Friday, March 29, 2013

Johan Santana's Series of Unfortunate Events: An Analysis and Career Retrospective

The news broke yesterday that Johan Santana of the Mets had "probably" re-torn his shoulder capsule and will likely miss all of the 2013 season. It likely also signals the end of the 33-year-old's career as a starting pitcher in the major leagues.

The news could not be more devastating for Santana. After first tearing the shoulder capsule (which cushions the glenohumeral joint allowing for the loose range of movement that lets pitchers throw overhand) in September 2010, Johan was out for all of the 2011 season. Now, it appears that he will be out for all of 2013, and certainly will not have his $25,000,000 option picked up by the Mets for the 2014 season.

The incentive to return and attempt to pitch at a high level after sustaining a major injury is likely non-existent for Santana. Including his current contract, he will have made in excess of $160,000,000 as a major league pitcher. While this is an astounding number, it is made all the more impressive by the fact that Santana was an unknown commodity for years before he broke through in the major leagues. In a sense, Johan is Horatio Alger. That is to say, Johan Santana is one of the MLB's best recent rags-to-riches tales.

Johan Santana was a center fielder in Venezuela when Andres Reiner, a scout working in Venezuela for the Houston Astros organization, discovered him. Santana was not signed until 1995, as Reiner was initally uncertain whether to sign him to a contract as an outfielder or as a pitcher.

He never played a game for the Astros, toiling in the minors until December 13, 1999. That day, the Florida Marlins selected Johan with the second pick in the Rule 5 draft, and Houston let him go to Florida. Hours after that, the Marlins traded Johan and $50,000 to the Minnesota Twins for fellow minor-league pitcher Jared Camp (who, ironically enough, was originally a draft choice by the New York Mets in the 11th round of the 1993 draft, but did not sign). Jared Camp would go on to pitch in the minor-league systems of the Indians, Royals, Rangers, and Tigers before calling it a career in 2002 at age 27, having posted a 5.24 ERA across 268 innings at Double-A, and a 6.91 ERA in his brief twenty-seven inning stint in Triple-A ball.

Johan, now a Twin, was sent to the bullpen and debuted as the youngest player in the league in 2000. He bounced between long relief and spot starting for Minnesota in his first two seasons, struggling with a 6.49 ERA in 2000 (86 innings, 30 appearances, five starts, ERA+ of 80), but showing improvement in 2001 with a 4.74 ERA (43 2/3 innings, 15 appearances, four starts, ERA+ of 96).

After spending the first couple months of the 2001 season in the minor leagues developing his change-up, he was recalled and began to show promise, his outstanding change-up now counterbalancing his impressive fastball. He continued to improve in 2002, and by 2004 was one of the AL's most dominant pitchers, leading the league in ERA, ERA+, Ks, K/9, and WHIP while winning 20 games and unanimously taking home the AL Cy Young award.

From 2004 to 2008, there was hardly a better pitcher in the major leagues than Johan Santana. Armed with a lively fastball and that masterful changeup, Santana mowed down the opposition and outperformed the league average for several years running:

2004 - ERA+ of 182 (82% better than league average, led the MLB)
2005 - ERA+ of 155 (best in the AL)
2006 - ERA+ of 162 (led all of MLB)
2007 - ERA+ of 129
2008 - ERA+ of 166
 The Twins, unable to afford the salary demands the pitcher was looking for, dealt Johan to the Mets in 2008 in exchange for what was at the time an enticing package of prospects (Phil Humber, Carlos Gomez and two other minor-leaguers). Unfortunately for Minnesota they got nothing out of the package (though Carlos Gomez has begun to find his niche as a Milwaukee Brewer). When all was said and done, Johan left Minnesota after eight seasons, winning two unanimous Cy Young awards, with a career ERA of 3.22 and 1,381 strikeouts in 1,308 2/3 innings pitched as a Twin.

