- Johan Santana lacks the credentials to be a Hall of Famer, but his stretch of dominance creates an interesting new way to evaluate pitchers' Cooperstown credentials.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
From the Andean mountains to the Big Apple and from the Rule 5 draft to two-time unanimous Cy Young winner, Johan Santana blazed quite a trail. Though his major league career lasted only 12 seasons (2001–10, plus ’12), the Venezuelan southpaw ranked among the game's best pitchers for more than half of that span and had a solid case as the game’s very best for a few years.
As a raw 21-year-old who made the jump to the majors directly from A-ball, Santana was in over his head, but the Twins—who stole him from the Astros (who originally signed him) and the Marlins (who flipped him immediately after picking him in the Rule 5 draft )—were rewarded for their patience. Pairing a 93–94 mph fastball with a changeup that many considered the game’s best and that he could throw as much as 15 mph slower, Santana flummoxed hitters. Circa 2005, he estimated that 60% of his strikeouts came via that pitch, which helped him lead the AL in punchouts three straight years ('04–06) and top 200 strikeouts five straight times ('04–08). In that span, he led the league in ERA and WAR three times apiece and in innings twice, helping to put the Twins back on the baseball map with four postseason appearances in five years.
Santana's performance ultimately priced him out of small market Minnesota after the 2007 season. He was traded to the Mets, who signed him to a record-setting contract for a pitcher and hoped he'd pitch them back to the World Series. But before he could, the mileage caught up, and both his '09 and '10 seasons ended on the operating table. A tear in the anterior capsule of his valuable left shoulder suffered in '10 was the turning point of his career; though he would return and pitch the first no-hitter in Mets franchise history on June 1, 2012, his career effectively ended soon afterwards.
While impressive, Santana's career numbers don't suggest that he's likely to wind up in Cooperstown; at this writing, he hasn't been named on any of the 83 ballots published at the @NotMrTibbs Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker, likely removing him from consideration until 2028. Before he departs, however, it's worth reviewing both his career and the extent to which starting pitchers have become a scarcity in the Hall of Fame; eventually, he could benefit from that reckoning.
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||Wins||Losses||ERA||ERA+|
|Avg. HOF SP||73.9||50.3||62.1|
Santana was born in 1979 in Tovar, Venezuela, a picturesque coffee-growing town in the Andes mountain range, not far from the border of Colombia, with an elevation of 6,400 feet and a population around 33,000. His father, Jesus, earned the nickname "El Pulpo" (The Octopus) as a rangy middle infielder while playing amateur baseball in Méreda. Though professional teams in Caracas and Maracaibo showed interest, Jesus wound up becoming a repairman for the state power company, living near the plant—more than an hour away from Tovar—on weekdays, then commuting home on weekends, when he'd get to watch Johan and his older brother Franklin play baseball. Using his father's hand-me-down gloves, Johan threw righthanded and played shortstop on his first team at age 10. It took his next coach to figure out that he was a lefty.
In 1994, while playing centerfield at a national tournament, Santana came to the attention of Andres Reimer, a Hungarian-born scout who had spearheaded the creation of the Astros' Venezuelan academy in Valencia, which opened in 1989. In the 1990s, Reimer signed future major leaguers Bobby Abreu, Raul Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora, and Roberto Petagine, among others. He was captivated by Santana's arm strength and athleticism, and he was persistent. Via a 2005 Sports Illustrated feature by S.L. Price:
Johan loved to dive for catches, loved to throw people out; you could feel it just watching him. But that was the strike year, and along with everyone else the Houston Astros had cut back on spending. Reiner pestered Houston's scouting director for the $300 to make the 12-hour drive up to Tovar, got turned down twice, called Houston general manager Bob Watson and was told no again, then called again a week later. Watson caved, giving Reiner the money out of his own pocket just to get him off the phone. "Don't call me again about this kid," Watson told him.
Reiner made the drive. Johan and Franklin were shagging balls off a wall of the house. Reiner knocked on the door and, as Jesus remembers it, said, "I've come to take your son."
