Within the drama of the pennant races and playoff chases exists a more morbid pursuit. Towards the end of the season, I always like to rummage through our vast chasm of data to see if there are players that have a chance to be historically bad in any particular category. Maybe it’s because I typically root for teams that play below .500 baseball, but I have an appreciation for the uniqueness of the ugly.
To that end, I looked at starting pitchers. Specifically, pitchers that had a penchant for allowing home runs. And that turned up Ervin Santana. (honorable mention to Phil Hughes). Suddenly, I have a new outcome to root for.
Santana has actually been pitching pretty well as of late. Over his last eight starts, he’s won four games with a 3.51 ERA, giving up just 36 hits over 51.1 innings pitched. But he’s also had a 1.92 HR/9 rate, which is worse than he even had in his previous 19 games. On the season, his HR/9 rate stands at 1.89, giving up 34 home runs thus far over his 162.1 innings, leading the major leagues in both home runs allowed and HR/9.
But not only does Santana have the chance to be king among gopher balls this year, but he has a chance to be among the top ten in the last twenty years (for starting pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in a single season):
|2006||Jeff Weaver||- – -||8||14||31||31||172||1.78|
So Santana currently ranks 9th over the last 20 years in his propensity to give up home runs (Jose Lima, for what it’s worth, owns the highest HR/9 in Major League Baseball history). If you want a show, go see Ervin Santana pitch, because odds are you’ll see at least two balls leave the yard.
Why is Santana so rotten relative to long balls this season? His home run per fly ball rate is certainly elevated at 18.8% where the league average is about 12.4%. He should actually be helped by his home field as Angel Stadium suppresses home runs fairly well, but Santana still has a 1.76 HR/9 at home.
His fastball is down a full mile per hour (92.7 in 2011 to 91.7 in 2012) and at -1.74 runs below average per 100 pitches thrown, it is the second least valuable fastball in baseball (nod to Bruce Chen at -1.89). One might be able to withstand a pitch being so damaging if it was among your secondary repertoire, but Santana is essentially a fastball/slider pitcher — and he throws the fastball almost 60% of the time. He therefore relies heavily upon excellent location — and therein lies the rub. He’s been missing his spots and missing badly. In the past, when he missed with a 93, 94 mph fastball perhaps he was getting away with it more frequently, but when he’s throwing essentially a league average fastball in the wrong spot, he’s been bludgeoned.
A series of .gif’s to illustrate for your entertainment (unless you are an Angel fan. Or Ervin Santana. Or Ervin Santana’s mother) — we’ll use two left handed batters and two right handed batters for even-handedness:
Call for fastball down and away, leaves it up and in to Alex Avila.
Call for a fastball down and away to John Jaso. Meatball.
Call for fastball down and away to Kevin Youkilis. Belt high over the middle of the plate.
Call for a fastball down and away to Jose Bautista. Belt high over the middle of the plate.
This is obviously cherry picking, but you get the general idea. If you want to see how bad his location has been on the home runs he’s allowed, you can go view all 34 glorious shots via ESPN hit tracker. The fact is, Santana’s fastball hasn’t improved as the season has gone on and although his slider has definitely been more valuable in the past month, his inability to both locate his main pitch or get away with a mistake as often as he has in the past continues to result in a home run problem.
The Angels are just a game and a half back of the last wild card slot, so Angels fans have a lot to root for. But amidst the thrill of a playoff chase, there lies the fascination in rather historic failure. He’s got five more starts to see if he can slip below that top ten demarcation line — and I’ll surely be sharpening my pencil after each outing.