Angels right-hander Ervin Santana entered the 2009 season with plenty of helium. In 2008, Santana bumped his fastball velocity to a career-high 94.4 MPH, with his wicked slider also popping the mitt harder than ever before at 84 MPH.
Santana was thoroughly dominant in ’08, whiffing 8.79 hitters per nine innings, while issuing only 1.93 BB/9. That combination of force and finesse led to a 3.30 FIP, which ranked 4th among A.L. starters.
Santana’s season wasn’t fluky. Sure, the fly-ball slanted starter gave up a homer on 8.9% of his fly balls, a rate that we would expect to regress more toward the 11-12% MLB average. But Ervin garnered plenty of outside swings, with a pared-down contact rate and an excellent first-pitch strike percentage.
His Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP, based on a pitcher’s K’s, BB’s and a normalized HR/FB rate) was 3.64. That also ranked 4th in the A.L. Any way you cut it, Ervin was among the top starters in the Junior Circuit.
Looking to lock up the talented righty before his salary exploded in arbitration, the Angels inked Santana to a 4-year, $30M extension prior to the 2009 season. The contract also included a $13M club option for 2013.
Just when it looked as though Santana would settle in as one of the better arms in the A.L., injuries took their toll. Ervin had a sprained ulnar collateral ligament. The sprain was not considered severe enough for Tommy John surgery to be the best course of action, so Santana took the rest and rehabilitation route.
Santana took the mound for the first time in 2009 on May 14th. He would make six starts before heading back to the DL, this time with a triceps injury.
He returned in July, and would go on to post a 5.03 ERA in 139.2 frames. Santana’s K rate dipped to 6.89. While his walk rate remained decent (3.03 BB/9), Ervin’s gopher-itis returned. He served up 1.55 HR/9. Santana’s 12.8 HR/FB% was perhaps a little high, but not obscenely so. Rather, the soon-to-be 27 year-old just gave up a ton of fly balls: his FB% was 42, one of the 20 highest rates among starters.
Santana’s XFIP climbed to 4.77. His BABIP (.320) was rather high, but Ervin clearly wasn’t the same fire-breathing starter. His percentage of contact within the strike zone was 91.2%, two percentage points above his career average and well above the 87.8% MLB average.
His slider remained nasty (+1.92 runs/100 pitches), but Santana’s fastball was thumped. The pitch has been a bit below-average during his career (-0.27 runs/100), but in 2009 it was shredded for -1.39 runs/100. Among starters tossing 130+ IP, Santana had the fifth-worst heater on a per-pitch basis.
Santana’s fastball took a roller coaster ride in 2009. The pitch gained velocity as the year progressed, with run values all over the map:
Santana’s fastball, by month
May: 90.7 MPH, -4.28 runs/100
June: 91.2 MPH, +1.11 runs/100
July: 92.2 MPH, -2.48 runs/100
Aug: 92.3 MPH, -0.16 runs/100
Sept/Oct: 93.3 MPH, -0.16 runs/100
His vaunted slider also gained a few ticks during the year, though the pitch remained effective all season:
Santana’s slider, by month
May: 81.1 MPH, +1.98 runs/100
June: 81.4 MPH, +3.99 runs/100
July: 82.3 MPH, +1.57 runs/100
Aug: 82 MPH +1.74 runs/100
Sept/Oct: 83.3 MPH, +1.96 runs/100
Santana’s increased fastball zip and performance offer some hope heading into the 2010 season. By the end of the year, Ervin’s fastball looked more like the ’08 version, as opposed to a batting practice pitch that hitters couldn’t wait to beat into submission.
Watch Santana’s health closely as spring training approaches. He’s unlikely to reach the heights of 2008, but he could be a bargain if his elbow problems are in the rearview mirror.