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Johan Santana = Still Really Good

One of my biggest pet peeves involving baseball fandom is how we take the great players for granted and come to expect incredible performances instead of treasuring them. Newer players experiencing similarly solid campaigns or players that come from out of nowhere seem sexier and often cause us to look past the tremendous players that produce at high levels each season. Pitchers like Roy Halladay and Johan Santana have been excellent for quite some time but they lost plenty of spotlight last season thanks to breakout years from Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.

This isn’t to say that Lee nor Lincecum did not deserve their accolades last season but rather that the proven aces who have helped carry their teams for several seasons should not be the Woody tossed aside for the Buzz Lightyear. Last night I wrote about how I cannot stand the “next Cliff Lee” posts and a major contributing factor is that one of the pitchers most likely to post numbers reminiscent of Lee’s last year is Johan Santana, who is still really good.

Many thought he had entered a decline phase in 2007 thanks to a career-worst 3.82 FIP. Once the home run rate is normalized, Santana’s 3.55 xFIP in 2007 was actually very similar to his marks the previous two seasons. When he experienced a sharp dropoff in strikeout and uptick in BB/9 last season, in the more pitcher-friendly senior circuit, those who suggested the decline felt even more confident about their beliefs. An xFIP of 3.83 did not help matters either.

In 2007, Johan produced +4.6 wins. Last season, +4.8 wins. What people are missing when suggesting Santana is overrated is that the worst season in his career as a starter still equaled the well documented efforts of Cole Hamels last season and fell just a bit shy of Derek Lowe‘s very stellar 2008 season.

Santana’s last two seasons have not been of the same ilk as his +7.5 or more win seasons from 2004-06, but his incredibly high level of performance became so consistent that those following the game expected it to occur forever; when he “declined” to around +5 wins he was deemed a disappointment. Comfort levels are bad when it comes to baseball because fans don’t realize how good they have it to be able to watch superstars on a daily or weekly basis.

Through four starts this season, nobody outside of Kansas City has been better than Santana and Johan would have to be the consensus pick to sustain some semblance of the early season scrumtrulescence. In all honesty, I hope Johan continues this hot streak just to silence those who have deemed him terribly overrated or think he had little left in the tank.

CHONE pegged Santana to post a 3.45 FIP in 208 innings this season, numbers that would likely result in around +4.5 wins. Through four starts, he has already amassed approximately one third of that total, racking up +1.3 wins in 25.2 innings of work. He is not going to finish the season with a sub-1.50 FIP or a 0.70 ERA but the way he is throwing the ball right now portends success more closely resembling his 2004-06 dominance.

The bottom line is that Johan Santana is still an incredible pitcher and might very well be the best in the sport. Pitchers should not be expected to produce +7.5 wins in every season of their career and thus should not be considered busts or overrated upon a dropoff to a fantastic win value somewhere between +4.5 and +5 wins.