Johan Santana vs Cliff Lee

I’m going to be perfectly honest: I typically stay away from Johan Santana. I’ve only drafted Johan once in my life, and then I flipped him for Brandon Webb and Michael Young, and dominated my league. Another disclaimer – I’m a Mariners fan, so I’m in love with Cliff Lee at this point, as I’m sure many Phillies fans were last season.

This year, Johan and Lee have some extra intrigue surrounding each of them, and are being drafted relatively close to each other. Johan is coming off September elbow surgery, and Lee is in a new (old) league again with a new squad. Johan is currently the seventh pitcher off the board (41), with Lee being the ninth pitcher being drafted (51). But should Lee be going before Santana?

Johan has posted two nice seasons since going to New York. In 2008 he pitched a career high 234.1 innings, won 16 games and had an ERA of 2.53. I would call that a more than superb fantasy season, but a 1.15 WHIP and 7.91 K/9 dropped him down a bit. Last season, before his injury woes, Santana pitched 166.2 innings, won 13 games and had an ERA of 3.13. Once again, however, a 7.88 K/9 and 1.21 WHIP made that season less valuable. I find it strange that no one is talking about Johan’s drop in strikeout rate since he entered the NL. From 2002-2007, he never struck out less than a batter an inning, and now he is doing so consistently. CHONE projects his strikeout rate to be at 8.11, with fan and Marcel projects hovering around the same mark. But what proof do we have that his strikeout rate should rise back towards his career average (even if it is only a slight bump)?

Lee has been fabulous since his return to the bigs late in 2007. In ’08 he posted a 2.54 ERA (3.57 xFIP) and struck out 170 batters in 223 innings. Splitting time with the Indians and Phillies in ’09, Lee struck out 181 batters in 231.2 innings, earning himself a 3.22 ERA (3.69 xFIP). Looking at his 2009 as a whole, his strikeout rate was an improvement from 2008, but in reality it may not have been. His strikeout rate in the AL was worse than 2008, coming in at 6.34 per nine. The defense behind him and the spacious Safeco field will only help his ERA and WHIP next year, and Fans may have it right by projecting a 1.06 WHIP and 3.16 ERA.

Doing a quick comparison, which starter would you rather have? The pitcher that’s coming off surgery and has Jason Bay as their left fielder, or the pitcher with an outstanding defense and ballpark around him? I’d rather have Lee, but that’s not to say he’s being drafted too low. I think switching him and Santana in the draft order would be best, but in the end Santana just needs to move down below Lee on draft day.




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Zach is the creator and co-author of RotoGraphs' Roto Riteup series, and RotoGraphs' second-longest tenured writer. You can follow him on twitter.


55 Responses to “Johan Santana vs Cliff Lee”

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  1. Not a Mets fan says:

    True Johan’s H/9, BB/9 and WHIP have gone up 5 years in a row. However, before Lee went to Philly, he was pretty average in 09.

    22 Starts
    7-9
    3.14 ERA
    1.30 WHIP
    6.3 K/9
    9.8 H/9
    2.0 BB/9

    The walk rate was still outstanding, but its not like Johan is walking the park with a 2.5 BB/9 in 09 . Lee cant touch Johan’s hit rate though ( Lee is always around a hit per inning ). Lets say Johan continues his downward trend of increased h/9 + bb/9 while his K/9 drops slightly ( 7.9 in both years since coming to the Mets ). We would have something along the lines of.

    3.25 ERA ( would be his 2nd worst year since becoming a full time starter )
    1.25 WHIP ( would be his worst WHIP since becoming a full time starter )
    210 IP ( before being shut down last year, would be his lowest IP since becoming a full time starter )
    180 K ( 7.7 K/9 would be his worst K/9 since becoming a full time starter )

    Thats pretty much a floor for Johan. Remember, his surgery was performed over the summer and it was just bone chip removal. Id rather take a shot on Johan besting those numbers above since he’s been a stud his entire career. I cant say the same about Lee who’s had a roller coaster ride over his career. I think Johan’s floor is Lee’s ceiling. No way he K’s that many guys and the ERA and WHIP should be about where he finishes ( Lee is a career 3.97 ERA and 1.30 WHIP ). As far as “outstanding ballpark around him”..last I checked, Citi field is even more of a pitchers park than Safeco, so you can hardly claim that is an advantage for Lee. Both guys are 30, push. Johan pitches in the NL, while Lee goes back to the AL, advantage Johan. Johan was shut down early in 09 while Lee pitched in the WS, advantage Johan. I think the only advantages you can list for Lee are his defense, which IS outstanding; that he’s in a contract year and that he’s going to be the #2 instead of the ace. I think its safe to say that Lee’s 08 was a career year, ( 2.54 ERA – 1.11 WHIP ) Johan has had those type of years several times. Is Lee the safer pick? Probably, but Johan still has much more upside. If both are at their best, Johan is a clear cut fantasy #1, Lee is more of a #2. Still great, but you need to separate your M’s love from fantasy.

