Johan Santana’s Slider

>JENSEN BEACH, Fla. — I arrived in Florida yesterday – hence the superfluous dateline for a blog post – and I will be attending today’s Mets-Twins meaningless exhibition game that everyone will read to much into spring-training game, along with the games on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll try to take some pictures and upload a few to twitter and/or Facebook – I was thinking more about focusing on Tradition Field itself, instead of just the players and game, but we’ll see. To follow me on twitter, go here, or join the Facebook group here.

Anyway, Johan Santana is scheduled to start, so in honor of that event, let me try – and possibly fail, but maybe get a little closer to the truth – to answer this question:

What was the effect of Johan Santana’s elbow troubles on his 2009 performance?

First, the generally accepted answer to this question: (spoiler alert: I don’t believe this answer is right, hence the rest of the post.)

Johan Santana’s elbow pain forced him to throw less sliders, dramatically lowering his effectiveness against left-handed batters. The lefties mashing a now slider-less Johan accounted for most of .60 run rise in his ERA, from 2.53 in 2008 to 3.13 in 2009.

This answer seems to make sense because:

1. Johan Santana really did throw his slider less in 2009. 12% of his pitchers were sliders in 2008, compared to 9% in 2009.

2. His OPS against lefties in 2009 was miserable – .814, with a slash line of .267/.309/.506, including 10 home runs and 13 doubles in just 194 plate appearances. Most of the damage was in the power department, indicating that batters were too often guessing very, very right on either fastball or changeup, no longer having to worry about the sweeping slider.

OK. The generally accepted answer seems to make sense. With no threat of a breaking pitch, lefties just needed to swing really, really hard and hope they guessed right on the fastball/changeup question. That’s how they managed to slug so high, while striking out at about the same rate as righties. Guess right, hit a home run. Guess wrong, strike out.

So now that we are in 2010, with the elbow fixed and the slider back, lefties will fall back down to earth and everyone can rejoice in the radiant poetry that is Johan Santana. Cue Jerry Manuel, to the New York Post’s Kevin Kernan, after Johan’s second spring start: “I really like the fact that he is throwing a slider now to the left-handed batters. Probably for me that was the most impressive thing.” So Jerry Manuel is impressed that Johan has his slider back against lefties. Cool, right?


The problem with all that, is that Johan Santana threw the exact same ratio of changeups and sliders to left-handed batters in 2009 as he did in 2008 . . . and in 2007, and 2006, and 2005:

2009 vs LHB: 14% changeup, 23% slider
2008 vs LHB: 14% changeup, 23% slider
2007 vs LHB: 14% changeup, 25% slider
2006 vs LHB: 15% changeup, 23% slider
2005 vs LHB: 15% changeup, 24% slider

The overall drop in the number of sliders is accounted for by the diminishing number thrown to right-handed batters. Johan threw less sliders to right-handed batters in 2009 than he did in 2008, but he’s also slowly been throwing less sliders against RHB over his entire career, from 13% in 2005, to 14% to 7% to 7% to 4% last season. The dropping number of sliders against RHB doesn’t seem to change Santana’s effectiveness: his career OPS-against vs RHB is .641, and in 2009 it was .644. In other words, less sliders doesn’t look like the answer to why he struggled in 2009. Because there was no drop.

But perhaps a drop in the effectiveness – in other words, the quality and not the quantity – of the sliders could be the answer. Santana himself recently seemed to imply as much in interviews, saying that his slider had no bite. On the other hand, a look at Pitch f/x data* from 2008 and 2009 indicates that Santana’s slider moved essentially the same in both seasons. I’m not going to read too much into that – I’m inclined to trust the guy actually throwing the pitches over a video system that is still having the kinks in pitch ID worked out. If Santana says his slider had less bite, it probably had less bite. Also, doubting Johan Santana is a cardinal sin. You can go to hell for it. Still, Santana decided to throw the apparently bite-less slider to lefties the same amount as he did before, so . . .

*read: “porn for baseball geeks.”

Anyway, if we assume for a moment Johan was throwing a bite-less slider, and the biggest problem he had in 2009 was giving up extra base hits to lefty batters – how many of his 20 home runs were given up to lefties, and how many of those were off (presumably) flat sliders?

