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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.