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    • SteveM says:

      Well, I AM a Mets fan, but I agree 100% with you, NAMF. As you said, Johan’s floor is Lee’s ceiling. I would also point out that the Mets’ defense, once Beltran returns, figures to be much improved from last year with Reyes back at ss… assuming they manage to stay healthy.

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      • Matt B. says:

        I disagree Johan’s floor is Lee’s ceiling. His Cy Young year (Lee) was an amazing year and his time with the Phillies (reg and playoffs) was as good as it gets – outside of K’s. I think Lee has just as good of a chance to be a dominating force in 2010 as Johan, all things factored in.

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    • joeIQ says:

      It’s not the park as much as defense. With or without Beltran, The Mariners have a tremendous defense and is leagues better than the mets.

      Look at Seattles team UZR last year. It is suggested it could be the best defense of all time.

      I also really like Boston’s defense for next year, but that’s another story.

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  2. I’d go with Johan but an ADP of 41 versus 51 is a difference without significance.

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    • Fresh Hops says:

      I disagree. If you really want Johan, you will need to draft him in the 4th round. Lee may be available in the 5th, depending on when you draft and the players in your league. I go for position players until round 5 unless Lincecum is on the board in round 3, so Lee is the more interesting guy to think about to me.

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  3. The A Team says:

    Johan hasn’t been the guy people pretend he is since 2006. Right now he’s somewhere in the top 10-15 of pitchers and if you’re in a keeper league he should drop down to around 20. Santana is one of those guys to avoid altogether in auction drafts because his reputation far outclasses his production. This year I’ll pay attention to him only because elbow concerns might keep his cost down around where it should be.

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    • Winson says:

      People said similar things about Roy Halladay a few years ago after coming off shoulder injuries. His Ks were also non-existant. Then he learned to refine his skills with growing age. I wouldn’t count Santana out just yet.

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      • opisgod says:

        1. Wasn’t a strikeout pitcher to begin with.
        2. Santana was declining before the injury.
        3. K’s were fine in 2005 last i checked.
        4. Broken leg=/=arm injury.

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    • joeIQ says:

      The difference is Halladay developed his K rate while Johan’s is going away.

      Also, I wouldn’t compare any other pitcher to Halladay.

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  4. wobatus says:

    Johan was a stud second half of 2008 and for first 2 months of 2009. Then he was injured. He was injured well before he was finally shut down. Look at his k rate in April and May in 2009. 86 Ks in 66 innings. After that his k rate dropped a lot, likely because he was pitching through the elbow pain that eventually led to the surgery.

    Seemingly another in a string of Mets who were told to or allowed to play when maybe they shouldn’t have. Church, Santana, Reyes, Beltran. Niese (ok, that was just a warm-up pitch).

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  5. jlong says:

    After everything u said, it can still be assumed that Johan will still have a better K/9 rate than Lee, Johan will probably have a lower ERA, but Lee should have the lower WHIP. Assuming we don’t predict wins then it seems like Johan should definitely be going ahead of Lee. Lee may be a better value 10 picks later but he certainly is not a straight up better pitcher than Johan.

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  6. MDS says:

    i wouldnt touch johan til the 80-90 pick range. Lee gets the slight edge, but Johan will likely have more wins and ks. Lees WHIP/ERA will drop with a good defense and spacious ball park and Johan is on a downward trend. 1.25 WHIP is the best youre gonna get. look at his BABIP, its an obvious trend. 5 years running. Lee is also overrated at 51, but i have him 1 spot in front of johan

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  7. DonCoburleone says:

    Both of these guys are too high up for me to draft. I never take a pitcher sooner than about round 6. And in round 6, there are plenty of guys who could match/beat either of these 2. Guys I love who are going 80th overall or later: Beckett, Hamels, Peavy, Cain, Wandy, Jimenez, Webb, Baker. All of these guys are being taken somewhere between pick 80 and 130 and all have potential to put up ACE numbers… Past ADP of 130 are a bunch of good values too: Burnett, Garza, Weaver, Danks, Oswalt, Floyd, Price and of course my favorite band-aid boy (pitching division) Rich Harden.

