How Ervin Santana Made Himself Complete

As I write this, it’s still early in the 2014 regular season. But, as I write this, Ervin Santana has one of baseball’s better adjusted ERAs. He has a top-five adjusted FIP and a top-10 adjusted xFIP. He has a top-10 strikeout rate, an upper-level strikeout/walk ratio and a top-five contact rate allowed. He’s been absolutely dominant against right-handed hitters, and he’s been only slightly less dominant against left-handed hitters. Santana was late to sign — and it took some injuries to get him to Atlanta — but through a handful of starts, Santana has demonstrated a new level of ability.

And, looking back, perhaps we were tipped off. Think about how you used to think about Ervin Santana. He was homer-prone — in your head and in the numbers — and he was an example of a fastball/slider starting pitcher. He never mastered a third pitch, so he never frequently threw a third pitch. And while his slider was good enough for him to get by, the limited repertoire set him a lower ceiling. Santana, we assumed, was a known entity. Then we heard something at the end of December.

Jay Alou is Ervin Santana’s representation.

A lot of people laughed it off. Justifiably, I’ll add. Alou wasn’t exactly an objective source, and Santana remained unsigned longer than he expected to remain unsigned. To some, it reeked of desperation. To some, it went so far as to be embarrassing. But I was intrigued, because I’m all about mysteries. I think now this mystery has been solved. Does Ervin Santana really have a new devastating pitch? If so, what is it?

santanachangeups

It’s not a surprise that Santana would’ve been working on a changeup. It is a surprise the changeup is doing so well. New-pitch stories are the new best-shape stories, and more often than not nothing comes out of them. New pitches are difficult to learn and master, and Santana has tried to get the changeup down before. There was no reason to think it’d finally click around his 31st birthday. But something about the changeup finally made sense. Some sort of tweak allowed Santana to turn a weak pitch into a weapon, and this is why new-pitch stories are so compelling in the first place. What if the new pitch works? You end up with a whole new pitcher.

Before this year, during the PITCHf/x era, Santana got 69% of his strikeouts with his slider, and he got fewer than 2% of his strikeouts with his changeup. This year, he’s gotten 53% of his strikeouts with his slider and 30% of his strikeouts with his changeup. Additionally, the confidence is there for Santana to use the change in a variety of counts. He’s started 16 batters off with changeups. Another 17 times, he’s thrown a change in a 1-and-1 count. He’s thrown 16 changeups when behind in the count. He’s mixed the pitch in against righties and lefties alike.

And why not keep reciting statistics? Between 2007 and 2013, Santana threw about 60% of his changeups for strikes. This year, that’s up to better than 70%. The swing rate is up, and the whiff rate has doubled. Used to be, it was pretty easy to lay off, and many of the strikes were hittable. So far neither has been true, and of course, when you add a changeup you believe in, it makes all your pitches better. Let’s look at a little Santana footage from his most recent start against the Reds.

In a 1-and-1 count against Brandon Phillips:

SantanaPhillips1.gif.opt

That’s a changeup catching the edge of the zone for a called strike. So that put Phillips behind 1-and-2, and suddenly he had three pitches to think about. Santana went with something that used to be predictable, but now it’s a little better disguised:

SantanaPhillips2.gif.opt

A little more impressively, watch Santana pitch to Joey Votto in the plate appearance immediately preceding the above appearance. A first-pitch changeup tied Votto up:

SantanaVotto1.gif.opt

The location was missed in, but Votto didn’t get a very good swing. That quickly put Votto in the hole, and Santana tried to get him to chase:

SantanaVotto2.gif.opt

Votto thought about it, but ultimately he pulled a Votto, so Santana wound up in another one of those 1-and-1 counts. Thus:

SantanaVotto3.gif.opt

That’s just a straight change to get ahead. So at 1-and-2, Santana decided to try to blow Votto away after he was late on the change:

SantanaVotto4.gif.opt

Votto was even later on the high fastball, but he stayed alive. So then Santana went to a familiar tactic:

SantanaVotto5.gif.opt

Nothing doing, but now Votto had seen two changeups, two sliders and a two-strike fastball. Santana finished him off with a perfect changeup:

SantanaVotto6.gif.opt

There’s not a lot to it. It’s basically just his fastball, without eight or nine miles per hour. But then, that’s the whole point of a changeup, and for the first time in his career, Ervin Santana is throwing a pretty good one on a consistent basis. It’s not perfect, nor is it unhittable, but no pitch is. Santana having that change puts the hitter more on the defensive because he’s less able to predict what he’s going to see.

