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The Other Ace Named Santana

While I’m quite sure that we are all familiar with the $137.5 million dollar man in Queens, there is yet another pitcher with the Santana surname who just turned in one of the best seasons of any starter in the game in 2008. Ervin Santana, long noted for his power fastball/slider combo, emerged as one of the more valuable properties in the American League.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic as an undrafted free agent in 2000, Santana made his major league debut in 2005. He would post a 4.43 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA) in 133.2 IP that season, with 6.67 K/9 and 3.16 BB/9. A flyball pitcher (36.6 GB%), he was occasionally bit by the home run bug, with 1.14 HR/9.

Santana’s 2006 line would look largely the same in terms of his peripherals, as he struck out 6.22 batters per nine innings and issued 3.09 BB/9. His FIP ERA lowered slightly, down to 4.29. Though he remained a flyball-oriented hurler (38.4 GB%), Santana had better luck in the home run department. His 0.93 HR/9 was largely the product of a low 7.7 HR/FB%.

After two solid campaigns, Santana seemed primed to build upon his success and establish a new level of performance. Instead, he got his head handed to him: in 150 IP, Santana posted a ghastly 5.76 ERA. Some of that was the product of a very high BABIP (.333) and a low strand rate (67.3 LOB%), and he did manage to up his K rate to 7.56. However, his walk rate increased (3.48 BB/9) and he was crushed by the long ball, surrendering 1.56 HR/9. His HR/FB rate (11.9%) was not especially out of whack; he just gave up a ton of flyballs. Santana’s 35.6 GB% was the 8th-lowest among starters tossing at least 140 innings. With the higher walk rate and the homer-happy style, Santana’s FIP ERA climbed to 5.13.

Over his first three seasons in the big leagues, Santana utilized a four pitch mix: a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup.

Santana’s Pitch Selection, 2005-2007:

(FB=fastball, SL=Slider, CT=Cutter, CB=Curveball, CH=Changeup, SF= Split Finger XX= unidentified. The first number is the % that the pitch was thrown, the number in parentheses is the velocity)

2005: FB 61.7% (93.4), SL 21.7% (81), CB 6.3% (78), CH 10% (84.2), SF 0.3% (86.7)
2006: FB 60.9% (93.1), SL 21% (80.9), CB 8.5% (78.1), CH 9.6% (82.1)
2007: FB 61.9% (92.2), SL 24% (81), CB 8.7% (77.1), CH 5.5% (83.1)

Santana seemed to make an effort to incorporate all four pitches into his arsenal, though his changeup seemed to be waning in favor. He lost nearly a mile an hour off of his fastball in 2007, which would help explain his home run issues. Santana is a guy who likes to challenge hitters up in the zone with his four-seam fastball. One MPH might not seem like much, but it could mean all the difference in the world to a hitter’s reaction time.

In 2008, Santana returned with a simpler pitching approach. He basically scrapped the curve and used his change even less, instead choosing to rely upon his nasty slider:

Santana’s Pitch Selection, 2008:

FB 61.4% (94.4), SL 33.9% (83.9), CB 0.8% (78.1), CH 3.9% (85.8)

Santana’s fastball velocity bounced back to a career-high 94.4 MPH, and he increased his slider usage by about 10 percent. With improved heat and a harder, oft-utilized slider (the slider nearly gained 3 MPH), Santana drastically improved his performance this past season. He upped his WPA/LI from -1.85 to 3.08, almost a five-win swing. Santana’s strikeout rate jumped to 8.79 and he walked just 1.93 batters per nine innings. His HR/FB% was low at 8.9%, so his 0.95 HR/9 figures to creep up somewhat, but his FIP ERA was an outstanding 3.30. That figure ranked 5th among all American League starters. He also managed to correct his cartoonish home/road splits, though it’s debatable how much of that was just statistical “noise” from 2005-2007. Angel Stadium suppresses home run production, but no pitcher should have that wide of a split between home and road performance. Given Santana’s talent, there’s no reason to expect any wide split going forward.

There are plenty of other positive indicators as well. Santana got ahead of hitters much more consistently in 2008, upping his First-Pitch Strike Percentage (F-Strike%) from 59.9% in 2007 to 66.7% in ’08. Among all major league starters, only the incredibly precise Mike Mussina (67.6%) got ahead of batters with more frequency. Hitters also went fishing outside of the strike zone far more often this past season. Santana’s O-Swing% increased from 26.3% in 2007 to 31.7% in 2008. Only Jake Peavy and CC Sabathia garnered more undisciplined swings from batters. Santana’s Contact% also dipped by a solid margin, from 83.3% in ’07 to 77.1% in ’08. That 2008 figure ranked 11th among all starters, just slightly behind that other Santana guy.

Just about every performance indicator for Ervin Santana is trending up. Unleashing mid-90’s heat and a hellacious mid-80’s slider, Santana has increased his strikeouts, slashed his walk rate, is getting ahead of hitters and is becoming increasingly harder to hit. What’s not to like? 2008 was no outlier: Santana is here to stay as one of the best starters in the game.