ZiPS Time Warp: Johan Santanaon August 13, 2020 at 7:40 pm

ZiPS Time Warp: Johan Santana

When people get excited about the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings, Johan Santana is one of the biggest reasons why. Roberto Clemente is almost certainly the best player ever taken in this event, but Santana leads a healthy spoonful of All-Stars who found new teams when their old ones couldn’t find the roster spot (this list also includes names such as Bobby Bonilla, George Bell, Josh Hamilton, and Shane Victorino). It took another trade to get Santana to the club for which he’d achieve his greatest exploits, the Minnesota Twins. After receiving Cy Young votes in six consecutive seasons and winning two trophies, injuries quickly ended Santana’s career before he reached his mid-30s.

The Twins weren’t even the team that launched Santana to stardom, though they certainly received a benefit from the Rule 5 draft. Knowing the Marlins wanted Jared Camp, the Twins took him in the 1999 Rule 5, only to instantly trade him to the Marlins for Santana and $500,000. Santana certainly wasn’t a finished product at this point and struggled in a mop-up role for Minnesota in his rookie season. His 2002 campaign didn’t go much better, as he was raw and didn’t have a true out pitch to punch out batters, and he missed significant time due to an elbow injury.

Santana was never a star on the radar gun, and at this point, a less determined team may have simply been happy to move on with the half a million bucks they pocketed. But the Twins persisted, and while converting Santana to a starting pitching role in the minors in 2002, former Ranger reliever Bobby Cuellar worked with Santana on refining his changeup and making it the centerpiece of his repertoire.

Santana fiddled with a changeup before 2002, but that was when the pitch blossomed. After Minnesota sent Santana to Class AAA Edmonton to convert him from a reliever to a starter, Bobby Cuellar, the pitching coach there, preached about the significance of trusting his changeup in any situation.

During bullpen sessions, Cuellar would tell Santana to imagine the count was 2-0 or 3-0 and would instruct him to throw a changeup. During games, Cuellar sometimes had Santana toss seven straight changeups. Although Santana said it took months to be that bold, Cuellar said he saw “a little glow in Johan’s eye” as the pitch developed. By July 2003, Santana was in the Twins’ rotation. By 2004, he was a 20-game winner.

Santana’s control was yet to reach the levels it would during his prime, but his change quickly became a weapon. From an overall run value standpoint, his changeup ranked 14th in baseball in 2002 and 17th in 2003. Coincidentally, his first Cy Young vote came in 2003.

Santana started the 2004 season in the rotation and won the American League Cy Young award in convincing fashion, going 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA, a 2.92 FIP, and a sterling 6.8 WAR. And then he went ahead and did it again for the next half-decade. The last year of his Cy Young vote streak came with the Mets after the rebuilding Twins traded him for Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, and Phil Humber.

During this six-year run, Santana’s change was the most valuable in baseball. And according to our pitch value data, it wasn’t even particularly close. No other pitch in baseball came within 20 runs, and it nearly doubled the value of the next best changeup, that of Jamie Moyer.

Like the best changeups, Santana’s made his fastball into a dominating pitch as well, despite a peak average of only 93 mph. The pitch had so many different looks that he never had a pressing need to develop a breaking pitch into a key weapon. His slider was a perfectly adequate pitch, but it was more or less the The Godfather Part III of his arsenal’s trilogy. With his changeup being of the circle-change variety, nastily dipping away from right-handed batters, one could say that it already filled the role!

It would be misleading to call 2009 or 2010 poor seasons given that Santana combined for 7.2 WAR and a 3.05 ERA, but there were clear signs that he was coming down from his peak. The changeup wasn’t as effective as in past seasons and his contact numbers crept up, first to a career-high 78.4% in 2009, and then another high at 81.5% in 2010. Generally healthy since his days as a reliever, Santana required surgeries that ended both seasons, first to remove bone chips in his elbow and then, far more seriously, to repair a torn anterior capsule in his shoulder. This injury also cost him his 2011 season.

The old stuff did not return in his 2012 comeback. His fastball’s velocity dropped down to 88 mph, and with his change no longer anywhere near as potent as in the past, Santana relied on the slider more. It wasn’t enough to get him back to the glory days, and ankle and back problems short-circuited his return. He never pitched in the majors again. A repeat of the torn capsule caused a missed 2013 season and a torn Achilles deep-sixed the attempted 2014 comeback with the Orioles. Santana signed with the Jays for 2015, but again wasn’t healthy enough to ever get into a minor league game, his season ending when he was derailed by a toe infection.

For years, Santana held out hopes that he could make a final comeback bid, but he finally announced his retirement during his induction to the Twins Hall of Fame, almost six years after his last game.

To my loud social media contempt at times, Santana received little consideration on his Hall of Fame ballot debut, receiving only 10 votes (2.4%) and being quietly eliminated on the first ballot. I don’t yet have a vote, but if I did, I would have voted for him based on his peak. As lefties with short careers and overwhelming dominance at their best go, it’s hard to not compare Santana to Sandy Koufax.

Koufax’s peak comes out ahead, for sure, but in comparison, Santana pulls off an amazing feat: he doesn’t look ridiculous next to Koufax. Is the difference between Sandy Koufax and a poor man’s Sandy Koufax really enough to turn one from a pitcher believed to be an inner-circle Hall of Famer to being one-and-outed on the Hall ballot? For me, the answer is a vigorous no. It didn’t shock me that he fell off the ballot, but I was quite surprised that there was barely any discussion of Santana in sportswriter circles at the time.

Would a more typical decline phase for a star pitcher have gotten Santana into Cooperstown? Let’s fire up the old ZiPS time machine after the 2008 season. Instead of tearing his shoulder, let’s Santana just continued to tear the hearts out of even the most gimlet-eyed slugger.

I think the projected 231 wins, when considered with the dizzying heights Santana achieved at his best, would have been enough to get him into Cooperstown. I went through and did award projections for 2009-14 and ZiPS estimated, going into each of these theoretical years, that he would have snagged another 1.4 Cy Young awards and nearly 2.5 Cy Young “shares,” giving him a little more hardware to go with the career numbers. Also helpful is that the decline in league offense for most of the 2010s, coupled with the increased strikeout rates — established pitchers had their strikeout rates go up, so the effect wasn’t just caused by new pitchers — would have helped mask Santana’s decline.

One thing to remember is that these projections aren’t assuming that Santana has perfect health, simply typical health. If he had been able to remain a workhorse, the ceiling on those win totals could have put him at least near the 300-win mark. As it is, ZiPS is projecting 231 victories despite never giving him a 50/50 shot of qualifying for the ERA title in any given season after 2011.

One of Santana’s regrets that he’s talked about on multiple occasions is how disappointed he was that he wasn’t able to end his baseball career on his own terms. I like to think that in some universe out there, there’s a Johan Santana capping off his career and giving thoughts to his Cooperstown speech.

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