Johan Santana and the Accomplishments of Failure

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In a tradition that signals the beginning of summer better than Memorial Day, old television shows being rehashed into movies, and a rise in temperature, the New York Mets have stopped scoring runs for Johan Santana. Ah, summer.

These sorts of streaks have happened ever so often since Santana became a Met in 2008. Santana will reel off a string of sterling pitching performances, only to come away without his win-loss record being improved — the Mets don’t score, the bullpen doesn’t lock it down, something goes wrong and Santana winds up without a win. He pitches well, and everyone else fails around him. Over his last five starts, Santana has thrown 36.2 innings, allowed just 3 earned runs, and has held opponents to a .493 OPS. He has just one win in those five games, mostly because the Mets have scored 10 runs, 6 of them coming in the win over the Yankees. It’s happening again.

These unsupported streaks are often accompanied by the appearance of a story about Santana perhaps wishing he had never come to the Mets. Joel Sherman of the New York Post performed the honors this time around, though his was a well done purely speculative effort and not one claiming to have guessed successfully exactly what is going on in Santana’s head.

I’ve always been fascinated by this dynamic between Santana, the press, and the fans. I can’t think of another athlete so routinely speculated about — and occasionally even directly asked — whether he wishes he were on another team instead of his current lackluster one. I’ve heard of athletes complaining about their teams and demanding trades, but I can’t think of the press actually going ahead and doing so on behalf of one without even being asked. It’s as if everyone is embarrassed that Santana’s accomplishments may be damaged by the unsightly Mets — almost as if people expect Santana to say something about it, and it’s weird that he’s not.

I feel there’s almost a bit of terror in the fanbase because of this, as if Santana might actually say, Yeah, maybe I wish I was on a less inept team. Maybe I should have forced the Twins to send me to the Yankees or Angels. Maybe that would have been better. Maybe.

It’s an unpleasant thought, because if Santana did say anything along those lines, I’m not sure I would blame him. The Mets are inept, sometimes comically, sometimes painfully, often both. That’s who they are and who they’ve almost always been, both on and off the field. Johan Santana is someone who is almost never inept — in that way, he doesn’t seem to fit in with the team. It makes sense to wonder if he wishes he could leave this marriage. Maybe it’s what any of us would wish in his place — not that he actually thinks this, because I have no idea what Santana is thinking. I personally like to imagine he’s pondering quantum mechanics in the dugout between starts, or coming up with more complicated handshakes.

On the other hand, remember when he was booed in the beginning of 2008? That maybe wasn’t a good way to start things off.

Still, what I think is sometimes overlooked in these no-support streaks is that this Mets team may very well be the perfect situation for Johan Santana — in a weird, backwards sort of way. Yes, the Mets are usually bumbling about him like a sleepy little league team, and I’m sure that’s not any fun. Still, Santana seems to almost thrive on his teammates letting him down, as odd as that may sound.

Think of it this way: Some pitchers take to pouting when their teammates make an error or don’t score for them. Some will stare down their infielders when they boot a ball. John Lackey and Tom Glavine jump to mind for doing this on occasion. Santana, instead, seems to be one of those guys that says to himself, Okay, fine, I’ll do it all myself if I have to. I’ll just strike everyone out, and everyone will play better because I’m a little bit crazy. He takes the adversity, his teammates’ failures, his own shortcomings, and instead of glaring or pouting, he appears to channel it back at his opponents. It’s like he transformed into the Incredible Hulk, only he was already somewhat green and angry to begin with, and proceeds only to become even more green and even more angry as things start to go bad. You won’t like him when he’s angry.

I think back to his start in Fenway Park last season. The Mets were flailing around aimlessly, making three errors in the field as Ramon Martinez showed he had about as much range as a shortstop as Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl have as actors, but Santana didn’t shout at his teammates or glare at them. Instead, the clearest memory I have of that game is Santana screaming at Kevin Youkilis after drilling him in the arm to hurry up and get to first base. That’s what Santana does. He’s not going to stare down Ramon Martinez for being Ramon Martinez; Santana gets mad at the OTHER team.

Santana seems often to get better as things get worse. It has almost been the story of Santana’s career. A great part of his success has been his ability limit damage when runners reach base. Pitching with the bases empty in his career, batters have hit for an OPS of .659. That’s good enough on its own, but with runners on, batters put up an OPS of .628, an OPS drop of about 30 points. His biggest strength is his ability to keep batters from going deep with men on base — with no one on base, Santana surrenders a home run once every 33 or so batters; he surrenders home runs with runners on base once every 46 or so batters.

