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.