After receiving a massive six-year, $137,500,000 contract from the Mets, he was expected to anchor a rotation with high hopes coming off of a crushing NLCS defeat in 2006 and then a massive September collapse in 2007 that allowed the Philadelphia Phillies to win the division title. While Santana did not disappoint in 2008 (16-7, league-leading 2.53 ERA, ERA+ of 166, league-high 234 1/3 IP, 206 Ks), the 2008 Mets did. Playing their final season at Shea Stadium, the Mets finished with 83 wins and a second-place finish in the NL East, missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year while being eliminated by the Florida Marlins on the last day of the regular season.

The pitching of the 2008 Mets beyond Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey was atrocious, particularly their bullpen. Aside from their closer, Billy Wagner, the Mets bullpen had one other reliever with an ERA below 3.50; the rest of the bullpen posted ERAs between 3.55 and 13.50, combining for 34 losses and blowing 30 saves. Had it not been for the performance of Santana, it is likely the Mets would have finished a distant third behind Florida in the NL East standings.

2009 marked Santana's thirtieth birthday and his first decline in performance. His ERA rose to 3.13, his innings pitched declined by about seventy innings, and his ERA+ declined 36%. He remained an above-average, if no longer elite, starter. The 2009 Mets were a disaster, losing 92 games and losing both Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran to injuries. Johan was still markedly better than the rest of the Mets' rotation; the remaining starters posted ERAs north of 4.00 (John Maine at 4.43, Pelfrey at 5.03, Tim Redding at 5.10, Livan Hernandez at 5.47, and Oliver Perez with an appalling 6.82 ERA). The team gave up 80+ runs beyond what they scored, and the bullpen, even after the signing of closer Francisco Rodriguez, continued to be a major obstacle in the road back to respectability.

2010 saw Santana first tear his shoulder capsule, causing him to miss all of 2011. Despite this he posted a sub-3.00 ERA in 199 innings for the 2010 Mets, even with his strikeout rate tumbling from 8 to 6.5 per 9 innings.

Coming back in April of 2012, Santana was not expected to become the ace once again. Early on however, he pitched much like one, culminating in his pitching of the first no-hitter in Mets history (8,020 games into the team's history) on June 1st against the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming the first pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1990 to throw a no-hitter against the reigning World Series champions. His performance was masterful, but it may have also been the beginning of his undoing as a starting pitcher in the major leagues.

That night, Santana was in full command of all his pitches, dealing like vintage Johan from 2004 and making most Cardinals hitters look foolish at the plate (with the exception of former Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran, who nearly broke up the no-hitter with a liner down the third-base line that was ruled foul). He finished the night throwing a career-high 134 pitches. Perhaps caught up in the emotion of being the first man to potentially throw a no-hitter as a New York Met, the team's manager, Terry Collins, gave his explanation as to why he allowed Santana to throw such an inordinate number of pitches on the night, rather than preserving Santana's health coming back from shoulder surgery:

"I just couldn't take him out," Collins said.

At this point in time, we can only speculate, but the majority of the available evidence points to the potentiality that it was the night of Santana's no hitter when his shoulder first began to be compromised for a second time. After having spent more than a calendar year rehabilitating his shoulder, he had worked up his arm strength, only to go and push his pitching arm to its limits the night of June 1st, throwing 20-30% more pitches than he was normally prescribed to throw.

After the no-hitter, Santana posted an ERA of 8.27 for the rest of the year, including an eye-popping 15.63 ERA after June 30th. He was shut down early with shoulder fatigue. Then, coming into spring training this year, Santana appeared to be out of pitching shape. This caused a rift between the Mets front office and Johan, who argued that he was working on building up arm strength but was having trouble. Ultimately, an MRI was done to assess whether there was a physical issue impeding the starter from performing well. The Mets team doctor pointed out the re-tear of the shoulder capsule, and the diagnosis was confirmed independently by noted sports orthopedists Dr. Lewis Yocum and Dr. James Andrews. Making matters far worse, as pointed out by Adam Rubin of ESPN, the previous Mets front office headed by Omar Minaya failed to insure Santana's contract, meaning the Wilpon family is on the hook for all $31,000,000 in guaranteed money, with nowhere to offload some of those payments.

