The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim couldn’t have asked for Hector Santiago’s first season with the club to begin much worse. He’d had a good spring, with a 3.63 ERA and a 24:9 K/BB, but he opened 0-6 with a 5.19 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 4.7 BB/9 and 1.56 HR/9 in seven starts (34 2/3 innings). The Halos moved him into the bullpen a couple of days after his May 7 start, against the Yankees. He’d made two relief appearances, eight days between them, before the club optioned him to Triple-A Salt Lake.
The moves may be for the best. Mike Scioscia acknowledged that his team has been putting the left-hander in a tough position. Although the skipper almost certainly didn’t mean to implicate Santiago’s teammates, it’s clear that the rest of this heavenly cast hasn’t helped him much, start by start. Jose Serrano looked into how so a couple of weeks ago at Halo Hangout. Basically, the Angels have played poor defense, and they did so particularly on nights when Santiago pitched. They gave him abominable run support.
It may be more complex than that, but I think that’s a good place to start. Santiago has yielded 26 runs, only 20 of them earned. The Angels have yielded 12 runs on error this season, and the southpaw has been charged with six of them. Yet the team is in the top 10 in fewest errors committed as a team, first in defensive value and third in defensive efficiency (Baseball Prospectus). It kind of seems like Santiago’s new teammates have treated him as if he’s the proverbial new kid at school.
The Angels could have chosen one of their more efficient starters – any of them, really – to do this way. None of the team’s starters entering 2014 had a worse career walk rate than Santiago’s 11.4%. The long ball appears to have been a problem for him in the majors, even if it wasn’t in the minors. That lifetime fly-ball rate of 44.0% says to watch out, and it didn’t help that he spent his first few years in MLB’s most notorious bandbox, U.S. Cellular Field.
There was reason for optimism because of Santiago’s move to the West Coast, obviously. Angel Stadium isn’t the Cell’s polar opposite, but it’s close enough – a huge upgrade. Same goes for the change in potential of the defense that’d play behind him and the offense that’d support him. Naturally, none of those things has turned out in the 26-year-old’s favor in 2014.
Two of the three he can’t control – other than the two throwing errors he’s made, of course. That’s twice as many errors as he committed in his more than 225 frames prior to them. But Santiago has done a poor job of souvenir prevention. Heck, it’s disturbing that his hit rate isn’t remotely inflated; even with some corrections elsewhere, things don’t seem likely to swing by a lot because of the “luck factor,” too. It might be easy to infer that a significant portion of the poor results are the fault of a lesser-skilled Santiago.
But I don’t think that’s true. Certainly, he must be accountable for some of those bad outcomes, but it’s clear that a disproportionate amount of the Angels’ ill play has come in games Santiago has started. Although batted balls against him have ended up as flies 52.2% of the time this year, 20.3% of them have been infield flies, an increasing strength of his. His HR/FB is still a league-average-like 10.2. His walk rate is on par with expectations.
Just as well, his strikeout rate (18.8% from 20.9%) and K/9 (7.5 from 8.3) aren’t significantly reduced, but his swinging-strike rate (5.6% from 8.3%) has dipped noticeably. Plate discipline against him, then, has greatly improved. Santiago’s chase rate is down from 27.5% to 20.2%, a major drop compared to his career norm as well. Same goes for contact rate against (80.1% to 85.6%).
I think this is likely a case in which the Halos have put a tremendously unbalanced amount of undue stress on a pitcher, and it just so happens that they did so to the pitcher who can least afford for those things to happen. A couple of innings have really gotten away from Santiago, and I mean really gotten away from him. Just check out the impact of the first inning of his last start. Two walks, two errors (one his own) and a wild pitch don’t need much help to result in significant damage. The Bronx Bombers made him pay a little, too, and only a caught stealing ended the stanza mercifully.
There don’t appear to be any alarming signs in Santiago’s numbers, besides a few extreme cases that correlate with a lot of runs. He’s faced 4.5 batters per frame as a starter, up by more than a tenth of a batter, and the stressful innings have been in close proximity. He’s had a couple of efficient outings in which results just haven’t gone his way, either. His velocity is fine, other than a huge dip in his final start, and the only other outing of his in which it was down notably, on April 20, also saw him give up a couple of unearned runs. Fatigue sets in, the ball has no speed or bite, it’s up, and he gets hammered. It’s just a bad recipe.
Is Santiago going to come back from the minors and win a Cy Young Award? No. Is he significantly better pitcher, at least for fantasy purposes, than what he’s shown the Angels? Of course. A semblance of the team behind him that he expected, and a cooler head, should help. He’d continue to pitch well out of the bullpen, if the Angels would let him. But the fact that they sent him down suggests that it may not be long before the organization is open to the idea that he’ll rejoin the rotation. He’ll remain stretched out in the minors, where it’s also easier for him to get his confidence back.
Where does this outlook play? Really nowhere outside AL-only leagues, about the only places in which fantasy owners should be holding Santiago. It’s obviously a hard sell for mixed-league owners to hold or to stash given the results to this point and that he’s basically a fringe option there to begin with. Plus, Matt Shoemaker has forgotten who he is for at least a couple of starts. The Anaheim baseball club will probably be willing to see how long they can ride that wave.
But Santiago will have another shot, inevitably. The same mixed-league owners who were willing to draft him in the preseason should be willing to pick him back up without many reservations, then. The strikeout upside remains. The environment remains. The quality team around him remains. A few good starts on the farm later, this could still turn out to be a nice rotisserie season for Santiago. Those who didn’t drop him but will pick him to record whatever positive regression he’s due should enjoy it most.
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