See most of you probably know that Johan Santana was one of baseball’s best pitchers in the 2000s and the early 2010s. Over eight seasons with the Twins, Santana posted a 3.22 ERA and a 141 ERA+ — that is, his ERA was 41% better than an average pitcher working in the same home ballpark. He was just about as good during his first three seasons with the Mets, when Santana posted a 2.85 ERA and a 143 ERA+. And then he was even better his first 11 starts this season coming off shoulder surgery. Santana posted a 2.38 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 68 innings, capping that run with a no-hitter June 1. Santana was consistently excellent for about for 10 1/2 years.
But since the no-hitter, in 10 starts, Santana has a 8.27 ERA. The good news is that he’s still struck out 43 batters in 49 innings, not far off his career pace and still an above-average rate. The problem is that Santana has allowed 68 hits and 13 home runs in those 10 starts. That’s a lot of hard contact and a lot of runs for someone who was pitching so well just two months ago, and the stretch has turned Santana’s great comeback season into the worst season of his career. So it certainly seems like panic time. Previously injured pitched + poor performance = everyone to the lifeboats.
But here’s the thing about Santana this season: By some measures, he’s not pitching any better or worse than he has before. Santana’s 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings is the best rate of his time with the Mets. He’s walking 3.0 batters per nine, a career-high mark but still only a tick more than his 2.5 walks per nine career average. He’s allowing about as many fly balls and pop flies as he normally does. His xFIP — a pitching statistic that tracks strikeout, walk, and fly ball rates — is 4.03, slightly better than his 4.05 xFIP in 2009 and 4.13 xFIP in 2010. So by some numbers, Santana is the same pitcher he’s been with the Mets before he was injured.
Except that he’s not. His ERA is 4.85 and his ERA+ is 79, his worst numbers as a starting pitcher. And it’s hard to write off five straight starts allowing six or more runs as just bad luck, particularly when the pitcher making those starts is coming off major shoulder surgery and looks as bad as Santana has. Something’s going on.
If you poke around, there are three differences with Santana this season:
- More fly balls hit against him are leaving the ballpark (9% for his career, 12% this season)
- More balls put into play against him are finding holes between infielders and outfielders (.276 career, .301 this season)
- A higher percentage of baserunners are scoring (77% left-on-base career, 69% left-on-base this season)
That last one might be most alarming. Santana’s always been a tough pitcher, but he’s been particularly tough with men on base. Here are his yearly OPS-against numbers with men on base since becoming a starting pitcher in 2002:
2002 — .653
2003 — .630
2004 — .541
2005 — .613
2006 — .631
2007 — .650
2008 — .568
2009 — .597
2010 — .619
2012 — .932
Whereas Santana normally keeps hitters with men on base as effective as Brian Schneider, and has just about every season . . . this year, with men on base, everyone’s hit like David Wright against Santana. Meanwhile, Santana’s OPS-against numbers with the bases empty:
2002 — .577
2003 — .651
2004 — .576
2005 — .587
2006 — .611
2007 — .694
2008 — .699
2009 — .752
2010 — .667
2012 — .632
Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. But Johan Santana has been consistently great pitching out of the windup, even this year.
So Santana’s troubles this season have come mainly with men on base — if you break it down, most of the extra hits and home runs have come with runners on. Maybe he’s struggling out of the stretch. Or his command isn’t as sharp without a full windup. Or maybe it’s just bad luck compounded with bad luck. But something seems to be happening with Santana when there are runners on base. I don’t know what. But it seems like something.
Of course, when a star pitcher comes off surgery and struggles, the obvious question is whether he needs to be shut down. Because if he’s hurt, the obvious solution is to shut him down. But the thing with Santana is that his rates are still where they should be, and he’s just as strong as ever with the bases empty. He claims he’s not hurt, and I’m not sure the evidence definitively points otherwise. He really might be rusty or tired but otherwise healthy. If he’s tired, he might be better off resting for the rest of the season. But if it’s rust . . . why not let him work it out at the Major League level? If Santana needs to figure something out, why not let him do it now when the Mets are already out of contention? If he’s shut down now, he might still need to figure it out next season. If he’s healthy, he should work through it.
Santana’s a pitcher. These bad stretches happen, even to the great ones. Tim Lincecum went 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA in the first half, and he’s 3-3 with a 3.30 ERA since. Jake Peavy made 35 starts and put up a 4.77 ERA with the White Sox in 2010 and 2011 before putting up a 3.04 ERA this season. A.J. Burnett had a 5.20 ERA in his last two seasons with the Yankees, and he’s got a 3.54 ERA as the Pirates’ ace this season. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have both seen their ERAs rise more than a run for no clear reason this season. These kinds of things happen — Santana’s stretch is bad, maybe worse than all the above, but if he’s healthy, it really may be nothing more than a bad stretch or rust.
Or, you know, everyone panic. Either one.