08 July 2004

Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank Ron Gardenhire, I'm Free at Last!

Through most of last season, everybody's favorite ridiculously prolific baseball blogger, Aaron Gleeman, had a sidebar on his website, exhorting Minnesota Twins management to "Free Johan Santana" as well as Bobby Kielty. In response (no, not really) the Twins proceeded to

A) Trade Bobby Kielty to the Toronto Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart, a player almost as good as Kielty, making $6 million, instead of, say, half a mil. At least he's "free" now. And playing for Billy Beane in Oakland, where he's currently hitting .221. I guess Aaron's not always right. Welcome to the club.

2) Allow Santana to start consecutive games on June 7th and 13th, during which he pitched 13 innings, allowing five hits, two walks and and two runs, striking out 14 in winning both starts...so they returned him to the bullpen, where he would languish until July 11th. At this point they made him a starter full-time, and after ironing out some of his wrinkles in July, he pitched an August to remember, and won MLB's Pitcher of the Month Honors for his efforts:

 IP    H  ER  BB  SO  W-L  ERA

42.0 30 5 10 44 5-0 1.07

Santana wasn't quite that good in Spepember of 2003, but he clearly emerged as the Twins' best starting pitcher down the stretch, even to the point that he started Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees. Thankfully and arm injury stopped him, cuz Lord knows the Yanks couldn't.

Well, Santana might have been even better this June, though Mark Mulder actually won that award this time. Frankly, I'm not sure how they justified that:

June 2004

Mulder 46.0 41 14 14 33 4-0 2.74
Santana 37.2 21 10 6 46 4-1 2.39

Well, maybe I can see it. Mulder made one more start than Santana in June, due to the way their schedules happened to fall, and pitched just as well in it as he had in the other five. Santana's first start in June was only OK, so even if Mulder wasn't as dominant as Santana, he was at least as effective, probably more so.

But since his second start in June, Santana has easily been the best pitcher in baseball:

6 47 23 8 5 6 64 5 1 1.53 0.62

Take a look at those numbers again. Less than a hit every other inning. More than ten strikeouts for every walk. Over twelve strikeouts per nine innings. Barely one and a half earned runs per nine innings! And that one loss? An eight-inning, two run, 12-K effort in which the Twins scored only once against Jon Garland and his ruby slippers. Can't really blame that one on Santana, y'know?

It's not as though this has come out of nowhere. As I mentioned, the dude was the AL Pitcher of the Month last August, and he's doing pretty well this year overall: leading the AL in strikeouts (125), 2nd in opponent batting average, 13th overall in ERA and 9th in innings. His lackluster 7-5 record is more an indication of his teammates' inneptitude with their bats when he pitches than his own quality as a pitcher: They've scored a combined total of eight runs in four of his five losses, not exactly picking up his slack.

In any case, he's been damn good for the last month or so. And when I say "damn good" I mean "peak-Sandy Koufax" good. What if you could project Santanas numbers for the last month across the same amount of starts and innings Koufax pitched in 1966, his best and last season? That year, Koufax won 27 games and the Cy Young Award, leading the NL in virtually every imagineable pitching category, and then retired. Well, Santana's been better, at least for this month. A lower ERA, fewer hits AND walks, a lot more strikeouts, and would win more games, again, assuming 41 starts and about 320 innings for the season, which will never happen again, sadly.

But how good was he really? Sure he shut out the Royals on Tuesday night, but so did Brad Radke. And so did Kyle Lohse, with a 4.71 ERA for the season. So did Mark Mulder, who's a great pitcher. So did Zach Day, who's not. So did Jason Johnson and two relievers, who had a combined ERA over 5.00 at the time. So apparnetly it's not that difficult to do, as only Montreal (12 times!) and Seattle (8) have been shut out more often this season.

Speaking of which, it turns out that Montreal was among the teams that Santana faced in the last month. Montreal's got the worst offense in the majors, averaging fewer than 3.4 runs per game. He also faced the New York Mets, ranked #22 out of 30 teams in runs per game, with 4.5, and the Brewers, twice, who score 4.4 runs per game on average, good for 24th place, in addition to Kansas City (4.15 runs/game, #28). The only team Santana faced in that stretch with any kind of decent offense was the White Sox, who rank 4th in MLB with 5.5 runs per game. As I mentioned earlier, they beat him, but only scored two runs in the process.

So how good was Santana really? Well, on average, these teams might have been expected to score about 23 runs in his 47 innings of work over the last month, whereas they actually only scored eight, so Santana saved about 15 runs, even though he did so against mostly pretty terrible offensive teams. I guess that's pretty good after all.

But don't be too surprised if he comes back to earth a little in the next few months. Of the remaining 79 games on the Twins' scheduly, only 12 of them are against teams in the bottom half of the league in run scoring. Fifty seven of those games are against teams in the top ten in the majors in run-scoring (Texas, the Yankees, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and Baltimore), and another ten games are against Anaheim (12th) and Oakland 13th). So the Twins, and Johan Santana, have their work cut out for them.

But hey, at least the man's got his freedom.

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