Bidding Farewell to Johan Santana

Johan Santana will go down as one of the game’s best pitchers. I say ‘go down’ because after the news yesterday that Santana has probably re-torn the anterior capsule in his left, or throwing shoulder. Will Carroll said this was about the worst news that Santana could have received. Given how lengthy Santana’s rehab was the first time, and given the fact that he is set to be a free agent at the end of this season, we may have seen the last of the lefty with one of the deadliest changeups in baseball history.

It’s passé to say that Santana didn’t have a long career, and compared to some, he didn’t. For his career, Santana has thrown 2,025 innings. Only 420 other pitchers can say that they’ve crossed the 2,000 innings threshold. That doesn’t get him within sniffing distance of Cy Young (7,354.2 innings pitched) or almost-Mets teammate Tom Glavine (4,413.1 IP) or actual Mets teammate Pedro Martinez (2,827 IP). It doesn’t even get him to Sandy Koufax (2,324.1 IP), but he did surpass another hall of famer in Dizzy Dean (1,967.1 IP), as well as most of the other pitchers to throw in a major league game. After all, 4,339 pitchers have tossed at least 100 innings in the major leagues, so Santana’s career does put him in the top 10 percent among that group in terms of innings pitched.

What makes him not only a great pitcher but a great story is how he came to reach his fame and fortune. In 1999, Santana was a 20-year-old pitcher in Houston’s system. He had signed in 1995 and come to the US in ’97 at age 18, but had not by any means skyrocketed through the system. He moved from rookie ball, to Low-A, to High-A in his three seasons — one level at a time. In ’99, he would strike out 150 batters in 160.1 innings, but posted just a 4.66 ERA and 8-8 record, numbers that were likely deceiving enough so as to give the Astros pause about whether to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. And that’s not even counting the 10 wild pitches with which he was credited. The Twins had no such reservations however, and with their team not expected to challenge for a pennant in 2000, had no qualms with keeping him on the roster for the full season.

And that’s exactly what happened. They didn’t necessarily stash Santana on the roster — he did toss 86.1 innings in 2000 — but he certainly wasn’t the pitcher we know now, as his 6.49 ERA and 106 FIP- can attest. From there though, Santana could have run off the rails. The next season, he wasn’t returned to the minors, but rather once again kept as a spare part on the major league team. Though he wasn’t on the disabled list at the time, he was only used three times each in April and May. His activity would ramp up in June, and he started on three straight occasions from June 26-July 6. Then he went on the disabled list, with a partial tear of the flexor muscle origin in his left elbow. He would toss one more inning on Sept. 30, but that was it for 2001. Minnesota seemed to not have much of a plan for him, and as a result that may have resulted in his elbow injury, as it is unlikely that he was properly stretched out when he made his three straight starts.

In 2002, sanity prevailed. Santana was sent to the minors to start the season, where he was instructed to work on his changeup. And work on it he did. When he came back to the majors, he was used as a starter, but despite positive results — a 3.19 FIP in 14 starts — he lost his spot in the rotation when Eric Milton returned from the disabled list. Moved into relief, Santana pitched well down the stretch, and he opened 2003 in a relief role as well. And there he might have stayed had Joe Mays not started breaking down (Mays would pitch sporadically for a couple more months before finally being shelved at the end of August for Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss the entire 2004 season). Santana would take Mays’ spot in the rotation and never look back.

Santana’s 47.4 WAR ranks 102nd among pitchers all-time, but he is within 0.6 wins of 97th place, so I think it’s fair to call him a top-100 pitcher. Certainly I would have preferred Santana to Jamie Moyer or Frank Viola, two of the next names on the list. In any case, the fact that Santana could rank 421st in innings pitched but 102nd in terms of WAR shows you how good he really was. And the picture looks even rosier when you use rate statistics.

Among qualified starting pitchers, Santana’s 81 FIP- is the 35th-best mark of all-time. By ERA- he looks even better — 16th-best all-time. And most of the pitchers ahead of him on that list are not what we would call modern pitchers:

# Name Years ERA-
1 Pedro Martinez 1992-2009 67
2 Walter Johnson 1907-1927 67
3 Ed Walsh 1904-1917 68
4 Lefty Grove 1925-1941 69
5 Hoyt Wilhelm 1952-1972 69
6 Joe Wood 1908-1922 69
7 Addie Joss 1902-1910 69
8 Roger Clemens 1984-2007 70
9 Mordecai Brown 1903-1916 70
10 Al Spalding 1871-1877 71
11 Brandon Webb 2003-2009 72
12 Clayton Kershaw 2008-2012 72
13 Pete Alexander 1911-1930 73
14 Noodles Hahn 1899-1906 73
15 Kid Nichols 1890-1906 73
16 Johan Santana 2000-2012 73
17 Roy Halladay 1998-2012 73
18 Spud Chandler 1937-1947 73
19 Christy Mathewson 1900-1916 74
20 Sandy Koufax 1955-1966 75

Of the 15 pitchers who rank ahead of Santana here, 10 of them pitched before the start of the Integration Era in 1947. Just Martinez, Wilhelm, Webb and Kershaw rank ahead of him as modern pitchers, and unless Kershaw remains this brilliant for his entire career, he will slip behind Santana at some point as well.