The caveats are these: Santana hasn’t even thrown 70 changeups yet, so maybe he’s on a lucky run of good ones. Over time, the scouting reports on him will update to note the change. And out of his four starts, two have come against the awful Mets offense. One has come against the relatively weak Phillies offense. We’ll know a lot more about Santana’s changeup in August— which means, in August, we’ll also know a lot more about Ervin Santana. Right now he’s still short of five starts in a new league with a new pitch.

But at this point it looks like something finally made sense. It looks like older dogs can learn new tricks, or learn to improve old tricks. Ervin Santana might’ve just made himself a complete starting pitcher. When he signed so quickly with the Braves, people questioned why he didn’t wait a little longer so as to avoid having a qualifying offer extension after the year. It now looks like the Braves might’ve signed a front-line starter, and true front-line starters don’t need to worry about market depression.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Jerry McGuire
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Jerry McGuire
2 years 1 month ago

And I thought it was me.

Spit Ball
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Spit Ball
2 years 1 month ago

Say it Jerry…..show me the money….I can’t hear you Jerry…..SHOW ME THE MONEYYYY!

Jason
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Jason
2 years 1 month ago

I wonder if the increase in changeups thrown has anything to do with Roger McDowell and Braves pitching philosophy. He is obviously throwing more quality changeups, but it seems to me that there might be more to this story.

Kris
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Kris
2 years 1 month ago

Alou tweeted that in December… so unless McDowell knew they’d be signing Big Erv that long ago, I’d say no

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 1 month ago

a) It’s still possible Alou was essentially blowing smoke at time of that tweet, and that the changeup actually developed later.

b) If, as seems likely, Santana had improved the changeup before joining the Braves, it’s also possible that the Braves’ coaching staff has helped him make further refinements, or helped him with deciding when to throw it.

Or it may be that his success has nothing to do with his coaching. Still, I wouldn’t sleep on Roger McDowell; with Dave Duncan retired, he’s probably the best pitching coach in baseball.

Newman
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Newman
2 years 1 month ago

Don Cooper, Mickey Calloway and Dave Righetti are pretty good. Although McDowell is pretty good with the magic loogie behind the bushes by the gravelly road. I

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 1 month ago

Righetti is a good call, Cooper I guess has some kind of argument, getting okay-not-great results from some pretty poor raw materials (other than Sale, obviously) in a bandbox. Callaway… I’m not sure where you’re getting that, the Indians don’t pitch well at all. Obviously, it’s difficult to separate the coach’s influence from the actual quality of the pitchers. I base my opinion on the Braves’ consistent pitching success with a staff that changed a fair amount from 2012 to 2013 and has changed a ton from 2013 to 2014. I don’t follow the AL closely enough to know what Callaway or Cooper have been dealing with in terms of turnover.

Newman
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Newman
2 years 1 month ago

McDowell has gotten good results even with turnover, you’re right. I think Calloway in his short time has done pretty well with what he has had to work with. Jimenez and Kazmir were salvaged, Salazar and Kluber were good as relatively unheralded (well, unheralded by people not named Cistulli) youngsters, Masterson had a very good year last year, Mccallister has turned out to be a decent pitcher.

It’s hard to say how much of that is Calloway, like it is for most coaches.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
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Dan Ugglas Forearm
2 years 1 month ago

There’s kind of always been interesting stuff going on with pitch selection, and especially changeups, since McDowell has been around. Currently, the Braves have 3 pitchers in the top 30 of changeup value, and 4 in the top 40. If Medlen was still pitching, you could likely add him to that list.
In the case of Teheran, he had a fantastic changeup and non-existent slider in the minors. When he got to MLB, he scrapped the change, and added a slider. Now the changeup is back and good as ever. Atlanta pitchers seem to have added and subtracted pitches annually, mostly to good results. The changeup is, more often than not, right in the middle of that talk.

