June 12, 2007


The Art of Deception: Johan Santana throws the trickiest pitch in baseball. Does he have a third Cy Young up his sleeve? (G.R. Anderson Jr., 6/12/07, City Pages)

Baseball is a game of secrecy, and pitching, more than any other position, relies on deception.

Yet Santana's status as one of the game's best players ensures his place in the spotlight. This season, the 28-year-old left-hander is featured in two team commercials. One even plays on his fabled change-up—Santana repeatedly accelerates and brakes an SUV on his way to the ballpark, while passenger and relief pitcher Joe Nathan grows carsick. It may be the first time a specific pitch has been used to promote the prospects of an entire team. But it is, arguably, the best pitch in baseball.

It's not just the home crowd that's rooting for him. Two years ago, when the American League Twins were playing the National League Los Angeles Dodgers in L.A., the line of autograph hounds stretched more than 100 yards.

This was after Santana won the 2004 Cy Young award, the first Venezuelan to do so. Not long after, Sports Illustrated called him "the world's best pitcher." After Santana won another Cy Young last year, a reporter for The Sporting News declared that Santana "is so much better than any pitcher in the A.L. you can write his name on the award for the next five years."

In a statistics-obsessed sport, Santana's numbers best those of any other left-hander in 50 years—better than Koufax, Carlton, or Vida Blue. Aaron Gleeman, who runs a respected sabermetrics website, puts it in perspective in an email: "Santana has a .706 career winning percentage. That leads all active pitchers (ahead of Pedro Martinez) and ranks second in baseball history behind only Spud Chandler (who pitched for the Yankees 60 years ago)."

Even Santana's rivals speak admiringly of his arm. C.C. Sabathia, the Cleveland Indians star pitcher—and one of Santana's competitors for the Cy Young award this year—isn't afraid to bow down. "He's the top," Sabathia says. Present company excluded? "No, he's better," Sabathia confesses, a rare moment of real humility from a professional athlete.

That's heady praise for a player who five years ago was an unknown commodity. Raised in a remote town in the Andes Mountains, Santana was plucked from obscurity. But through what Twins general manager Terry Ryan calls "coachability," Santana transformed himself into one of baseball's best pitchers.

Teammates and fans call him "Yo-Yo," not only a play on his first name, but also an apt description of his pitching arsenal: Sometimes it seems as if he has the ball on a string, manipulating its flight long after it has left his hand. He's unhittable because he's unknowable, and that's just the way he likes it.

There was a great bit on Baseball Prospectus the other day, Johan Santana (Joe Sheehan)
Earlier Monday, there was a box in the upper right of the MLB page with a picture of Johan Santana and the following copy: “…Santana picked up his fifth loss of the season…Sunday. Can he turn things around like he has in years past?”

The point, expanded upon in Diamond Daily in a Web companion to “Baseball Tonight,” made it seem as if Santana was struggling like his fellow Venezuelan on the North Side of Chicago. While Santana has a win-loss record of 6-5, a look at virtually any other number is in stat line shows quite clearly that he doesn’t have anything to turn around. Santana’s ERA of 3.30 is 13th in the AL, he leads the league in strikeouts and he is in the top ten in a number of categories. Santana is fifth in the AL in VORP for pitchers, ninth in SNLVAR. Hell, if you’re so into wins and losses, notice that he’s fifth in the league in wins.

Johan Santana isn’t struggling by any rational, reasonable standard. He isn’t struggling by most irrational standards. He’s been one of the seven or eight best starters in the league, the ace of his team’s rotation. He’s yet to be removed in the middle of an inning. He’s yet to allow a stolen base. Those five “losses”? He averaged 6 2/3 innings with an ERA of 4.09 and a K/BB of 38/9. That’s in his losses. Santana’s flyball rate is up this year, and his home-run rate with it, which is the primary reason why his ERA is 3.30 and not much lower. That’s the only nick in his record, and it’s left him as “only” one of the top pitchers in the league.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2007 9:53 PM
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