But what really set Santana apart was that changeup. The first year that we have pitch value data for — 2002 — is also luckily the first year when Santana started his major league career in full force. In that time, Santana’s changeup has been a veritable tour de force — the 126.6 runs of value Santana has amassed in his changeup are 10 more than the next player in Cole Hamels. On a per 100 pitch basis, only Hamels and Felix Hernandez have been better (and also Kelvim Escobar if you want to count him), though neither of those pitchers has hit their decline phase yet the way Santana has. Let’s give them a few years and then see if their rates match up with Santana’s.

In addition to his great changeup, Santana will also always be remembered for his great five-year run with the Twins and Mets from 2004-2008. During that span, he posted an overall ERA of 2.82, and led his league in ERA in three of the five seasons, taking home the Cy Young Award the first two times he did so. He is just one of 16 pitchers in baseball history to take home multiple Cy Young Awards. His final season with a league-leading ERA — 2008 — would be his last great season. He was pretty good in 2009 and 2010, but he wasn’t the same pitcher. And then he missed 2011 with the first shoulder surgery.

Looking back, Santana was probably never long for this world. As Jeff Zimmerman has noted time and again, previous injuries are the best predictor of future injuries, and coming into 2012 Santana had plenty of previous injuries. But using Jeff’s Pitcher Inconsistency Tool (see explanation at the bottom of this article), we can see that Santana’s Zone % was off all year, but that his inconsistency especially spiked not in his no-hitter on June 1, but in his eight-inning shutout effort five starts later on June 30. Jeff estimates that in his last 10 fastballs on that day, his velocity had a 5 mph range, and that — assuming his foot was the same spot on the rubber — his release point varied by half a foot both horizontally and vertically. In his subsequent five starts, Santana would allow 33 runs in 19 innings. They will likely be the final 19 innings of his career. There’s a lesson here, and that it’s not wise to be slavish to pitch counts. Santana only tossed 107 pitches on June 30, well within the normally accepted range of pitches for a starter these days. But on that day it was clearly too many. Perhaps it was only a matter of time, but with better in-game management from Terry Collins and his staff, I might not be writing this article today.

Playing the blame game however, is not the point of this story. The point is to acknowledge how remarkable of a pitcher Santana was. He isn’t retired yet, obviously, but there’s a good chance he’s thrown his last pitch as a major leaguer. Ultimately, his seeming lack of bulk may keep him from the Baseball Hall of Fame, and certainly the number of impressive candidates with very long careers that are set to enter the Hall (or at least the Hall discussion) in the next few years will only put Santana’s seeming lack of bulk in sharper relief. But whether he makes it or not, Santana was a fantastic pitcher who traveled a unique path to stardom. Most pitchers that get selected in the Rule 5 draft and then languish as a spare part for the next two seasons usually don’t amount to much. But thanks in part to his devastating changeup, Santana went on to become one of the best pitchers of the past decade, and he was always entertaining to watch. Pitchers like him just don’t come around very often.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

50 Responses to “Bidding Farewell to Johan Santana”

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  1. Eric says:

    The other important thing to note is that the start after that June 30th start (on July 6th) was the one where he got his ankle stepped on, which if his arm was already starting to get out of whack certainly wouldn’t help

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  2. ralph says:

    Or instead of June 30 being the cause of struggles in his subsequent starts, it could be this: “The 33-year-old Santana originally suffered the injury July 6, when Chicago Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson stepped on Santana’s foot as he was attempting to cover first base during the fifth inning.”

    From this article:

    Or it could be both, or something else entirely.

    In any case, the re-injury is a real shame. Thanks for showing how good he was.

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  3. brendan says:

    “Just Martinez, Wilhelm, Webb and Kershaw rank ahead of him as modern pitchers..”

    Clemens also, correct?

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  4. Dustin says:

    I went to as many Johan starts as I could in the mid-2000’s, and as Metrodome tickets were just lying around for $3 most days, that was quite a few of them. This news, as inevitable as it was, is really sad as a Twins fan and a Johan fan. The day he announces his retirement, the Twins should retire his jersey.

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  5. Ron says:

    While he was a great pitcher this is the first highlight I think of when I think of Santana.

    Felix is awesome.

