You Don’t Mess With The Johan

After reading the title you’re probably saying one (or both) of two following things:

  1. “Wow Max that is a terribly unoriginal title. Delete your blog.”
  2. “Why are you telling us about Johan Santana? Didn’t he retire like five years ago?”

I can’t speak much to the first point because the article title is extremely unoriginal. As for the second point, several sources have reported that Johan Santana will pitch in the Venezuelan Winter League in an attempt to get a 2017 MLB contract. Santana is 37 years old and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2012, but he has been under contract each of the past two seasons in some capacity by MLB teams (minor league contract with the O’s in 2014 and the Jays in 2015).

A bit of an aside, but I just wanted to ask Johan a personal question: did you seriously think going to the Orioles would help you? Camden is a hitter’s wonderland and we all know how bad the Orioles are at developing pitchers (*cough cough* Jake Arrieta). That’s one cherry-picked example, but the Orioles haven’t had an all-star starting pitcher since Mike Mussina in 1994. Seriously. Baltimore is not the place you want to be if you’re a starting pitcher. The odds are not in your favor in Charm City.

Back to Johan. Whether or not he can stay healthy enough to make a return to the majors remains to be seen (his last four seasons have ended in injury) but his prior career dominance indicates that he is more than qualified to get a minor league contract with an invite to spring training.

Santana’s career began in Venezuela, his home country, where he was discovered by a Houston Astros scout. Similar to future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, Santana started as a position player, though Santana was an outfielder and Rivera a shortstop. He was reluctantly converted to a pitcher in Venezuela and, after three more years, came to the United States in 1997.

Santana started at the lowest rung on the minor league ladder: the Gulf Coast League, a short-season instructional rookie league. He pitched in the minors for three seasons (1997-1999), only getting as high as full-season A. The Astros elected to leave him off their 40-man roster in the 1999 offseason which made him eligible to be drafted by another team in the Rule 5 draft. Santana was selected by the Florida Marlins in the 1999 Rule 5 draft and subsequently traded to the Minnesota Twins.

You can read more about the Rule 5 draft here, but the main idea is that players drafted need to be kept in the majors all year by the team that drafted them (disabled list counts as being in the majors) or else they are required to be offered back to their former team. Recent examples of players who have gotten sent back to their former team after getting selected in the Rule 5 draft include OF Ender Inciarte (Phillies returned him to D-Backs in 2012), SP Logan Verrett (Orioles returned him to Mets in 2015),  and RP Daniel Stumpf (Phillies returned him to Royals in 2016).

Hindsight is obviously 20/20 but the Astros ended up with the best played in that draft by miles. At the time, though, Santana didn’t seem like such a wise selection; in his first season with the Twins he pitched to a 6.49 ERA and 1.81 WHIP with only 6.70 K/9 in 86.0 innings pitched as a long reliever. Santana improved marginally in 2001, pitching to a 4.74 and 1.51 WHIP, but the Twins were still not satisfied with his progress, so they optioned him to AAA for two months to begin the 2002 season. He returned to the majors leagues and had immediate success (2.99 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 11.38 K/9). He had spent his career as a long reliever but this changed in 2003 when the Twins opted to give him a spot in the starting rotation. Santana moved to the starting rotation permanently on July 11, 2003 and pitched well for a first time starter, boasting a 3.22 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 8.97 K/9 from that point until the end of the 2003 season. He pitched so well in 2003 that a little-known prospect in the Los Angeles Angels system also named Johan Santana decided to change his first name in order to avoid being confused with the blossoming star Johan Santana. He chose the name Ervin. For those of you that don’t know Ervin Santana, he now pitches in the bigs and has spent the past 12 seasons in the majors for the Angels, Royals, Braves and Twins.

2004 marked the beginning of Santana’s reign of dominance and his true breakout. He went on to lead the MLB in ERA in three out of the next five seasons (2004, 2006, 2008) and added two Cy Young awards to his mantle (2004, 2006). He also led the majors in strikeouts, WHIP, and hits allowed per nine innings in each season from 2004 to 2006. From 2004 to 2008 he led all starting pitchers in WAR, innings pitched, strikeouts (he had 179 more Ks than the second-best K pitcher, Jake Peavy), WHIP, SIERA (a sabermetric ERA estimator, read more here) and K-BB% (strikeout percentage minus walk percentage). He was also in the top 5 in K%, K/BB (strikeout to walk ratio), BAA (batting average against), FIP (another sabermetric ERA estimator, read more about it here), xFIP (a sabermetric stat similar to FIP, more here), LOB% (percentage of runners left on base) and games started. In short, he was pretty freaking good.

Santana’s peak performance ended after 2008 but he didn’t pitch poorly after being traded to the Mets in 2009. In his time with the Mets in 2009 and 2010 he had a 3.05 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 7.1 K/9 in 365.2 innings. He didn’t pitch in 2011 due to injury but he returned in 2012. In 2012 he threw a no-hitter, his only career no-no to date and the Mets’ first (and only) no-hitter in their history.

Santana has since fizzled out (he hasn’t appeared in a major league game since August 17, 2012) but if he can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, I don’t forsee him having any trouble changing that fact. I’d love to see him rejoin the Mets but that’s probably unlikely given their depth at pitcher and likeliness to avoid injury-prone pitchers in the future. If I had to guess, I would say Santana goes to a pitching-starved rebuilding team like Athletics, Angels or Reds. I doubt any team will give him more than a minor league contract with an invite to spring training, but I would love to see Johan prove me wrong with a stellar performance in the Venezuelan Winter League. The best case scenario for Johan is likely getting signed to a one-year deal this season, pitching better than expected and then perhaps securing a two or three year deal the following season. Whatever ends up happening I would like to be able to see this former ace on the mound one more time, and I’m sure he would like to see himself there too.

(Image credit: Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press via New York Times)

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