In spite of all of this, one could argue that the contract the Mets gave to Santana was worth it, even if though it now means eating $31,000,000 over the next two years, plus an annual payment of $5,000,000 in deferred money with a compound interest rate of 1.25% that is paid to Johan on the 30th of June seven years after each year of his contract (e.g., he will be paid $5,000,000 + 1.25% compound interest for his 2008 season in 2015, and then get $5,000,000 + 1.25% every year until 2021). Yes, the Mets certainly overpaid for his services. However, he also brought much-needed stability to a Mets rotation that struggled mightily for most of the duration of his contract. Were it not for Johan leading the Mets staff, it is likely they would have finished near or at the bottom of the NL East standings for most of the years between 2008 and 2012. During those years, Santana was surrounded by a combination of young, raw pitching prospects, over-the-hill veterans (Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, et cetera), overpaid erratic starters (Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey) and no-name pickups (Tim Redding, Nelson Figueroa, et al).  Moreover, Santana essentially (though unaware at the time) forfeited the remainder of his career and the future health/stability of his right glenohumeral joint to give the Mets their first no hitter in franchise history.

Where this leaves Santana now seems quite evident; it is seemingly a foregone conclusion that we have seen the last of Johan Santana as a competent major-league pitcher, and perhaps the last of Johan Santana as a major league baseball player, period.

As for the New York Mets, this leaves them in much the same situation that they have been in for the past two years. After the Ponzi scheme that sucked much of the Wilpons money out from under them, the team has struggled mightily to stay afloat financially, and this is reflected in their slashing of payroll. This season, about $42,000,000 will be tied up in dead money being payed to Jason Bay and Johan Santana, players who will contribute nothing to the team in 2013 and beyond. That's nearly 50% of the Mets 2013 payroll of $90,000,000, a stunning figure to consider. It also leaves the Mets with a gap in the rotation, as they have stated their intent to not call top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler up early. This means that replacing Johan Santana as a starter for the Mets will be Jeremy Hefner, a right-hander who made his big league debut last season, pitching 93 innings with an ERA north of 5.00 and an ERA+ that was 24% below league average. While Hefner possesses great control, he lacks the stuff necessary to be an above-average starter, which is what the Mets are attempting to replace in Santana.

On the whole, the loss of Johan Santana hurts the Mets, but does little to change their outlook for 2013. They were projected to finish behind Washington, Atlanta, and Philadelphia in the NL East standings, and this will likely remain the case. While they are not a contending team, they are still highly likely to outproduce the Miami Marlins, who have the league's second-lowest payroll and are in a full-scale rebuild, a seemingly annual ritual for the franchise.

If this is indeed the sun setting on Johan Santana's career, he can depart with pride. Coming from out of nowhere, a no-name Rule 5 draft pick turned into a dominant starter over a five year period, and was an above-average starter for seven years. He won two Cy Young awards unanimously, threw a no-hitter, earned one of the largest contracts ever given to a starting pitcher, and was adored by the local and national media during his time in Minnesota. He finishes his career with 139 wins, a .641 winning percentage, 15 complete games, ten shut-outs, a career 3.20 ERA and 136 ERA+, a 3.51 K/BB ratio, and 1,988 strikeouts across 2,025 2/3 innings. He featured what was the best change-up of the mid-to-late 2000s, and made himself a household name because of it. He gave his all to the game, and while he will likely leave without ever having won a World Series title, many a great player has done the same. The man has nothing to prove, and has nothing to be ashamed of or apologetic for. A great career comes a close with a thud, reaching its nadir not long after its apex. Santana will forever have a place in the Hall of the Very Good.

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