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Ervin Santana Back in Form?

Quick answer: sort of.

In 2008, Ervin Santana had a fantastic season. He struck out nearly a batter per inning and walked fewer than two per nine. He sustained this performance for a remarkable 219 innings, amassing 5.8 wins in the process, with his FIP, xFIP, and ERA all under 3.55.

Last year was not so kind, as he was worse in every facet of the game. The major culprit behind this descent was a nearly two MPH drop in fastball velocity, from 94.4 to 92.2. In 2007, as well, Santana posted a 92.2 average fastball velocity and struggled mightily. In both 2007 and 2009, Santana posted FIPs above 5.00 and xFIPs above 4.60.

Santana’s results have been fantastic so far, as he has a 3.29 ERA in 82 innings. His peripheral numbers are improved as well. Strikeouts are up, walks and home runs are down. However, neither of these numbers are at the point at which we would expect such a low ERA; his FIP is 4.36 and his xFIP only slightly better at 4.19.

The fastball velocity which Santana showed in 2008 simply isn’t back. Santana’s fastballs in 2010 have averaged 92.7 MPH, still nearly 2 MPH below their 2008 mark. It appears that he is making up for this lack of velocity with deception. Batters are swinging at far more pitches outside of the zone (30.2% vs. 25.8%) and far fewer pitches inside it (57.9% vs. 64.4%). Naturally, hitters’ contact percentage is far worse outside of the zone, and so Santana is drawing slightly more swings and misses. Presumably, these pitches chased out of the zone, which are still contacted just over half the time, are not hit as well as those in the zone, which could also be contributing to Santana’s success, particularly with regards to his decreased home run rate.

He’s still not drawing ground balls, and so he will be limited by a prevalence for the home run ball going forward. Still, even if his ERA reverts to the levels that his advanced metrics would suggest, he will be a productive, average or slightly above starting pitcher. Santana will likely never be the pitcher that he was in 2008 without that upper tier velocity, but he’s showing this season that he can still be effective without it.