CJ
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CJ
2 years 1 month ago

Ervin is now also working with Roger McDowell, one of the most underrated pitching coaches in major league baseball.

psualum
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psualum
2 years 1 month ago

But considering when he signed, he had to have picked up the change before he started working with him. Its not like he spent a week in extended spring training and had a Eureka! moment. Had to been something he’d been building on throughout the offseason

Arun
Member
2 years 1 month ago

How many of those strikeouts via changeup were recorded against pitchers?

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 1 month ago

He’s struck out 4 pitchers total. I don’t know how one would break it down by pitch other than going back through game logs.

The Kudzu Kid
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The Kudzu Kid
2 years 1 month ago

According to my Pitch F/X data he’s had 7 strikeouts on a change-up (this seems to differ from Jeff’s numbers, because 7/31 is 22.6%, not 30%, but whatever): Jimmy Rollins twice, Chris and Eric Young, Chase Utley, Lucas Duda, and the aforementioned Votto. No pitchers.

The Kudzu Kid
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The Kudzu Kid
2 years 1 month ago

Whoops, Chris Young is a pitcher. So 1 out of 7.

All of the strikeouts on his change have been swinging, FWIW.

larry
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larry
2 years 1 month ago

if that is Chris Young of the Mets, which i think it is, then he is OF, not pitcher.

psualum
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psualum
2 years 1 month ago

So when do I get to see an article about the Mets starting pitching this year? Can I at least see one of those where Fangraphs acknowledges its been good then spends 10 paragraphs showing how much it actually sucks?? SOMETHING ABOUT THE METS WERE 14-11 COME ON GUYS!

Brian
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2 years 1 month ago

Fangraphs was down on the Mets – we won’t be seeing a Mets are not so bad article for a while.

psualum
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psualum
2 years 1 month ago

I would settle for “this is why we still think the Mets are bad” article lol.. they could at least do a litte feature about Dillon Gee looking like an ace through April.

Warning Track Power
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Warning Track Power
2 years 1 month ago

Gee has had one of the lowest ERAs in the NL since near the middle of last year IIRC.

Wobatus
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Wobatus
2 years 1 month ago

Well, the Mets starters are 26th in fWAR so I doubt folks are rushing to pen a “our projection systems were wrong” article. Although the Mets’ starters are 15th in FIP, 14th in xFIP nad 17th in SIERA, so they haven’t been awful. The Orioles have a much worse FIP but higher WAR, so must be who and where they’ve played. Even by rWAR Mets staff is only .8 WAR (O’s are at 2.3, just as an example).

I agree the staff has actually looked pretty good. Colon had one absolute bomb against the Angels, but overall Colon, Gee, Mejia, Wheeler and Niese seems solid. Good old ERA has them at 9th.

psualum
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psualum
2 years 1 month ago

Alot of that is skewed by 2 horrendous starts, if you were to remove Colon’s start against the Angels and Meija’s against the Marlins on Saturday their ERA would be 2.79 on the season. I wonder how their WAR can be so low when everything else about them has been pretty good, and having watched the team every night the starters have looked pretty darn good night after night (The hitting has been atrocious and the bullpen meh so the pitchers have to be the reason they are winning). Seems like a disconnect between my eyes and the stats, would love to see why that is.

Brian
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2 years 1 month ago

I want to also, but you really can’t just “remove” data…

JD
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JD
2 years 1 month ago

This just in – pitching staffs look great if you pretend bad starts never happened.

psualum
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psualum
2 years 1 month ago

Also they have played one of the hardest schedules in baseball so far, 3 against Nats, 6 against Braves, 3 against Cincy, 4 against St. Louis, 3 against the Angels, 3 against Marlins, and 3 against Diamondbacks. Thats pretty tough by my count, although St. Louis being mired in a season long slump might be puling those #’s down a bit at the moment.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
2 years 1 month ago

I just checked, and they are 9th in baseball in ERA, 15th in FIP, 14th in xFIP, and 26th in WAR. I’m not sure why you think that warrants an article.

