How Johan Santana Succeeds as a Fly Ball Pitcher

As we looked at yesterday with John Lannan, inducing ground balls is a great way to overcome other flaws in a pitcher’s repertoire. Lannan’s ERA stands nearly a run below his career FIP because of his high ground ball rate. Similarly, Joel Piniero had his best season in at least six years, and he achieved much of his success via an astounding 60.5% ground ball rate.

Johan Santana, on the other hand, is a pitcher who has no problems striking batters out. Although he has slipped some in recent years, his career K/9 stands at 9.12, meaning he strikes out over a batter per inning on average. He doesn’t struggle with walks either, giving up almost a whole walk less than average, both in recent years and in his career.

However, Santana does not excel in inducing ground balls. His 35.7% ground ball rate last season ranked sixth in the major leagues. Clearly, Santana is a great pitcher, as his 3.38 career FIP, 3.60 career tRA, and 42.4 WAR in the win value era (second only to Roy Halladay) suggest. This begs the question – if inducing ground balls is so essential to pitcher success with guys like Lannan and Piniero, how come it doesn’t seem to affect Santana?

Of course, as mentioned above, Santana’s basic peripherals are incredible. With the amount of outs that Santana gets via the strikeout, his batted ball profile has a much lower impact than with a guy like Lannan (3.9 K/9) or Piniero (4.4 K/9). Also, with a low walk total, the impact of hits on balls in play is lower due to having fewer runners on base for those hits.

The fact that Santana’s peripherals make him a good pitcher isn’t terribly interesting to us here. That’s the crux of the DIPS theory behind FIP. However, tRA, based on batted balls, doesn’t see an issue with Santana due to low GB% as it does with players like Ted Lilly (34.5% GB, 5.12 tRA, 4.45 FIP) or especially Aaron Harang (38.0% GB, 4.98 tRA, 4.10 FIP)

Here, we see two major things come into play. First is line drive rate. As we hit upon with Lannan yesterday, the NL BABIP on line drives is .718. Giving up line drives is an almost sure way to give up hits. Santana, despite the fact that he doesn’t give up many ground balls, has a career line drive rate that is nearly average. Aaron Harang, on the other hand, has a career LD% over 2% above the average – significant for a statistic that has a range under 9% for a single season.

Also, Santana’s infield fly rate is one of the highest in the league. His 16.4% rate led the majors by 1.5%, and his 13.3% career rate is in the top 10 since 2002, the beginning of our batted ball data. The league BABIP on infield flies is miniscule. After a strikeout, the next best way to insure an out is to induce an infield fly. Santana has repeatedly been above average in this statistic since 2002. As a result, the true problem with fly balls – their penchant to turn into home runs – is minimized by this ability to induce weak contact on balls in the air. As such, Santana’s career HR/FB is below average, and has effectively cancelled out the sheer number of fly balls he gives up, resulting in an average HR/9.

With the amount of HRs and line drives Santana gives up limited, and the amount of essentially automatic outs he induces via the infield fly, Santana’s low amount of ground balls has no impact on his incredible peripherals, making him still one of the best pitchers in the game today.

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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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Kudos Jack.