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  6. Falcon Punch says:

    Can you guys find a position player that has torn their anterior capsule in the last 30 years? All I can find is Tommy John, labrums and rotator cuffs but never this. Most of those came from sliding/diving (freak injury dislocations) but not from throwing.

    This injury seems to be the pitchers, and only the pitchers, death sentence.

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  7. Trotter76 says:

    As a Mets fan, I’m sad that he didn’t live up to his Minnesota standards through his contract in NY, but my greatest Johan memory didn’t happen in a Mets uni. Back in 2004 I traded a rookie Miguel Cabrera — to my best friend and chief rival in my fantasy league — for Johan at the end of May, when he was 2-2 with a 5.60 ERA. He gave up 4 runs in losing each of the next 2 starts, but then went on maybe the most magical run a pitcher has had since Matthewson threw 3 shutouts in the 1903 World Series. 18-2 record the rest of the way. 21 out of 22 starts with fewer than 3 runs. 9 or more strikeouts in 14 of those starts. 235/31 K-to-BB ratio. 24 runs in 159.1 innings, good for a 1.36 ERA. And my best friend howling every five days about what a lucky SOB I am. Oh, it was glorious.

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    • wobatus says:

      Does your friend still have Cabrera? Now that would be glorious.

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    • dovif says:

      My Favourite moment is during the first year he started, I traded Burnitz (in his 40HR Colorado inflated campaign) and Pedro for Santana in a Keeper’s league and the league was going to veteo that trade. They didn’t and as a Mets fan I enjoyed the services of Reyes, Wright and Santana for many years

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  8. Mets Magic says:

    Fittin’ that it’s Good Friday, this was the last straw before New York crucified Johan for good. Loved the no hitter, but you’ve done more damage to the Amazin’s than Beltran and Bay did.

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    • grandbranyan says:

      You’re right. Johan should have never signed that contract knowing he’d eventually get hurt. He should have been like, “137.5 million is a lot of money, and I appreciate the offer, but the fair thing to do would be to go year to year just in case I get hurt.”

      Or maybe the Mets shouldn’t have made the trade and subsequent contract offer knowing his high risk for impending injury. I don’t know, it’s such a confusing game.

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    • Darien says:

      Also, Beltran was worth almost thirty WAR for the Mets. Thirty! What more did you want from the guy?

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      • timtebow says:

        not to mention zack wheeler

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      • Craig says:

        Many Mets’ fans irrational disdain for Beltran knows no bounds.

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        • papasmurf says:

          This coming from a former Met fan: Most Met fans are idiots. It would help them a lot to read more stories on Fangraphs and other analytical baseball and statistics sites.

          To be fair, most fans for all teams are idiots. That’s why they are “fans.” Mostly emotion and not enough logic.

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        • Matt says:

          A former Met fan? Seriously? You were never a Mets fan. Say what you will about our less statistically inclined brethren, but an ex Mets fan is about the lowest of the low. If all you have left is logic, why bother even following baseball?

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    • SW says:

      I guess I’m the only Mets fan who remembers Johan in the 2008 stretch run. He left everything he had on the field and then some. The real damage to the Mets has been the medical and conditioning staffs.

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  9. Johnny Come Lately says:

    Gotta love a guy, who when you’re naming off filthy pitch types, will almost always get a nod. Santana’s changeup was the best we’ve seen.

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  10. TKDC says:

    I’m going to miss Johan Santa.

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  11. gareth says:

    Brian cashman irked me this week when commenting on his foresight in not signing santana as a free agent. We get it. The yankees look like a team hit hard by the ebola virus and you are trying to get props for being a wise gm. Um, vernon wells?

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  12. Robert says:

    During the first half of the 2000s, Johan Santana was the obvious, clear answer to the question “who is the best pitcher in baseball?” It wasn’t a debate. Roy Halladay was Mr. Second Place in the rankings every year, and was only able to overtake Santana while he was struggling with injuries.

    If that’s not enough to get Santana a place in the Hall of Fame, I don’t know what the standard is anymore.

    Santana had two Cy Youngs, and would’ve had three straight had Bartolo Colon not stolen the award with a 21 win, 4.0 WAR year. If that doesn’t scream dominance, I don’t know what will.

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    • Brian says:

      Santana was dominant but not for long enough. Compare his less than 50 fWAR to Halladay;s 68 fWAR, for example.

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      • Ian says:

        I think that’s a compiler argument and not a good HOF argument. He pitched in 12 seasons. In 7 of those, he amassed 4+ WAR each season (5 WAR 5x). He was top 10 in both IP and ERA+ in the same season 5x. That’s a lot harder than you think – Pedro Martinez managed that feat 5x in 18 seasons.