On a sidenote, I thought pitching WAR was mainly innings and FIP. Weird that they rank so poorly in WAR, when they have a middle-of-the-road FIP and innings pitched.

Wobatus
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Wobatus
2 years 1 month ago

Yeah, I noticed they were middle of the pack in FIP but low in fWAR. Must be adjusted for parks and opponent batting.

Brian
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2 years 1 month ago

I don’t know if its possible to find out, but I would love an answer to that particular question.

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 1 month ago

25th in FIP-. I think what the FIP/FIP- split is saying is that Fangraphs believes Mets starters have logged their innings in some very pitching-friendly ballparks.

larry
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larry
2 years 1 month ago

the mets have a 3.49 FIP at home (12 in baseball) and a 4.90 FIP at home (29th in baseball). that is all

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 1 month ago

Larry means 4.90 FIP on the road. Anyway, I suspect this is what’s driving their poor showing in fWAR.

Orsulakfan
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Orsulakfan
2 years 1 month ago

I’m still curious about the circumstances behind Santana’s signing with Atlanta. The word was that Toronto and Baltimore had made him comparable offers to the one that Atlanta then offered him. It seemed like he was holding out for the Braves. Was it a play for a better deal (which, according to the reports, didn’t really happen – and besides he never seemed to have given the Blue Jays or O’s a chance to make a counter offer)? Or did he want to pitch for the Braves for their perceived better chance to win? Their personnel? Or was he just avoiding the AL East? My (bitter) assessment has been the latter, but I feel like I don’t know the whole story.

Anon21
Member
Anon21
2 years 1 month ago

Equal money, but better chance at going to the playoffs and better chance at posting shiny numbers in the lower-scoring league. Maybe the Braves’ defense played into it a bit too, but I think the division and league context were the driving factors.

DAVE
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DAVE
2 years 1 month ago

The Jays GM says they never had a chance at signing him b/c Ervin was set on signing with an NL team. Maybe he just wanted to swing the stick.

Samuel Sumner
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Samuel Sumner
2 years 1 month ago

If you look at his tweets, he’s certainly been very enthusiastic about hitting.

Kevin
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Kevin
2 years 1 month ago

wasn’t holding out for the braves. they came into the game very late because of injuries to their rotation. i doubt they were in the picture before Minor and Beachy went down. given that he signed a one year deal, it’s pretty obvious this was all about maximizing his next contract by pitching in a weaker-hitting division, non-DH league and bigger ballpark. the Orioles and Jays didn’t have a hope in hell of competing with those factors

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
2 years 1 month ago

Obviously, as others have pointed out, the weaker offensive league was likely a big point for him. A one-year deal for him in the NL could bring him even bigger money this coming offseason. Also, apparently Anthopolous had asked some other Jays players to restructure their contracts in order to make room for Santana, which they apparently agreed to do, but don’t you think that could make things awkward for Santana? You’d have to be really appreciative, but at the same time, that’s a whole lot of pressure. You don’t want your teammates to basically pay you for potentially sucking.

Feeding the Abscess
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Feeding the Abscess
2 years 1 month ago

Pitchf/x has Santana throwing a changeup at least 10.8% of the time in 4 of his 5 September 2013 starts. Perhaps he found a new grip at that point?

Brian
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Brian
2 years 1 month ago

Braves pitching has been ridiculous this year.

Credit to Evan Gattis for his pitch calling.

Max
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Max
2 years 1 month ago

Interesting. Good article.

I’ve always considered the slider to be a strikeout pitch. Is there a fan graphs article proving that most closers/strikout pitchers use a slider because it gets a lot of strikeouts?

