Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What will become of Santana?

In this tormenting (if not typical) season of ups and downs for the Mets, there has remained one constant: Johan Santana, our ace, our stopper, our prized Cy Young winner. On the surface, this might look like any other season in Johan's superb career. He's one off the league lead in Wins. His ERA is a rock-solid if not unexceptional 3.10. That he once again finds himself in the thick of the Cy Young race is nothing short of a miracle, considering the spare parts that now surround him on the diamond.

But this year has been anything but typical for Johan. In fact, he may be on the decline already at the tender age of 30. Every year since 2005 his walks have increased; he has issued 2.59 free passes per 9 this season, compared to just 1.75 in 2005. Perhaps most alarming is Johan's 1.07 homers allowed per 9 innings, higher than every year except 2007. For comparison, Santana's home run rate is equal to that of the nauseating Livan Hernandez. That 11 of those jacks were hit at the spacious confines of Citi Field is a little bit disconcerting. These stats, combined with his decreased strikeout rate, explain his increased FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of the three factors a pitcher himself can control: home runs, walks, and strikeouts), which has jumped to 3.76, up from his career low 2.80 in 2004. It may be time to put to rest all the theories about bad defense causing Santana's struggles. His inflated BABIP can at least be partially explained by a whopping 12% increase in his fly ball rate.

Santana lives and dies by his change-up. Unfortunately, his change-up lives and dies by his fastball. A drop in velocity on his heater has led to a higher contact rate (78.1% compared to his career line of 73.5%). One of the most frustrating things about Johan this year has been his inability to put batters away. His first pitch strike percentage is right in line with his career average, but his money pitch, the change, has been sub-par by his standards. Usually 20 or more runs above average, the offering is only 4.7 runs above average in 2009. Oddly enough, more batters are swinging at pitches out of the zone against Santana, and making contact at a 61.9% clip when they do (career average: 50.5% contact rate out of the strike zone). Clearly, though still an above-average pitch, the change has lost its bite. Instead of swinging and missing for strike three, batters are taking it for a ball, knocking it foul, or simply smacking it for a hit. This has increased his pitch counts and shortened his outings. Johan has lasted approximately 6.2 innings per start this year, and is still without a single complete game.

There is no question that Johan Santana is still an ace and one of the best pitchers in baseball. However, he is clearly not the stud he was in Minnesota. Should the Wilpons decide the Mets won't be competitive in 2010 (read: they sell the team), they owe it to the franchise and it's loyal (read: masochistic) fans to listen to trade offers, and build towards a 2011 or 2012 World Series. Or more likely, they'll use the free money to give Delgado a 3-year extension.

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