    Last year I didn’t take a pitcher until Round 7, or the “2nd Tier” for starters and I ended up with Felix Hernandez and Josh Johnson – yeah that worked out pretty well.

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  8. Alex says:

    Lee’s Cy Young year? He wasn’t even the best pitcher in the AL that year. Halladay was, no question. Lee won the Cy Young solely on W-L. Yes he went 22-3 with a lower ERA (about 0.25), but he had more support and a much easier schedule than Doc (5 times vs. Royals in weak AL Central for Lee compared to 5 times vs. Yankees for Doc). Lee should put up #1 starter (notice I did not say “ace”) numbers with the M’s, but to say he is a Cy-Young pithcer is ridiculous. He didn’t even deserve that Cy that he won.

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    • Matt B. says:

      No argument here, I just couldn’t remember the season (2008?) so I referred to his Cy Young year. Roy was clearly the best pitcher that year (in the AL East to boot), from a wounded Jays fan!

      Lee was pretty amazing too though.

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  9. Alex says:

    That was @MattB btw.

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  10. Ewan says:

    Johan’s first 9 starts of ’09 – 60 IP, 75 K, 14 BB, 1.50 ERA, 1.05 WHIP – Elite.

    May 27th start vs the Nats – 6 BB, first time since 2002 that he walked more than 4 batters (so red flags should have gone up right away).

    Next 15 starts – 100.2 IP, 60 K, 26 BB, 4.02 ERA, 1.29 WHIP – Not so much.

    I would say the shoulder issues probably started some time around that May 27th start, and while he tried to pitch through it, he ultimately succumbed to surgery.

    The problem I have with Cliff Lee is that all it takes is a little bad luck on balls in play and a few extra flyballs to go over the fence and he’s James Shields 2009. Very similar K & BB rates and Shields also had a great defensive team behind him last year.

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    • wobatus says:

      Ewan, I remember that start well and the walks (may have been one where he walked the opposing pitcher, which he did a few times last year I seem to recall). Right around then I thought maybe he is hurt (and there was spring training talk about an injury, then some Rick Peterson rumor about back pain or something-all haze I have tried to forget).
      But yeah, he was absolutely dominant until he seemed to have gotten hurt, well before they shut him down as was later admitted.

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  11. Matt says:

    Sad. I’ve read every single article on this site for the last year and a half. This is easily the worst article I’ve ever read on the site. No basis or support for what he’s saying.

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  12. R M says:

    The Jason Bay comment, really? Say Bay plays 1200 innings in the OF and puts up -15 RAR, a very pessimistic estimate. Say Johan pitches 200 innings. That’s 2.5 more runs given up. That’s really going to kill Santana’s season.

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  13. MDB says:

    Much higher upside with Johan.

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  14. Chris says:

    Mr. Sanders, you are a moron…

    A) since coming to the NL??? He’s had ONE full year since coming to the NL, and he won 16 games (should have been like 22), 2.53 ERA, and 206 K’s. Cy Young if the bullpen wasn’t terrible. If you call that dropping off then ok. His K’s went down that ONE year and Cliff Lee still didn’t touch him. I’m not really sure you can classify it as K’s dropping off when you K 200. 200 K’s is 200 K’s…..and as far as this year goes he was obviously hurting. and he STILL won one game less than Lee in nine less starts. With a 3.13 ERA. That’s a two pitcher’s numbers with half a dozen less starts and a bum elbow.

    B) He had the same exact surgery at the end of ’03 and won 20 games in ’04.

    so in conclusion, Johan is the man and is going too late in the draft in my opinion, and you are an idiot.

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  15. Chris says:

    “I find it strange that no one is talking about Johan’s drop in strikeout rate since he entered the NL.”

    no one is talking about it because it DOESN’T EXIST.

    man this absurd article got me so heated I had to keep going.

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    • shibboleth says:

      Not sure where you’re getting your facts?

      Santana’s K9 from 02-07 was never lower than 9.25. Since joining the Mets its been 7.91 and 7.88.

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      • Chris says:

        let’s review what you just said, “since joining the Mets”. he has been on the Mets ONE FULL YEAR. let me repeat myself, ONE FULL YEAR. one year of 206 K’s is a drop-off now? do me a favor and look at his K rate in April and May of ’09 before he started hurting, and get back to me…wait i’ll save you the time…86 K’s in 66 innings.