What all that means is that only 22.5% of men that have reached base against Santana have come around to score. The league average tends to sit somewhere closer to 30%. I’m really not sure how he does it — my only guess is that he relies less on his changeup with men on and goes after the hitters with fastballs, as the changeup is more likely to induce swings and misses but also long drives, though that’s only a guess. For whatever reason, he’s at his best when he most needs to be. He’s the perfect pitcher for a bad team.

Of course, just because Santana seems to pitch better when called upon to do so doesn’t mean the Mets are going to play any better in support of him. They usually seem to play worse. So, it’s entirely possible he does wish he were somewhere else, and his win-loss record probably will not ever look how it should. He came here to be on a contender, and he might not ever get a shot to do that.

Still, I wonder sometimes if we spend to much time wondering about what an athlete was unable to accomplish and miss some of the things they do. Ken Griffey Jr. just retired and the story about him seems to be about what he didn’t do. He (probably) didn’t do steroids in an era dominated by them, but he also didn’t stay healthy, and he didn’t play in a World Series, and he didn’t retire when he likely should have. I suppose if you look at it that way, Junior didn’t do a lot of things he could have done. I suppose he could have been even better had things gone differently. Maybe his career can be seen as a big what-if scenario, but it just feels wrong to me to look at Griffey like that — he hit 630 home runs, fifth all-time, with a .907 career OPS and played a great center field in his twenties. The glove I used in little league was his model with his name on it, and he was THE baseball player when I was younger. He was and is a legend, an icon, and one of the great ones just walked
away for all eternity, even if his talent left before he did. I would hope the celebration should be about what he accomplished, not what he was unable to by nature of being human.

The same goes for the story that overshadowed Griffey’s retirement, the imperfectly-called perfect game. As some people have noted, in the middle of the storm over a blown call, changing rules and human elements, there was a touching story of forgiveness. Jim Joyce messed up and cost Armando Galarraga the 21st perfect game in history. Again, the focus is on what didn’t happen: Joyce didn’t make the correct call, and Galarraga didn’t get the perfect game, and neither can get that back. But both Galarraga and Joyce handled what happened with what appeared to be tremendous class. Galarraga bringing the lineup card out, giving Joyce a buddy slap on the shoulder and a tearful Joyce slapping him back even harder was near perfect. Still, what looks like should have happened for Galarraga didn’t happen. Same for Griffey. Same for Santana. Things didn’t work out as they seemingly should have.

But that’s life, really. Things often don’t work out the way they’re supposed to. You mess up, people around you mess up, the universe conspires against you through chance and randomness. Being a human being is often about dealing with failure, both your own and other’s. Sometimes Ramon Martinez boots the ball behind you, sometimes you get hurt, and sometimes you blow the call for no apparent reason. Sometimes no one scores for you. Still, dealing with failure the right way might be just as much of an accomplishment as succeeding in the first place. That was what was so nice about Joyce and Galarraga: they dealt with it in the right way. I suspect that the way Santana deals with his teammates inabilities is probably the right way to deal with such things as a pitcher. Those are accomplishments in their own right.

Though at the same time . . . it isn’t quite real life, and none of these are quite real failures. It’s baseball. It should be a temporary escape from all the failures of real life, the ones that are truly consequential. I believe the late journalist David Halberstam wrote something along the lines of: “The rest of the newspaper is for people’s failures. The sports section is about their accomplishments.” I like that idea. I hope it’s what I do here more often than not.

Ken Griffey Jr., Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce all accomplished something wonderful in spite of the failure about them. Johan Santana has been pitching something close to masterfully, even if he has no wins to show for it. Whatever. Baseball, at least the way I see it, should be a place for the celebration of people’s accomplishments, if only because the failures don’t really matter all that much. Santana has been pitching well and handling his teammates hiccups even better, and that’s something I like to watch.

Johan Santana image courtesy of rezsox Flickr photostream.

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3 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

3 responses to “Johan Santana and the Accomplishments of Failure

  1. Anonymous

    >it was Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren who said that the front pages record man's failures and the back pages record man's failures.Why cant the Wilpons sell the team to the fanbase?Failing that why cant a lucky fan be picked to be be manager for the day, this will be the only way to get attendance the rest of the summer.

  2. Anonymous

    >Its funny because I first heard that in the 70's from Tip O'Neill and always thought it was far too ingenious for him. Thanks for the cite to Warren.

  3. Patrick Flood

    >I *thought* it was Halberstam somewhere in "Summer of '49", but it has probably been said elsewhere as well, as has just been pointed out. I can't find the actual quote anywhere — if anyone has it, I'd love if they sent it along so I can give proper attribution.

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