Santana left for the academy in January 1995 and was soon converted to pitching. After his stint at the Astros' academy, he tried out for the Rockies, but wound up signing with Houston for a bonus of about $15,000. He spent 1996 in the Dominican Summer League, striking out 55 in 40 innings as a 17-year-old. Though he struggled in the Gulf Coast League in 1997, his first year stateside, he struck out more than a batter per inning at two A-level stops in '98, then whiffed 150 in 160 1/3 innings with a 4.66 ERA in the Midwest League in '99.
Though the 20-year-old southpaw's stuff and command were improving, the Astros left him unprotected in the 1999 Rule 5 draft. Ahead of the draft, the Twins, who had the first pick, agreed to swap with the Marlins, who owned the second pick and offered to pay $50,000 to move up. The Twins chose Jared Camp, a 24-year-old righty from the Indians; flipped to the Marlins, who drafted Santana, he never made the majors. As per Rule 5 rules, Santana spent the entire season with Minnesota, pitching sparingly (five starts and 25 relief appearances totaling 86 innings) and badly (a 6.49 ERA and 5.7 walks per nine), albeit generally in low-leverage situations. The team, which went 69–93 for the year, was 2–28 in his 30 appearances, 20 of which came when the Twins were losing by four runs or more.
Due to a flexor pronator tear, Santana was limited to just 15 appearances and 43 2/3 innings in 2001. "His likely career is as a lefty specialist," wrote the Baseball Prospectus team in their 2002 annual, but the 23-year-old Santana spent the first two months of that season starting at Triple A Edmonton, where pitching coach Bobby Cuellar helped him hone his changeup to the point that his arm action made it indistinguishable from his fastball. Recalled on May 31, he made 14 starts and 13 relief appearances, posting a 2.99 ERA (150 ERA+ in those high-scoring times) with an eye-opening 11.4 strikeout-per-nine ratio in 108 1/3 innings en route to 2.6 WAR. The Twins, who had been targeted for contraction over the winter, won 94 games and the AL Central under first-year manager Ron Gardenhire. But by October, Santana—whose spot in the rotation owed in part to injuries to Brad Radke and Joe Mays—was back in the bullpen, where he scuffled, allowing six runs in 6 1/3 innings, three via a decisive three run homer by the Angels' Adam Kennedy in Game 5 of the ALCS that kicked off a 10-run inning and led to the Twins' elimination.
The 2002 Twins had just two starters with better-than-league-average ERAs, so it made sense when Gardenhire told Santana he would be in the team's 2003 rotation. But the signing of 38-year-old veteran Kenny Rogers that March sent Santana back to the bullpen. Amid cries of "Free Johan Santana!" from around the internet—and particularly from Twins-focused blogger Aaron Gleeman—the 24-year-old lefty whiffed 77 in 66 first-half innings with a 2.86 ERA; meanwhile, the team's five regular starters had ERAs ranging from 4.78 to 6.50, and Minnesota went just 44–49. Joining the rotation for good on July 11, Santana posted a 3.22 ERA in 92 1/3 innings over 15 starts; his overall 3.07 ERA would have ranked fourth in the league if he'd thrown another 3 2/3 innings to qualify.
More importantly, the Twins’ 46–23 second half carried them to another AL Central title. Santana got the Game 1 nod in the Division Series against the Yankees, whom he shut out for four innings in the Bronx before being forced from the game by a right leg cramp. Though the Twins held on to win, the Yankees pummeled him for six runs in 3 2/3 innings in Game 4 to take the series.
For as strong as Santana's second-half run had been, he had pitched through bone spurs and chips in his elbow, for which he underwent surgery at season's end. He scuffled through April and May 2004, getting hit for a 5.50 ERA and 1.6 home runs per nine, but beginning with a 10-strikeout game against the Mets on June 9, he went 18–2 with a 1.36 ERA and 204 strikeouts in just 159 1/3 innings, holding batters to a .148/.203/.240 line. All but the last of his 22 starts during that run were quality starts; only in two of those games did he allow three runs, and 12 featured double-digit strikeout totals. "[Santana] reminds me of myself when I was younger," said Boston's Pedro Martinez after being outpitched by the young southpaw. "His stuff is probably a little bit better than mine was at that age."
