Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Super Santana

Some trends in baseball just can't be explained. How come some teams play better in their alternate uniforms? Why is that some pitchers are far more successful on the road than at home, even if that home park isn't considered a hitter's park? Why do the White Sox collapse after in the last two months of EVERY SINGLE season? And why has Johan Santana been so incredibly dominant post-break in each of the last few years?

After he won the AL Cy Young award last year, making him the first Twin since Frank Viola to bring the coveted award to Minnesota, fans were expecting big things out of Johan this year. 20+ wins? 300 strikeouts? A sub-2 ERA? It all seemed possible considering how untouchable the guy was for the second half of last season and in the playoffs. He simply could not be beaten, almost literally. For the first couple months of this season, Johan looked disappointingly human. He wasn't terrible by any means, but he was being victimized by big innings and control problems. Hitters seemed to be reading his changeup. Rumors of pitches being tipped and nagging injuries flooded the Internet and media. Some began to think that maybe Johan Santana's Cy Young second half of 2004 was a fluke, and the Twins had perhaps made a big mistake in handing him a 4 year, $40 million dollar deal in the off-season. Then, suddenly, something clicked.

On July 6, Santana got shelled by the Angels for 6 runs on 9 hits over 6.1 innings, taking his fifth loss of the year. His record stood at at 7-5, and while he led the league in strikeouts, his ERA was a far-from-elite 3.98. Since that game, Johan has gone 6-1. And those wins haven't been against crappy teams either, they've been against the division-leading Angels, the offensively respectable Tigers, the Bronx Bombers, the(extremely hot at the time) Athletics, and the team with the AL's best record, the White Sox (twice). While his performance over this entire stretch has been great, and has seen his ERA drop over eight tenths of a run, it's been his last three starts where he's really been unbelievable. In those three games (at Oakland, at Chicago, and then last night at home against Chicago), Santana is 3-0, with 25.1 innings pitched, 12 hits allowed, one run allowed, 26 strikeouts, and only 3 walks. His ERA has dropped from 3.68 to 3.22.

So why the drastic turnaround? Does it simply take Johan a few months of the season to gain total command of his arsenal? Well, there are a few things to look at. Perhaps the most telling statistic is his groundball to fly ball ratio. When Santana is getting people to ground out, he's good, but when he's getting people to pop out, he's great. In each of the months of April, June, and July, Santana got more outs by groundball than by fly ball. His ERAs in those months, respectively, were 3.55, 3.93, and 3.45; good, but not extraordinary. In August, there has been a dramatic turnaround, as his GB/FB ratio has been 35/52. His ERA this month is 1.41.

If the Twins make the playoffs, it will be on the broad shoulders of Johan Santana. His chances at capturing a second consecutive Cy Young trophy are perhaps better than one would think. Mark Buehrle, generally considered to be the front-runner for the award right now, is 13-6 with a 3.07 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, 109 K, and an OBA of .260. Santana's numbers pretty much dwarf his, at 13-6, 3.22 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 189 K, and an OBA of .220. Plus, Santana is much hotter than Buehrle, who had a 5.01 ERA in July and has a 3.71 ERA in August. Another guy who's in the mix for the award is Bartolo Colon, who has three more wins than Johan, but his ERA, WHIP, and OBA are all considerably higher and Colon has over 60 fewer strikeouts. With Roy Halladay out for likely the rest of the season, Santana actually has a very good chance to win another Cy Young. Especially if he carries the Twins to the post-season.