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      • R M says:

        It was well over 9 K/9 before his injury in 2009. The drop really looks to have been a one-year fluke.

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      • Chris says:

        yeah dude that’s what I’m sayin….but everybody is retarded.

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  16. Mike says:

    Both of these guys are overrated.

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  17. shibboleth says:

    These are two polarizing players. For forecasting purposes I think this year will be a wash. Both are at the bottom half of the ‘Ace’ tier and both have a chance at becoming dominant again.

    Feel free to take either based on their upside in the 4th round. I’ll be waiting to see if either falls to the 5th or 6th.

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  18. Andrew says:

    A) Johan probably would’ve won the CYA in 2008 if the Mets had had a league average bullpen.

    B) Even if Jason Bay posts a -20 UZR that will only add around a tenth of a run to Johan’s ERA assuming 200 IP. Regardless, the few Red Sox games I watched where Beckett and Lester got rocked had nothing to do with Bay. He will also have a better CF to his left who can make up for his range.

    C) ESPN has Citifield and Safeco about equal on ESPN park factors.

    D) The NL East parks are on the whole pretty run-suppressing. 3/5 of the parks are in the bottom half for park factors. Also the Mets play the Nationals 18 times.

    E) The Mariners were the lowest scoring team in the AL and the 3rd lowest in MLB. They got even worse offensively and I don’t think projecting them to score 600 runs is that unreasonable. Lee is not getting that many wins, period.

    Santana will be fine next year and 17 Wins, 3.2 ERA, 170Ks, and a 1.12 WHIP is what you can reasonably expect from him. I can’t see the terrible Mariners offense giving Lee more than 14 wins, 3.4 ERA, 160 Ks, and a 1.2 WHIP. Keep in mind that when Lee posted the 1.11 WHIP he was playing in the best pitcher’s park in the AL and facing the Royals five times.

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    • R M says:

      I think your projection on Santana, at least strikeouts wise, is too low.

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      • Chris says:

        i agree. he’s never finished a full season under 200 K’s. i don’t know what makes you think he would now.

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    • Andrew says:

      In 2009 and 2008 he had 7.9 K/9. I was just assuming that rate going forward and 200 IP. In 2008 he had 234 IP and finished with 206 Ks. If you don’t expect him to throw that many innings over 200 (which is pretty reasonable) then 180Ks makes sense.

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      • Chris says:

        when he had the same surgery in ’03, he threw 228 innings and struck out 265 in ’04. in ’09 his K rate was 11.72 before he started hurting in May. lemme give you that one more ‘gain. 11.72…..it’s called a fluke year (’08). Jeter hit .292 in ’04. does that mean he was on the decline? Wright only had 10 hr’s and 72 RBI last year. uh oh, i guess that means his best years are behind him.

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    • Andrew says:

      He posted almost identical K rates in 08 and 09.

      That’s a sample size of 400 innings, or two full seasons for most pitchers. Sorry, I don’t believe in two season long flukes. Also where did you hear he started hurting in May?

      The HR/RBI/BA comparisons with hitters don’t make much sense since those stats are context dependent.

      Here is a simpler explanation for his declining K rather than “just a fluke”: Before 07 he never used his slider, which was as much as 12.7 runs above average in 2006, less then 16% of the time. In 2007 he used it 11.6% of the time (and led the AL in HRs allowed), 2008 11.7%, and 2009 9.4%.

      This was the reason the Yankees and Red Sox stayed away from him and probably has something to do with his elbow problems.

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  19. Chris says:

    didn’t hear it but it doesnt take a genius. let’s see May he K’d 42 and gave up 9 earned runs. June he K’d 18 and let up 25….you do the math.

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  20. Matt Mosher says:

    Johan is not the Johan of old. Still, I’d have to think he’s one round ahead of Lee when you factor in the league differences. But it’s caveat emptor….I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Santana had Tommy John this summer.

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  21. Chris says:

    where’s the evidence he’s not the Johan of old? because he only struck out 206 in ’08?

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    • Matt B. says:

      3 straight seasons declining K/9, BB/9, K/BB, BAA, xFIP, slider effectiveness (wSL/C).

      What, you thought he was improving?

      Solid pitcher, but come on, pitchers don’t normally improve (or reverse some of the downtrending) at age 31.

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    • BGriffih says:

      Santana’s WAR between 2004 and 2006: 7.7, 7.6, 7.3
      Santana’s WAR between 2007 and 2009: 4.6, 4.8, 2.8

      Maybe he’ll rebound this year, but I think it’s safe to say he isn’t the Santana of old.