With his 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts both leading the league, Santana missed the Pitching Triple Crown by one win, though his 8.6 WAR was the AL's best. Again the Twins faced the Yankees in the Division Series, and again they lost, though Santana was hardly to blame: He spun seven scoreless innings in a Game 1 victory in the Bronx and, working on three days' rest, held the Yankees to one run in five innings in Game 4. Alas, the Minnesota bullpen blew a 5–1 lead and the team was eliminated. After the season, Santana did get a couple of consolation prizes: his first Cy Young award and a four-year, $39.75 million extension, covering him through 2008.
Santana took time to find his groove again in 2005, pitching to a 3.98 ERA with 1.1 home runs per nine in the first half—though he still made his first All-Star team—and a 1.59 ERA with 0.6 homers per nine in the second. His overall 2.87 ERA ranked second, and his 238 strikeouts and 7.2 WAR both led the league again. He finished third in that year's AL Cy Young voting, behind winner Bartolo Colon—whose 21 wins carried more weight with the voters than Santana's 3.48 ERA—and Mariano Rivera. The Twins missed the playoffs but returned in 2006 thanks to breakouts by catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman (and MVP winner) Justin Morneau. Santana made his second All-Star team and won the Pitching Triple Crown with 19 wins, a 2.77 ERA and 245 strikeouts. He also led the AL in WAR (7.5) for the third straight year and won his second Cy Young. Though he tossed eight innings of two-run ball in the Division Series opener against the A's, he departed trailing 2–1; the Twins lost that game and were swept in the series.
In 2007, the Twins slipped back below .500 (79–83) for the first time since 2000. Santana proved to be unusually homer-prone, allowing a league-high 33 longballs, as his ERA swelled to 3.33 (still good for a 129 ERA+); his 235 strikeouts fell four shy of Scott Kazmir's league-leading total. With one year and $13.25 million remaining on his contract, the Twins realized they had little chance of retaining their ace, and so the team spent the winter shopping him; Santana, who had a no-trade clause, would waive it only if a contract extension was part of the deal.
The Red Sox reportedly offered a package of Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson, but the Twins wanted Jacoby Ellsbury. They asked the Yankees for Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Melky Cabrera and one more prospect, but were rebuffed. Unable to get both of the Mets' prized outfield prospects, Fernando Martinez and Carlos Gomez, in the same deal, the Twins finally settled for Gomez and pitchers Deolis Guera, Philip Humber, and Kevin Mulvey. The return looked modest at the time—the Twins didn't land a single elite prospect—and ended up piddling, as the quartet netted Minnesota a total of just 2.3 WAR.
The Mets, who had fallen one win short of the World Series in 2006 and had coughed up a playoff berth on the final day in ’07, appeared to have landed the missing piece—the bona fide ace they needed once injuries caught up to Martinez. With permission, they went 90 minutes past their allotted 72-hour window to negotiate with Santana, completing the trade by agreeing to a six-year, $137.5 million extension, a record-setting contract for a pitcher. The 29-year-old Santana held up his end of the bargain, leading the league in ERA (2.53) and innings (234 1/3) and ranking second in WAR (7.1) and strikeouts (206). Once again, he was even stronger in the second half (2.17 ERA , 0.8 homers per nine) than the first (2.84 ERA, 1.0 HR/9) despite pitching with a torn meniscus in his left knee. The Mets led the NL East as late as Sept. 19, and while they lost five of their next seven, Santana's three-hit shutout of the Marlins on the season's penultimate day left them tied with the Brewers for the NL wild card. The Mets lost the next day, however, and Milwaukee won. Santana, who underwent surgery to repair the meniscus at season's end, finished third in the NL Cy Young voting, losing out to the Giants' Tim Lincecum.
Bolting out of the gate strong in 2009, Santana carried a 1.77 ERA and 11.7 strikeout-per-nine ratio into June. He was knocked around that month while experiencing elbow discomfort, though, and while he made the NL All-Star team, he was shut down in late August to undergo surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow that were affecting his range of motion. The injury ended Santana's iron man streak of five straight seasons with at least 219 innings and 33 starts. Over that span, he led the majors in innings (1,146 2/3), strikeouts (1,189), ERA (2.82), wins (86, tied with Roy Oswalt) and WAR (35.4)—the last by a wide margin, with the Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb 8.0 WAR behind him in just 11 2/3 fewer innings.
