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Johan Santana: Nasty as Ever

As Eric Seidman astutely pointed out, baseball fans can become spoiled. Excellence, in some cases, is eventually taken for granted. Call it the Albert Pujols Effect: a guy laps the competition for so long, that we gradually come to view that brilliant player as mundane, boring; been there, done that.

Johan Santana certainly falls into this category. As a Minnesota Twin, the lefty changeup artist was a pitching cyborg. He posted Wins Above Replacement (WAR) totals of 7.7, 7.6, and 7.3 between 2004 and 2006. Santana “declined” to a mere 4.6 and 4.8 over the 2007 and 2008 seasons, which still put him among the best hurlers in the game. However, spoiled by his Bob Gibson-like reign of terror, some fans claimed that Santana was no longer special.

Oops. As it turns out, the 30 year-old is just fine, thanks. In 39.2 innings this season, Santana has punched out a jaw-dropping 54 batters (12.25 K/9), which is the highest rate of his career. His FIP sits at a microscopic 2.03, and he has compiled 1.7 WAR already. That’s tied with Tim Lincecum for the third-highest mark in the majors: only Dan Haren and Zack Greinke have provided more value to this point. How good has Santana been? Consider the following..

– Santana is generating swings on pitches thrown outside the strike zone 31.6% of the time. That’s the highest mark that we have for him dating back to 2002, and is nearly 5 percent higher than his 2008 figure.

– When they aren’t fishing for one off the plate, opposing batters are having plenty of difficulty making contact with pitches over the plate. Santana’s Z-Contact% (the percentage of contact made on pitches in the strike zone) is just 73.8%, compared to the 87.7% MLB average. Again, that’s the lowest mark for Santana dating back to 2002, and it’s the lowest rate among all starting pitchers.

– Santana’s overall Contact% of 68.3 is bested only by Rich Harden‘s 66.1.

– With a 67.1 First-Pitch Strike%, Santana ranks sixth in the majors. He’s getting ahead 0-1 or ending the at-bat after the first pitch at his highest rate since 2005.

It may be fun and refreshing to try and identify the next batch of premium pitching talent, but let’s not forget about the current crop, either. Santana is primed for a huge season, not that his work over the last few years was anything short of superb.