Assessing the Johan

Last night, Johan Santana threw his third consecutive start in which he walked more batters than he struck out. He had never thrown two in a row before his effort against the Padres on Thursday.

For the season, Santana is striking out only 5.8 batters per nine innings, far below his career 9.0 rate. He is walking more batters than he has in any season since 2002, when he was still a wild 23-year-old. And for the first time in Santana’s career, the average velocity of his fastball has dipped below 90 mph.

None of that is good. To stat nerds like me, he appears a textbook case to regress: A pitcher who has been lucky to post a 3.13 ERA on the season, and who will inevitably soon allow more home runs per fly ball and a higher batting average on balls in play and end up with a line closer to his 3.81 FIP or his 4.70 xFIP.

And if Johan Santana was Kevin Millwood or Ramon Ortiz or someone I’d be saying just that. But Johan Santana is not some run of the mill innings eater. Johan Santana is a two-time Cy Young Award winner only a few years removed from being the most dominant pitcher in baseball. So I’m open to considering other possibilities, and searching for tangible reasons why he might be outperforming his peripherals.

Looking more closely at Santana’s Fangraphs page, it’s difficult to sort through what could be noise and the products of the still-small sample size for 2010. Plus it’s important to remember that Santana is coming off elbow surgery and has always been better in the second half.

Here’s something interesting I noticed, though: Over the past few years, Santana has been steadily yielding more contact that he ever did in Minnesota, though not much more contact on pitches inside the strike zone. His rate of contact induced on pitches outside of the zone has gone from around 51% in his last three seasons with the Twins to 59.8% in 2008, 62.5% in 2009, and 73.8% this season.

Santana’s throwing about as many pitches outside the zone as he always has, opposing batters are just hitting them more often. That could indicate that he’s lost some movement on his pitches, especially since he’s inducing fewer swinging strikes than ever before, but it could also explain some of the stat-belying success. Maybe Santana is more effectively inducing weak contact than ever before, relying more on popups and lazy flies than strikeouts.

Or maybe I’m grasping at straws. I’m a Mets fan, after all, and a Santana fan in particular.

But if someone’s going to do that — if some pitcher could figure out how to rely on weak contact and, despite a lackluster K:BB ratio and an unexceptional groundball rate, maintain an excellent ERA — wouldn’t it stand to reason that it’d be a brilliant pitcher like Santana?

He put a ton of mileage on his arm in Minnesota, and he’s a 31-year-old pitcher now with a history of elbow surgeries and an average fastball.

The decrease in strikeouts and uptick in walks are bad, no doubt, and hardly bode well for the remaining three years on his contract. But he’s still Johan Santana, and as long as the results are there, that has to count for something. I have faith in the predictive power of statistics, but I might have even more faith in Santana’s awesomeness.

6 thoughts on “Assessing the Johan

  1. I think sometimes we put too much stock in the predictive power of statistics. We’ll look at a guy’s peripherals and say, “Well, he’s due to regress and will therefore have a sub-par second half.” Perhaps. But perhaps the guy’s “luck” won’t run out, and that excessively high strand rate or excessively low (for pitchers) BABIP will remain steady. Sure, the peripherals tell us that so-and-so has been lucky or unlucky, but they don’t necessarily guarantee future results.

    Long story short, Santana may be a good enough pitcher to survive a decline in his velocity and K-rate. Sure it would be better if his fastball was still in the low-to-mid 90s and he was striking out a batter per inning. All things being equal, you’d prefer the guy who makes batters miss the ball. But not every pitcher needs to be overpowering to be successful, and I remain cautiously optimistic that Santana can continue to be a dominant pitcher even without his best stuff. We’ll see.

  2. If his fastball does not improve over the course of the season (as it did in 08 when he was dominant from June on and deserved the cy young), he will undoubtedly regress.

    I am not optimistic that he will continue to pitch to a 3.13 ERA with his current stuff, but I am cautiously optimistic that we haven’t yet seen his best stuff this season.

  3. most of us knew that we were getting the regressing version of Johan when we traded for him (not sure if Omar did… but thats besides the point).

    It makes sense that in the ballpark the mets play in, and what is normally (save last year) a very good D behind him… along with declining MPH on his fastball he would “learn” how to pitch to contact. He is no dummy, and I am sure recognizes his declining skills much more then we do. A normal to even good pitcher may not be able to make the adjustments, but a great pitcher like Johan can.

    I may be wrong, but this reminds me of Pedro and Smoltz. Both of whom threw hard and as their careers came to an end, they started to pitch more and was able to maintain for a few more years as a very good pitcher.

    If Pelf can keep it up and take over as a #1 pitcher, Johan can move down in the rotation and be one of the best #2’s in the league.

    • I don’t necessarily disagree with your premise that Johan can adopt and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his fastball gain some velocity in the second half, but he is a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/change- up) unlike Pedro and Smoltz, who had far better better breaking stuff. And Pedro was still consistently in the 90’s until he went on the DL in 06.

  4. I think the biggest thing for Johan is he needs to work in that third pitch more often, needs the show me slider to keep guys thinking, he is still working fastball to changeup, that and he really has not had the dipsy-do change working yet this year, the bugs bunny one that looks like he just threw a wiffle ball.

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