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  22. Matt Mosher says:

    Look at the metrics Chris. It’s self-explanatory. He’s not missing as many bats and he’s walking more.

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  23. Chris says:

    where is this information coming from that he’s not missing as many bats….besides after May of last year which doesn’t count because he was hurt, when has he not missed bats?

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    • Andrew says:

      Are you being intentionally thick or something? His last 400 innings have seen a huge decline in strikeout rate compared to when he left the AL. This can all be traced to the fact that he stopped throwing his nasty slider.

      Was he hurt in 2008 when he posted AN IDENTICAL K/9 RATE as his 2009 season?

      You have no idea what you are talking about, have given zero evidence, and made some ridiculous claims (e.g. he had a bad month and therefore he was injured). His 09 numbers were pretty good but otherwise unchanged. If the Mets hadn’t been out of it by July he would’ve finished the season.

      I can only assume you’re a huge Mets homer who keeps downvoting all my replies.

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      • Chris says:

        k well neither one of us is gonna be right until september so i’ll talk to you after he owns the league.

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      • Andrew says:

        What are you talking about.

        First of all, I said I would take Johan over Lee and I wrote a long post abut that.

        Second, we’re not having not a debate about the future but about basic facts that occurred in the past. If you think Johan’s K rate has been the same with the Mets as it was with the Twins take it up with the Elias Sports Bureau not me.

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      • Andrew says:

        What are you talking about.

        First of all, I said I would take Johan over Lee and I wrote a long post abut that.

        Second, we’re not having not a debate about the future but about basic facts that occurred in the past. If you think Johan’s K rate has been the same with the Mets as it was with the Twins take it up with the Elias Sports Bureau not me. Everyone else in the thread and I are right about this and you are wrong.

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      • Chris says:

        all I said was one full healthy year of ONLY striking out 206 hitters cannot be classified as a drop-off, and last year can’t be counted because of health. april and may his strike out rate was over 11. after the start in washington when he walked six, which he’s never done in his life, it was down hill from there. so no, one year of 206 k’s does not mean that a pitcher is declining.

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  24. Stocktopus says:

    Anyone who thinks Santana is in decline and doesn’t have the high k/9 stuff in him anymore needs to look at the first two months of last year. In his first 10 starts (out of 25 total), he had a 1.77 ERA and struck out 86 in 66 innings (11.7 K/9). After that, he had a clear drop-off starting in June, which just so happens to be when the rumors started surfacing about him playing through an injury. That streak at the beginning proves, to me at least, that he still has it in him. It’s just a matter of keeping it going over the full season and staying healthy. If he can do that, I think he’s much better than Lee. And since all pitching is unreliable, I’ll take the one with the higher upside. Besides, if this is Santana’s floor, then there’s not much risk.

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  25. Phil says:

    Yes, all pitching is somewhat unreliable but to varying degrees. Cliff Lee is, by far, the safer 5th round pick.

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  26. joeIQ says:

    The Sea defense will cost Lee K also. So better ERA and whip, worse K. Lack of offense might give Johan a W edge.

    I’d take Cliff Lee easily over Johan, but I’m not huge fans of either, and would pass on both. I’d take Beckett, Josh Johnson, and others first, or pass on big names and look for bargains.

    My biggest knock on Lee over the last 2 years is that he has been exceptionally lucky on HR/FB. Knock #2 is his 4100 pitches in 2010.

    I’d say Lee is probably about where he should be in the ADP(maybe a little to high), Johan wildly overrated and yes should be after Lee.

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  27. Rudy Gamble says:

    Thoughts on Johan:
    http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=755&position=P#pitchtype

    Fastball – down 2-3 MPH from 2006.
    Slider – throwing it much less (16 to 9%) and less effective (it’s been slightly below average for 2008-2009)
    Changeup – Huge decrease in value from 2008 to 2009 (23.7 runs above average to 2.9 runs above average.) Perhaps the loss in fastball MPH is having an effect?

    Contact Rate – Is going up particularly on balls in the strike zone.

    It seems to me that Johan can still put up ace numbers but it’s doubtful he’ll ever return to his arguable ‘fantasy mvp’ years of 2004-2006.

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  28. Rudy Gamble says:

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, Razzball Point Shares (using CHONE data) is projecting Cliff Lee to be more valuable for fantasy baseball in 2010 than Johan Santana with Johan’s only advantage being in K’s:

    http://razzball.com/2010-fantasy-baseball-rankings/2010-razzball-projected-point-shares-12-team-chone/

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