By Michael Beller
May 14, 2013
Through seven games this season, Ervin Santana has held a 2.79 ERA with 39 strikeouts and six walks.
Charlie Riedel/AP

Many baseball observers were skeptical of the Royals' offseason approach, trading super-prospect Wil Myers for James Shields and throwing tons of money at Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie in an attempt to compete for the playoffs right now. Back in March when we were working feverishly on our season previews, I called the Myers-for-Shields trade part of "a quixotic run at the Tigers." Well, the Royals are competing and, at 18-16, are just 1.5 games behind Detroit in the AL Central. Their pitching has been the driver of their success, as they have allowed the fourth-fewest runs in the majors.

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While Shields is leading the staff, Santana is a big part of the reason the Royals have played so well this year. Most of baseball wrote him off after his disastrous 2012 season with the Angels, but his strikeout totals are back where they were when he was a feared pitcher and, perhaps more importantly, he's walking just 1.12 batters per nine innings. A turnaround this dramatic happens for a reason, and in Santana's case, a key change to his pitching repertoire has made all the difference.

For most of his career, Santana has been a three-pitch pitcher. He experimented with a curveball early on, but beginning in 2009 he has featured just a fastball, slider and changeup. Until last year, his fastball sat in the 92-94 mph range, which allowed him to throw it nearly 60 percent of the time with effectiveness. However, it dipped last year, averaging just 91.7 mph, and registered as the single-worst fastball in the league, according to Fangraphs' pitch values. Clearly, if he was going to find success again, he was going to have to get more out of his off-speed stuff. And that is exactly what is happening this season.

Before this season, Santana typically threw his slider about 36 or 37 percent of the time. It was always an effective pitch for him, evidenced by its positive value each of the last five seasons. This year, he has thrown his fastball and changeup less often, increasing his share of sliders to 41 percent. According to Fangraphs, it has been the fifth-best slider in the majors this season. Remember how I said earlier that his strikeout numbers had bounced back this season? That's almost entirely thanks to his slidepiece. He's getting batters to swing at it nearly half the time when it's out of the strike zone, which has helped him post a ridiculous 19.6 percent swinging-strike rate on the offering, and it's also contributed to his would-be career-best 45.3 ground-ball rate. Santana's resurgence is no mirage, but rather is supported by the development of what looks like one of the game's superior sliders.

Starting pitcher barometer

Who's up?

? Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals -- I don't think anyone out there thinks that Strasburg isn't worth a roster spot based on his 1-5 record. But allow me, a fellow Strasburg owner, to assuage anyone's fears. His average fastball velocity is 95.6 mph. His line-drive rate is less than 20 percent for what would be the first time in his career. His ground-ball rate is 45.9 percent, right up near his career high. His strand rate is 66.7 percent, well below league average. His eight unearned runs are the most in the majors. Put simply, nothing has gone right for him this year, and that can't last forever. A huge run is in the near future.

? Hector Santiago, Chicago White Sox -- After starting the year in the bullpen, Santiago moved to the rotation when Gavin Floyd hit the DL. He has allowed just one run across 12.1 innings in two starts, striking out 14 and walking four. With Floyd out for the year, Santiago will likely remain in the rotation for the rest of the season. In 70.1 innings primarily as a reliever last season, he fanned 79 batters; though he did issue 40 free passes. He features a five-pitch repertoire, which should aid him as he transitions to being a full-time starter. He's widely available no matter where you play and should be owned in nearly all mixed leagues.

? Justin Masterson, ClevelandIndians -- Masterson entered his start against the Yankees Monday striking out 8.5 batters per nine innings this season. That number jumped after the start after Masterson whiffed nine Yankees in a complete game shutout, his sixth win in nine starts this year. As usual, his ground-ball rate is comfortably above 50 percent, and he has actually increased his average fastball velocity to 92.2 MPH from 91.9 last year. His .295 BABIP and 73.8 percent strand rate are right in line with league average, and his 3.27 FIP suggests he's been unlucky, if anything. He should be universally owned, regardless of league parameters.

? Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates -- I wrote about Liriano in Monday's waiver wire column, but wanted to mention him here, as well. Here's the abridged version: his strikeout ability makes him worth adding in mixed leagues of at least 12 teams.

? Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians -- Jimenez, too, earned a spot in this week's waiver wire column, and you can get my fleshed-out thoughts on him there. Like Liriano, he's worth taking a chance on in deeper mixed leagues. If I could only have one, I'd prefer Liriano, though.

Who's down?

? Wade Miley, Arizona Diamondbacks -- Miley's surface numbers look good enough, with a 3-1 record and 2.93 ERA. However, a major part of his success last year was his low walk totals, and this year, he's walking 3.56 batters per nine innings. His strikeouts have increased, too, but he doesn't have the sort of stuff that would allow him to be a dominant strikeout pitcher. If the walks stay constant, his ERA is sure to increase. Owners should try to sell him now.

? Jorge De La Rosa, Colorado Rockies -- The story with De La Rosa is similar to what we just discussed with Miley. Yes, he has a 4-3 record with a 2.98 ERA. He also has a 4.03 FIP and is striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings. His BABIP is just .258 even though hitters have a 24.8 percent line-drive rate against him. This won't last much longer. The market for him probably isn't all that strong, but you might as well see what you can get.

What a relief

The most interesting closing situations remain in Arizona, Boston and the North Side of Chicago. Before getting to those however, let's turn our eyes to Detroit.

? Jose Valverde blew his first save of the year on Sunday, allowing a run to the Indians on a hit and two walks. Still, he has locked himself into the role. This won't lead to any speculation that a change could be on the horizon. Why did the Tigers let him go again?

? In Arizona, Heath Bell might be the closer right now, but there's no doubt that David Hernandez has better stuff and is more suited to the role. Even though Bell has been solid this year, striking out 20 batters while walking just three, Hernandez was an elite reliever last season whose numbers are out of whack because he has surrendered four homers already this year, matching the total he allowed in both 2011 and 2012. When Bell gives Kirk Gibson a reason to make a change, and the bet here is he will, Hernandez will be the one to inherit the role.

? With Joel Hanrahan out for the year, Junichi Tazawa has temporarily taken up residence in the ninth inning for the Red Sox. He hasn't had a save opportunity yet, but he allowed one run on two hits in each of his last two appearances. Andrew Bailey is expected back soon, and when he does come back, he'll likely take over the closer's role. For that reason, if you're looking for a Boston reliever to add, my preference is for Koji Uehara, who will hold down the eighth regardless of who is closing. If Bailey struggles upon his return, it might be Uehara who gets the chance to close.

? Finally, Kevin Gregg has been quite effective in his second go-round as the Cubs' closer. He has converted all six of his save opportunities and has yet to allow a run, but still, this is the same Kevin Gregg we've known for a long time now. The Cubs activated Kyuji Fujikawa over the weekend; for the time being he'll be in a setup role, but Dale Sveum had just anointed him the closer before getting placed on the DL. He has value as a high-strikeout reliever, and should be owned in all leagues that use score holds. If and when Gregg falters, he'd likely become the closer.

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