Johan Santana = Still Really Good

One of my biggest pet peeves involving baseball fandom is how we take the great players for granted and come to expect incredible performances instead of treasuring them. Newer players experiencing similarly solid campaigns or players that come from out of nowhere seem sexier and often cause us to look past the tremendous players that produce at high levels each season. Pitchers like Roy Halladay and Johan Santana have been excellent for quite some time but they lost plenty of spotlight last season thanks to breakout years from Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.

This isn’t to say that Lee nor Lincecum did not deserve their accolades last season but rather that the proven aces who have helped carry their teams for several seasons should not be the Woody tossed aside for the Buzz Lightyear. Last night I wrote about how I cannot stand the “next Cliff Lee” posts and a major contributing factor is that one of the pitchers most likely to post numbers reminiscent of Lee’s last year is Johan Santana, who is still really good.

Many thought he had entered a decline phase in 2007 thanks to a career-worst 3.82 FIP. Once the home run rate is normalized, Santana’s 3.55 xFIP in 2007 was actually very similar to his marks the previous two seasons. When he experienced a sharp dropoff in strikeout and uptick in BB/9 last season, in the more pitcher-friendly senior circuit, those who suggested the decline felt even more confident about their beliefs. An xFIP of 3.83 did not help matters either.

In 2007, Johan produced +4.6 wins. Last season, +4.8 wins. What people are missing when suggesting Santana is overrated is that the worst season in his career as a starter still equaled the well documented efforts of Cole Hamels last season and fell just a bit shy of Derek Lowe‘s very stellar 2008 season.

Santana’s last two seasons have not been of the same ilk as his +7.5 or more win seasons from 2004-06, but his incredibly high level of performance became so consistent that those following the game expected it to occur forever; when he “declined” to around +5 wins he was deemed a disappointment. Comfort levels are bad when it comes to baseball because fans don’t realize how good they have it to be able to watch superstars on a daily or weekly basis.

Through four starts this season, nobody outside of Kansas City has been better than Santana and Johan would have to be the consensus pick to sustain some semblance of the early season scrumtrulescence. In all honesty, I hope Johan continues this hot streak just to silence those who have deemed him terribly overrated or think he had little left in the tank.

CHONE pegged Santana to post a 3.45 FIP in 208 innings this season, numbers that would likely result in around +4.5 wins. Through four starts, he has already amassed approximately one third of that total, racking up +1.3 wins in 25.2 innings of work. He is not going to finish the season with a sub-1.50 FIP or a 0.70 ERA but the way he is throwing the ball right now portends success more closely resembling his 2004-06 dominance.

The bottom line is that Johan Santana is still an incredible pitcher and might very well be the best in the sport. Pitchers should not be expected to produce +7.5 wins in every season of their career and thus should not be considered busts or overrated upon a dropoff to a fantastic win value somewhere between +4.5 and +5 wins.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

7 Responses to “Johan Santana = Still Really Good”

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  1. David A says:

    Amen to this. He seems to have much more movement on his pitches this year (just look at the PitchFX data) particularly his changeup which has just been devastating. I was ecstatic to get him for ONLY $35 in my NL-only auction league when pitchers like Lincecum, Webb, and Peavy were going for not much less. I think he is going to dominate the NL this year much like he dominated the AL between 2004 and 2006.

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    • don says:

      Santana may well pick up more wins because he’s pitching in front of a much better lineup, but Lincecum is sporting a 1.85 FIP and 13K/9 rate despite a couple of much-ballyhooed bad starts to start the year. Both are benefiting from very low HR/FB rates at the moment, which is a bit of an unknown because neither Lincecum nor Citi Field have been around long enough to know for sure what to expect there.

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  2. lester bangs says:

    One of my pet peeves in baseball analysis is when a writer decides to “blow the lid off” something obvious, like, oh, I don’t know, Johan Santana being really frickin’ good. What’s the matter, you didn’t want to expose Albert Pujols today?

    Am higher, please. Tell us something we *might not* know.

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  3. lester bangs says:

    One of my pet peeves in baseball analysis is when a writer decides to “blow the lid off” something obvious, like, oh, I don’t know, Johan Santana being really frickin’ good. What’s the matter, you didn’t want to expose Albert Pujols today?

    Aim higher, please. Tell us something we *might not* know.

    -23 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. KG says:

    While I agree it’s not likely he will end up as good as he is now, remember when people were predicting absolute dominance upon his switch to the NL? Perhaps after a year of adjustments, that dominance will finally come.

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  5. rwperu34 says:

    Here’s his RAR/9 as a starter since 2002;

    2002-2.52
    2003-2.27
    2004-2.90
    2005-2.75
    2006-2.70
    2007-1.89
    2008-1.73
    Car-2.42

    Three years ending;
    2004-2.67
    2005-2.72
    2006-2.76
    2007-2.46
    2008-2.11

    My hypothesis for the drop in 2007-2008 is that he was injured during that time but he’s such a freakish athlete he was able to be one of the best in the game where others would have gone to the DL. The rest of 2009 will certainly be interesting.

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