Johan Santana waging war on sabermetrics

Johan Santana doesn’t strike out hitters like he used to. Walks more of ’em, too. Judging by his peripherals, Santana is on a steep career decline, cruising toward a collapse into mediocrity. His FIP is a pedestrian 3.54, and is hugely benefited from an unsustainably low HR/FB rate. His xFIP is a weighty 4.65, Kevin Slowey category. He’s losing it, no doubt, or he has already lost it.

Just one issue, really: He’s still getting results. Santana boasts a 2.87 ERA, 10th in the National League. And he’s third in the league in innings pitched. When you only look at what Santana has done in 2010, without trying to use the numbers to extrapolate how he will do moving forward, Santana appears to be one of the best pitchers in the league. Still.

So what’s happening? Well, there are a few places to check when looking for indicators of good luck. Santana’s batting average on balls in play — .275 — is a bit lower than his career .286 rate, but not enough to account for his maintained success despite the drop in peripherals. His strand rate is right around where it has been his whole career, so no dice there either.

The big red flag is Santana’s HR/FB rate which, at 4.3%, is half of where it was last season and well below his career 9% mark. A big reason Santana’s xFIP is so high is because the stat normalizes HR/FB rate. It assumes Santana will allow homers at a rate aligned with the league average, and that pitchers don’t have a whole hell of a lot of control over the distance of the flies they induce.

But I wonder if there’s a relationship between Santana’s decreased strikeout rate and decreased HR/FB rate. Granted, if he’s inducing more weak contact, it’s not showing up in his percentage of line-drives or infield flies, both have which have held more or less steady with his career norms.

Still, Santana’s contact rate jumped from 73.2% in 2007 to 77% in 2008, his first with the Mets. And it has steadily climbed from there.

Is it conceivable that Santana consciously began inducing more contact upon switching to a more pitcher-friendly park, and to a league where a growing pitch count is more likely to get him yanked for a pinch hitter? Is it possible that Santana, with elbow issues affecting the velocity of his fastball, decided to begin approaching hitters differently as he realized he couldn’t blow pitches by them anymore?

I don’t know. I tend to have a lot of faith in the numbers, but I also have a lot of faith in Santana. And while I realize I’m biased in all sorts of ways — first and foremost as a Mets fan — I’m open to the possibility that something besides luck is guiding Santana’s excellence in 2010.

Simply put: I will believe Johan Santana sucks when I see him suck. Until then, I would rather try to figure out why he’s succeeding than dismiss him as fortunate.

7 thoughts on “Johan Santana waging war on sabermetrics

  1. Re: the HR rate, he may just be benefiting from CitiField — which I think is something one can ascribe to talent more often than typically done. He’s only allowed 1 at home (7 on the road) with roughly the same number of PA. His road HR rate may actually be close to his career average.

    For the BABIP, his home BABIP is .284, or basically the same as his career’s.

  2. Can we call this the KRod effect? Or the Igarashi effect? Johan knows he can’t rely on a soul in the pen to get him a W, so he has to conserve pitches, pitch to contact, and figure out a way to pitch 8 or 9 innings.
    Remember, the biggest knock on Santana when he came to the Mets was he didn’t complete games – he was a 6 or 7 and done pitcher. Now, he is third in the league in IP – why? Because he has to.

    Johan is a master of his craft. He finds to get it done. Give the man credit. He has adjusted to a loss of velocity, and also I think to a loss of a reliable pen.

  3. I wonder whether the clutch effect is coming into play. SNY showed a graphic yesterday, and Santana is almost untouchable with runners in scoring position against him. I’m not sure where to find the data, but I’d suggest you take a look at his strand rate, which is where he’ll really be getting “lucky,” compared to most.

  4. Ted-

    Love your work, as always. It is nice, of course, to read the work of someone who is also a fan of the team that he covers — but far more importantly, it’s a pleasure to read someone who in-or-near the mainstream who understands statistics but isn’t beholden to them.

    I hate to link myself, but I think your article hit it right on the head and it reminded me of something I wrote before the season started:

    “However with real life, and baseball is a great example, there are an infinite number of variables which go into numbers such as “contact rate.” Could Santana have been pitching to contact? Could the NL East be loaded disproportionately with contact hitters? Could Citi Field have an excellent batter’s eye?”

    Statistics are helpful, but there are a million things that could be affecting the decline in peripherals. And like you, I will believe Santana sucks when I see him suck.

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