Well, Santana surrendered 10 home runs to nine lefties in 2009 – interestingly, all of them well-known batters: Nick Johnson, Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley (twice), Hideki Matsui, Raul Ibanez, Carlos Pena, Prince Fielder, and Brian McCann. No Jody Geruts in that list – that’s a group of both sluggers, fat guys, and slugging fat guys. Interestingly, switch-hitters all choose to bat right-handed against Johan, even though Santana – like some change-up pitchers – has a reverse platoon split for his career. Why don’t switch hitters try to neutralize his best pitch, the changeup, by hitting lefty? Just a suggestion . . .

Anyway, in the 10 at-bats that ended in home runs, Johan threw 30 pitches, with a breakdown of 20 fastballs, 8 sliders, and just 2 changeups. Seven homeruns were hit off fastballs, two off sliders, and one off a changeup – actually, both changeups were thrown consecutively to Prince Fielder, the second of which was hit to the moon. If Johan lost faith in any pitch against dangerous lefties in 2009, it would appear to be his changeup, and not the slider – but small sample size warnings apply. This represents just over 1% of all the pitches Johan threw in 2009, to just 9 separate hitters, so . . . it’s basically meaningless towards any larger trend. Still, at the very least, the home runs don’t look to be caused by a crummy slider he was afraid to throw, because he used it at his regular rate.

To put it another way, it really, really doesn’t look like the slider. He didn’t throw it any less, and it doesn’t seem any less effective.

In fact, of these 10 home runs given up to lefties, seven of them came in a one month period, beginning with Santana’s June 9th start against Philadelphia and lasting through his July 5th start, also against the Phillies. Of those seven home runs, four came off pitches left up in the zone, and three more off pitches on the outer-half of the plate.* Johan’s ERA in the month of June was 6.19, his strikeout to walk ratio dropped from 4.30 in April/May to 1.29 in June, and opposing batters hit .297/.358/.538 against him – basically, everyone Santana faced in that month was Ryan Zimmerman. It appears that Santana wasn’t missing many bats during the stretch.

*Two of those were outside fastballs to Chase Utley, who, in case you haven’t noticed, leans way, way over the plate – actually, with the standing right on top of the plate and putting knees in to a runners sliding hard on double plays and such . . . he’s sort
in the mold of Ty Cobb or Pete Rose. Only, unlike the other two, Utley was tragically born without a personality, which, when compared to the other two, actually makes him more likable.

If you take the ugly June out, Santana had an ERA of 2.42 in the other four months of his season.

Conclusion (sort of):

While Johan may have, and probably did, have a flatter slider that normal, I’m not sure how much it actually hampered his effectiveness. He certainly didn’t use it less against lefties. He gave up just two home runs off sliders to LHB in 2009, and the value of his slider, according to Fangraphs, actually went slightly up from 2008. I would guess that his difficultly controlling the location of his pitches, resulting in a homer-happy June, had much more to do with the ballooning of his ERA than anything with his slider. If the bone chips caused Johan to lose effectiveness – and I’m going to guess that they did – I would have to say his lack of control for a month caused more problems than any flatness in his slider. Basically, there isn’t any evidence that his slider was used either less often or less effectively than ever before.

So, having the slider bite back? It’s probably going to help. Being able to pitch pain free? Probably even better.

Johan Santana image courtesy of Keith Allison’s photo stream on Flickr:


Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

5 responses to “Johan Santana’s Slider

  1. Xavier

    >a couple of comments/questions that may be relevant:does pitch f/x data distinguish between late break and general sweep? if it just measures displacement, johan's slider biting may not be picked up.does johan use his slider more to set up his other pitches? a fastball in the dirt won't ever get hit but has very little value as a set-up pitch. a good slider may get hit occasional but help other pitches more.

  2. Anonymous

    >How bout getting rid of the ridiculous font. this would be a good step one (out of many) towards being taken seriously as a sports writer

  3. Patrick Flood

    >@ Anonymous:I was worried about the font, and I've been messing around with it. Is this one better or worse for reading?

  4. Patrick Flood

    >@ Xavier:I don't think pitch f/x would distinguish between a late break and a sweeping break. I believe the cameras just compare where a spinless pitch at the same velocity would have ended up with where the actual pitch wound up. So it's possible his slider broke the same, but broke earlier and less dramatically, while still winding up in the same spot.

  5. shamik

    >I have no problems with the font, and have found this to be one of the more informative and incisive blogs out there. Keep it up!

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