Santana returned and pitched well for the first five months of 2010, posting a 2.98 ERA in 199 innings through Sept. 2, but he left his last start after five innings due to shoulder discomfort. Via MRI, doctors soon discovered that he had suffered a tear in the anterior capsule of his shoulder, a career-altering injury that had derailed the likes of Rich Harden, Mark Prior and Chien-Ming Wang. Santana had other problems as well. In June, a woman accused him of sexual battery pertaining to an encounter on a Florida golf course the previous October. Criminal charges were never filed, as police concluded, "There was not enough evidence to prove lack of consent, the alleged victim’s statement is not consistent with other witnesses.” The woman (whose name was never publicly revealed) later filed a civil sexual assault suit, and Santana counter-sued, alleging that the woman was trying to extort him after a consensual encounter. According to Lee County records, the case was settled out of court in November 2012.
Save for two rehab outings for the team's A-level St. Lucie affiliate, Santana didn't pitch at all in 2011, but he returned to the Mets to throw five scoreless innings on Opening Day in 2012 and showed signs of recovering his form. After throwing a four-hit shutout of the Padres on May 26, he threw the first no-hitter in the Mets' 50-year history on June 1, blanking the Cardinals. He needed 134 pitches to do so, however, nine more than his previous career high and perhaps more than anybody coming back from a major shoulder injury could have been expected to throw. Manager Terry Collins later called it "the worst night I've ever spent in baseball" due to his belief that he was endangering the pitcher's career.
Collins couldn't have known that Santana would make just 10 more starts in the majors while getting hammered for an 8.27 ERA. That is what happened, but that doesn't mean it's attributable to the high pitch count. Though Santana was roughed up in his first two starts after the no-hitter, he pitched scoreless outings in two of his next three after that, the last of them an eight-inning, three-hit effort against the Dodgers on June 30 that lowered his ERA to 2.76. He was battered for at least six runs in each of his five starts after that, his effectiveness reduced first by an ankle sprain suffered on July 6. His next turn was pushed back to July 15, and he was lit up twice before going on the disabled list for three weeks. Upon returning, he allowed 14 runs in 6 1/3 innings in two starts before a bout of lower back inflammation shut him down for the season in late August. He finished with a 4.85 ERA and 8.5 strikeout-per-nine rate in 117 innings.
Santana still had one more year under contract with the Mets. But when he came to camp after throwing less than usual over the winter, the team, through general manager Sandy Alderson, expressed a mixture of surprise and disappointment that his shoulder wasn't strong enough to pitch. Angered at Alderson’s portrayal of him as out of shape and behind schedule, a day later Santana threw off the mound for the first time that spring—an unscheduled bullpen session of 15–20 pitches now known as "the angry bullpen." Soon after, persistent pain limited him to long toss and landed him in an MRI tube. He had re-torn his anterior capsule; surgery on April 2 effectively ended his tenure with the Mets, who declined his 2014 option at season's end.
Santana kept trying to come back. In March 2014, he signed an incentive-laden minor league deal with the Orioles and pitched in extended spring training. With an opt-out date approaching, the team selected his contract and placed him on the big league disabled list with an eye toward activating him on June 19. But on June 6 during an extended spring training game, he was hit by a line drive, stumbled while picking up the ball, and limped off the field with assistance. He had torn his left Achilles, and soon underwent his fourth season-ending surgery in six years.
Santana signed another minor league deal with the Blue Jays in February 2015, having made a perfect two-inning start in the Venezuelan Winter League before being shut down due to shoulder stiffness. Though assigned to Triple A Buffalo, he never made it into a game and ended his comeback bid in late June. Though he reportedly planned to return to winter ball in the winter of 2016–17, nothing materialized; likewise for a plan to work out for teams in the second half of 2017.
Now, at 38 years old, Santana is on the Hall of Fame ballot. Because he pitched for only 12 seasons (two with fewer than 100 innings apiece), his career totals, particularly the traditional ones, don't look Cooperstown worthy. No enshrined starter has fewer wins than his 139, and only Dizzy Dean—the low man in that category, with 150—has fewer innings than Santana's 2,025 2/3. His 1,988 strikeouts do surpass 27 of the 62 enshrined starters (as well as Jack Morris, recently elected by the Modern Baseball Era Committee), but he did pitch in a strikeout-heavy era. From a rate stat standpoint, Santana's 136 ERA+ is as good or better than 53 enshrined starters (plus Morris).
