The season’s barely a month old and as far as statistical analysis goes, well, it’s still too early to draw any significant conclusions, particularly among pitchers where only two starters – Felix Hernandez and Bartolo Colon – have reached the 40-inning mark and David Phelps leads the baseball in relief innings with 17.2. But placing that little note aside for a moment, I do have to admit I wonder if we’re witnessing a renaissance of sorts by New York Mets left-hander Johan Santana, whose career seemed to be tailing off.
It wasn’t too long ago that Santana was one of the game’s preeminent players, averaging over 7.5 fWAR during a three-year period (2004 – 2006), followed up by back-to-back seasons of nearly five-win production. Since then, however, Santana’s production has declined as he’s posted the two least productive seasons (100+ innings) of his entire career (2.6 and 3.5 fWAR. He’s also been hampered by injury after injury, most notably surgery to repair a tear in his anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder which cost him all of 2011.
But five starts and 24 innings into 2012, Santana’s averaging 10.88 K/9, the second best mark in baseball, trailing only Anibal Sanchez. Look, I know it’s a small sample size, 24 innings, but it also represents the best strikeout rate over a five-game span that he’s had since May 6to May 27 of 2009. There was a 40-start span between them.
Now people may be quick to point out that thus far his fastball is averaging just 88 MPH, a far cry from the mid 90s he would regularly touch during his prime. But, truthfully, I’m not that concerned about it.
Santana’s bread-and-butter has always been his plus-changeup, which he shows with tremendous arm action. And at its peak, the change would be about 11 to 12 MPH slower than his fastball. The separation’s declined a bit, to 10MPH but it’s still a pretty significant difference, the same difference he showed during 2007, a 4.6 fWAR season in which he struck out over one batter per inning.
This isn’t to suggest that he’s destined to post fantastic numbers solely based on this because, well, his fastball is now 3 MPH slower. But it does, lead me to believe that as long as his fastball doesn’t decline any further he should be fine. If it does, however, I worry that a mid 80s heater with a mid 70s changeup, albeit a fantastic one, won’t be enough to get the job done consistently.
As far as the rest of his peripherals go, he’s generating a similar amount of percentage of pitches swung outside of the zone as his career mark (25.1% vs. 27.5%), as well as contact outside the zone (56.7% vs. 53.4%), and contact inside the zone (81.9% vs. 81.3%). The percentage of pitches swung and missed at, 10.6%, is down a little bit from his career norm (12.9%), but his command (4.13 BB/9) is clearly still rebounding as expected from a longtime away and that number should improve as he finds the edges of the zone more consistently. His fastball velocity, I suspect, may even add a tick or two the further he removes himself from the surgery too.
I don’t want to make too much out of a five-game span. But it does bode well for a player who’s coming off of one of the more serious shoulder surgeries around. If he can hold up the entire season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he posted a K-rate above 8 per nine innings to go along with 4.0 to 4.5 fWAR total, a far cry from his peak but it’s also good enough to put him in the top 25 or so pitchers in baseball.
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