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.
— Jay Alou (@JAloujr) December 23, 2013
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?
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:
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:
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:
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:
Votto thought about it, but ultimately he pulled a Votto, so Santana wound up in another one of those 1-and-1 counts. Thus:
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:
Votto was even later on the high fastball, but he stayed alive. So then Santana went to a familiar tactic:
Nothing doing, but now Votto had seen two changeups, two sliders and a two-strike fastball. Santana finished him off with a perfect changeup:
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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