Jake
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Jake
2 years 1 month ago

The new change up is great, but there are a few signs of obvious regression…
– 82% LOB
– 15.6% SwStr… when Yu Darvish/Anibal/Scherzer/et al led the league in low 12’s% last year.
– 0.33 HR/9… 5.9 % HR/FB

He will get a little help when his .304 BABIP comes back down though…

I think the days of 7.00 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 are over, but his 10.08/1.63 won’t last, 8.00+ and sub 2.3 are possible though, which is a great improvement.

Jake
Guest
Jake
2 years 1 month ago

Though a K/9 > 8.00 and BB/9 < 2.50 is really all you need.
Qualified Starters who met that criteria in 2013
-Kershaw
-Scherzer
-Wainwright
-Harvey
-Felix
-Lee
-Sale
-Hamels
-Bailey
-Teheran

Jason Collette
Member
Member
2 years 1 month ago

Ervin made some mechanical changes over the past 18 months. Something that started in mid-2012 with the Angels and was completed last year with the Royals.

If you take GIF Scrubber (free Chrome plugin) to this animation and this animation, you can see the changes in his delivery. He’s slowed his tempo down, is more centered on the pitching rubber, and now stares down at the ground as he starts his motion before locating his target to throw to. Previously, he’d stare at the catcher’s mitt the entire time and would have his hands above his head while his front leg was off the ground leading to some balance issues.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
2 years 1 month ago

Good stuff.

If only his agent had tweeted “His new stare-at-the-ground technique will blow you away!” he might have gotten a multi-year offer.

Erik
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2 years 1 month ago

These are changes yes, but I’d hardly say they account for his more recent success.

The bottom line is that hitters were sitting on his fastball his last year with the Angels, and they never could hit his slider. The Angels had instructed him to throw less sliders following the sever UCL strain he had after his breakout season.

Last year with the Royals, on a one year deal, and this year as well, he has gone back to throwing more sliders, and now more change ups. The Royals and the Braves, and likely Ervin Santana himself, are far less risk averse now than they were two+ years ago with the Angels.

Ervin’s performance is improved, but I would question his long term health prospects if he is to keep pitching this way. Any mechanical changes are likely circumstantial.

james wilson
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james wilson
2 years 1 month ago

There are some terrific change ups out there, and that isn’t one of them. It does show the great value of a third pitch putting doubt in the hitters mind. Plenty of time to tweak it before hitters are on to him.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin
2 years 1 month ago

Santana has been great, and maybe he actually is a better pitcher than in the past, but as the article points out i’d be extremely skeptical given the quality of his competition.

also, his HR/9 is 1/4 of his career rate, while his strand rate is 10% higher than his career rate.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
2 years 1 month ago

Santana’s pretty much always been an average r bit better pitcher, aside from 2012, so the addition of a something new like a solid third pitch really could push him into the echelons of the really good.

wily mo
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

old erv was already pretty good last year, wasn’t he? are we not going to even mention that?

wily mo
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

(well, i’ve failed to reply in the right place. this was meant to be a general comment down here at the bottom. OH WELL)

pft
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pft
2 years 1 month ago

Never understood why Jiminez got more money than Santana. Santana has been far more consistent, Jiminez had a good 2 months.

Santana did have some inconsistency issues himself but a strong 2014 should put that to rest. Chosing an NL team was wise, his numbers would not looks as good in Toronto.

WAR am I?
Guest
WAR am I?
2 years 1 month ago

I’ve noticed that he is throwing a lot of first pitch strikes and getting ahead of hitters this year. Is that something he has done in the past or is this new?

Without looking at any numbers, it seems the Braves staff as a whole is really being aggressive this year.

Feeding the Abscess
Guest
Feeding the Abscess
2 years 1 month ago

He’s had a first strike rate above 65% in 2008, 2013, and this season. He’s generally been above average in getting first pitch strikes, but not excellent, as he’s been this year.

For what it’s worth, his contact rate of 77% in 2008 and 2013 was lower than the 80-81% it had consistently been in other season. It’s at 69% now.

Rrr
Guest
Rrr
2 years 1 month ago

Pieces like this are why I love this site.

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