        If you look at HOFers as requiring a career WAR of ____, than he’s probably not a HOFer. If you look at it as consistently dominating during the years he played, he should be.

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        • TKDC says:

          That is a bit of cherry picking, as Pedro does in fact have the longer career overall and this analysis does not take into account that Pedro’s peak of his peak was among the best in baseball history.

          I don’t think having a career the length of Santana is an automatic disqualifier for the HOF, but you can’t simply have a period of being the best pitcher in baseball, you have to be legendary in your peak (for example, if Pedro retired after 2004, I think he would still be a deserving HOFer).

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  13. squads says:

    I was floored to see Brandon Webb on that list. Thinking back, he was amazingly consistent for years and the abrupt end to his career kept him from having any performance trail-off in his later years.

    Regardless, it’s odd to see his name alongside the all-time greats.

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    • NATS Fan says:

      not to me, but I’ve been playing fantasy baseball for more than 20 years. Webb had a very dominating run, but since he was not a huge K guy, and pitched in a pitchers park, no one really noticed unless they were stat oriented.

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  14. The Humber Games says:

    It’s interesting to look back on his career. I grew up in mn, and remember Santana being so bad in his early bullpen days my brother and I used to boo him when he was brought into games. When he reappeared as the dominant starter later it was hard to believe it was the same person. And now to this day no pitcher I have seen live or on tv has ever made batters look as helpless as Santana did with that changeup…

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  15. Tom says:

    I feel like 2 Cy Youngs, 16th all time era and having pitched the only no hitter in Mets history should get you in the hall of fame, no?

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    • Breadbaker says:

      Pitching the only no-hitter in Mets history is pretty irrelevant to any Hall of Famer voter who should have a ballot to cast.

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  16. snack man says:

    Funny to see the Frank Viola reference. Viola had a low 90s fast ball and a circle change and managed to get 5 straight seasons of 5+ WAR pitching off that. I’ve always wondered what it was that he did so well and I imagine batters were in the same boat.

    Total war is just one more similarity between the two. Both were aces for the Twins with well known changeups, traded to the Mets where they didn’t perform at the same level. Though Viola’s implosion with the Mets was not as bad as I recalled, looking at it with a WAR column.

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  17. CrashCameron says:

    Santana was smooth. (I had to say it!) Oye como va, Johan

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  18. Ryan says:

    When I went to watch him pitch, I always sat in the upper deck and watched batters lunge at his changeup. He made pro ballplayers look like little leaguers with how much they lunged at it.

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  19. NYMIKE says:

    Mets fans lets not forget that Santana was up there with Lincecum for Cy Young his first season with the Mets. He also pitched a 13 strike out shut out against the Marlins, only to see Tom Glavine get murdered by the same Marlins team in the season finale, Mets did nothing against Dontrelle either.

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    • papasmurf says:

      Santana was never on the Mets when Glavine was there. Glavine’s last yr with NYM was 2007 while Johan’s first was 2008.

      If you’re referring to the finale of the 2007 season, I remember this painfully well I was streaming both Glav and Dontrelle on the final day with a chance for the league title.

      Dontrelle in fact didn’t last long in that game. He was spotted to a huge lead but Dontrelle stunk too. The Mets ended up losing cuz of Glav, not because they could not touch Dontrelle.

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      • NYMIKE says:

        You are right, I was wrong on the dates, but Santana in 2008 was very good. It means I should of been speaking of the game where Oliver Perez started against Olsen, and Schoenweis and Ayala gave up home runs. I was there at both of those debacles.

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  20. Brock says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but Johan Santa?

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  21. HebrewHammer says:

    I always felt Oswalt was one of the most under-appreciated players during his Astros tenure. IIRC Oswalt was protected when Santana was let go, and I always liked following the careers of 2 of these top pitchers in baseball during this era. I bet a lot of people will immediately think Oswalt wasn’t in Santana’s league. Their careers (both for 12 years):

    Santana – 139-78 3.20 ERA in 360 Games – 2025 IP
    Oswalt – 168-96 3.28 ERA in 356 Games – 2213 IP

    Definitely a close start and pretty equal lengths of careers

    Santana – 1.132 WHIP, 3.51 K/BB, 136 ERA+, 3.44 FIP, 3.50 xFIP, 47.4 WAR
    Oswalt – 1.202 WHIP, 3.56 K/BB, 130 ERA+, 3.37 FIP, 3.57 xFIP, 48.8 WAR

    Even their post season performances

    Santana – 1-3, 3.97 ERA, 1.324WHIP in 34 IP
    Oswalt – 5-2, 3.73 ERA, 1.331 WHIP in 72.1 IP

    Overall, 2 great careers that may or may not be officially at an end. Can you guys do a good rundown / comparison?

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