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.