Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Rise And Fall of Johan Santana

How the mighty have fallen.  Johan Santana, whose bounceback campaign hit an unexpected high on June 1 when he threw the franchise's first no-hitter, has not only come back to Earth, but he's done it in a way no one could see coming.

Through his first 11 starts of the season, which ended with the hitless gem, the southpaw was vintage Santana, going 3-2 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 68 Ks in 68 innings.  He was also holding opposing hitters to a .200 batting average, .262 on-base percentage and .306 slugging percentage (4 HR allowed in 68 IP).  Santana was also on the mound deep into games, pitching into the seventh inning in six of his 11 starts.  If there was one complaint about Santana's starts, it wasn't about Johan himself.  It was about the lack of run support he was receiving, hence why he only had three wins in his first 11 starts.

But since his Herculean 134-pitch effort on June's first night, Santana has been very hittable.  Over his last eight starts, Santana has gone 3-5 with a whopping 6.54 ERA, 1.64 WHIP and 37 Ks in 42⅔ innings.  Opposing batters have hit .305 against the struggling starter, reaching base at a .363 clip, while slugging a mind-boggling .575.  Santana has also allowed 11 HR in those 42⅔ innings, an average of more than one homer every four innings.  (Prior to the no-hitter, he had allowed a home run every 17 innings.)  Furthermore, he has not been very durable, pitching into the seventh inning only once in his last eight starts.

So what has gone wrong with the Mets' co-ace?  Does he have a dead arm after not pitching at all in 2011?  Did Terry Collins' decision to allow him to go for the no-hitter despite the high pitch count backfire on him?  A simple look at some other numbers will tell us exactly what's wrong with Santana.

During his first 11 starts, Santana was getting hitters to swing and miss at his assortment of fastballs and change-ups.  Santana threw 1,056 pitches through June 1.  Opposing batters swung through 129 of them.  That's 12.2% of his pitches that generated a failed swing attempt.  Since June 1, Santana has thrown 748 pitches.  Only 86 of those drew a swing that made no contact.  That's 11.4% of his total pitches.

In addition, Santana also threw a lot of called strikes before his return to mediocrity.  A total of 302 of his 1,056 pitches during his first 11 starts were either looked at or swung through by opposing hitters (28.6%).  That number has fallen to 27.2% since June 1, as batters have taken a strike or failed to make contact with 204 of his last 748 pitches. 

What does this all mean?  It means that batters are making more contact with Santana's pitches.  More contact means a better chance for a hit.  And boy, are opposing hitters getting more hits off the Mets' lefty.  Some of it can be attributed to luck (.259 BABIP through June 1 as opposed to a .328 BABIP since the no-hitter), but still, if a batter is kept off-balance at the plate, the pitcher will always have a distinct advantage.  Santana has not been keeping anyone off-balance over the past month and a half.

It's not just that opposing hitters are making more contact with Santana's pitches.  It's where they're hitting them.  Through June 1, Santana had recorded 204 outs, of which 116 came from fly balls.  That's 56.9% of his outs coming via the air.  Since the no-hitter, Santana has recorded 128 outs.  How many of those were hit in the air?  How about 90?  That's right.  Exactly 90 of his 128 outs have been recorded on fly balls.  That's over 70%, a marked increase over his pre-no-hitter fly ball rate.

Of course, the more balls hit in the air, the more balls land in the seats.  And Santana's pitches have been finding the outfield seats with an alarming regularity these days (11 HR in eight starts since June 1, as opposed to 4 HR in 11 starts before that date).

The Johan Santana story is just as compelling as the one being written by R.A. Dickey.  Both pitchers were not expected to do much this year, with Dickey coming off an 8-13 campaign and Santana coming off a year-long hiatus.  But both had an amazing run to start the season.  However, despite a few bangs and bruises here are there, Dickey has still managed to keep his team in ballgames and has not lost a game since April 18.  The same can't be said for Santana.

The book on Johan Santana has not been closed yet for 2012, but perhaps it's time to put the book down for a rest.  No one expected more than 30 starts from the ace this season, but he hasn't missed any yet.  Santana has made 19 starts this season.  No one in the National League has more than 20.  Maybe it's time for him to skip a start in the rotation.  It would afford him the opportunity to rest for 10 days in the hopes that a refreshed arm will help the team alive in its push for a wild card spot.

Johan Santana is a wonderful team player.  He would do anything to help his team win.  But right now, the team isn't winning when he's on the mound.  A team player doesn't just help his on the field.  Sometimes he has to come off it to help them.  It's time for Johan Santana to take a break.  His arm and the team would benefit greatly from the extended rest. 

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