion a slightly declined Santana is better than most other pitchers at their peak.

    Atheose January 9, 2008, 8:35 am
  • Me, I’ll be happy with either situation. A rotation of Santana/Wang/Pettitte/Kennedy/Chamberlain is absolutely sick, and keeping Hughes is also very desirable.

    AndrewYF January 9, 2008, 8:41 am
  • I agree, Andrew. Barring an injury, I feel like it’s a win-win for either team.
    Knock on wood.

    Atheose January 9, 2008, 8:47 am
  • Honestly, if I traded a package centering around Ellsbury, and then signed Santana to a 7-year extension, I would be happy if only half of those were spectacular seasons. Santana may not be up to form by the last few years, but I still believe he would be pretty damn good.

    Atheose January 9, 2008, 9:02 am
  • Me, I’ll be happy with either situation
    This is actually my feeling too. On the one hand, I salivate over Santana. On the other, a lineup with Ellsbury and a rotation with Lester are pretty sweet also.
    I think there are arguments of varying degress of reasonableness (is that evena word?) against making a trade — cost is too high, not wanting to give up prospects — but the alleged decline of Santana isn’t one of them, which is why I felt a need to show a little more clearly why we shouldn’t be dismissing the talent he would bring in a trade.

    Paul SF January 9, 2008, 10:16 am
  • You right about that, Paul. I think there has been a bit of a tendency to overstate his decline (which as you aptly point out is not really there).

    Nick-YF January 9, 2008, 10:19 am
  • You=You’re

    Nick-YF January 9, 2008, 10:19 am
  • The team that doesn’t land Santana for next season will wish it had.
    There’s no doubt next season, but what about in 2012 when he’s making $20+ million a year? That and the loss of top young talent are more of a concern to me than the 2008 season by itself. Win now and win later.

    Ben K. January 9, 2008, 10:27 am
  • This isn’t as much of a concern for the Red Sox, but for the Yankees there seems to be a question whether they can win now without Santana.
    Not to say that can’t, but relying on the simultaneous emergence of three rookie pitchers to do so seems sketchy to me…
    Trading one of them for Santana would seem to be the perfect way to win now AND later.

    Paul SF January 9, 2008, 10:31 am
  • I’ve also heard a lot of scouts say that Santana is a much lower injury risk than other pitchers because he’s primarily fastball/change, and doesn’t throw the kind of pitches that can lead to shoulder and elbow problems. SOmeone on ESPN the other day was saying he’s the *only* pitcher in MLB he would sign to a 6-year deal.
    -Mark

    Mark (YF) January 9, 2008, 11:16 am
  • “Peter Abraham, whose larger point was that the Yankees should keep their prospects, said Santana could become ‘the next Mike Hampton.'”
    Santana the next Mike Hampton? Sure thing, Pete. Whatever you say…
    If the Yankees don’t get Santana, that is more than fine with me.

    SoxFan January 9, 2008, 1:19 pm
  • you figure the yankees want to make a splash to open the new stadium in 09′, which makes me believe they’ll pull the trigger on santana. if the yanks don’t land johan, the list of impact starting pitchers available in the winter of 09′ are…..garland, penny, sabathia, sheets, and lackey. both lackey and penny have club options. burnett has an opt out which looks likely to get used. this year will tell how the yankees rotation fills out for the future, but chances are they’ll need one of these guy’s. i think you gotta pay santana now opposed to rolling the dice with 09’s crop.

    sf rod January 9, 2008, 2:53 pm

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