Santana scores just 82 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, a metric that gives credit for awards, league leads, milestones, and postseason performance. A score of 100 indicates "a good possibility" of election; Santana is far from that, in part because he didn't make a big impact in October, going 1–3 with a 3.97 ERA in five starts and six relief appearances, none of them in the World Series. That's not all his fault, but such work confers much of the "fame" that boosts Hall chances.
From an advanced metrics standpoint, Santana is obviously short of the WAR-based career, peak and JAWS standards, but he outdoes many big-name Hall of Famers. His 51.4 career WAR (including offense) is tied for 102nd all time but beats that of 11 enshrined pitchers, including Sandy Koufax (49.0), Dean (44.9), and Catfish Hunter (41.4), not to mention Morris (44.1). His 44.8 peak score, which is tied with Dave Stieb for 61st, is higher than 25 of the 62 (or 26 of 63 if you include Morris), and his 48.1 JAWS, which ranks 85th, tops 15 enshrinees (plus Morris), including Koufax (47.5), Whitey Ford (46.0), Dean and Bob Lemon (both 43.9), and Hunter (38.3).
BBWAA voters honored Koufax and Dean because of the outsized impact they had during their short careers. Leaving aside that both pitched their teams to at least one championship where Santana did not—an important caveat, but work with me—both also had some claim on the title of "the best pitcher in baseball" for a stretch. The same can be said about Santana, so it's fair to wonder if he's worthy of similarly special treatment. In the grand scheme, it's also fair to wonder when and how the Hall voters will recalibrate their expectations regarding what makes a Hall of Fame starter in light of the workload constraints—the five-man rotation, pitch counts, and de facto innings caps—that have already slowed the flow of starters into Cooperstown.
Not only have BBWAA voters elected just three starters with fewer than 300 wins in the last 26 years (Bert Blyleven, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz), but they've also elected just three other starters who debuted after 1969—namely 300-game winners Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. Picking up on research I published in The Cooperstown Casebook, 1969 represents an inflection point in terms of the Hall's historical per-player, per-team level of representation. Where teams averaged 1.87 Hall of Famers per season from 1938 to '68—often above 2.0 per team-season and even briefly above 3.0 in the early '30s—the level falls to 1.38 for the '69–'93 period. Voters haven't kept pace with expansion (the rates are even lower post-1993, but much of that is still shaking out). The dip owes something to a shortage of enshrined starting pitchers relative to position players.
Leaving aside the five relievers and the one Hall of Famer who split his career between pitching and position play (19th-century star Monte Ward), the ratio between position players and starters is 71% higher for the post-1969 period. Even once Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling are eventually elected, the ratio will remain out of whack. It's far easier to foresee the upcoming elections of position players (Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Vlad Guerrero this year; 3,000 hit club members Derek Jeter, Adrian Beltre and Ichiro Suzuki down the road; and maybe Edgar Martinez; Carlos Beltran and David Ortiz) than starters (Roy Halladay). Halladay's 64.7 career WAR and 57.6 JAWS are both short of the standards, but his 50.6 peak score is right around the line (50.3). Of the pitchers who debuted since 1993, only Clayton Kershaw (48.7), Zack Greinke (46.1), Santana (44.8) and Justin Verlander (43.5) are within seven wins—one per year—of Halladay’s peak score.
From a WAR and JAWS standpoint, I can't say I know "the right place" to draw a new line just yet, and between the likelihood that Santana falls off the ballot and the years remaining before the aforementioned active hurlers become eligible, I'm not sure it's an urgent matter. But I do think that in the interim, the election of Morris should trigger a more thorough look at a handful of his contemporaries who scarcely got a chance on the BBWAA ballot, all of whom were demonstrably superior in run prevention. Pitchers such as Bret Saberhagen (like Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner), Orel Hershiser, David Cone, and Dwight Gooden had the run prevention, great postseason moments and the hardware that Morris lacked. Stieb lacked the last two, but he, too, was demonstrably superior to Morris in everything except fame.
On the subject of Stieb: After documenting Santana’s 2004–08 stretch of WAR dominance, I expanded the search and discovered that he'd led for a seven-year stretch, from '04 to '10. In fact, he led for three overlapping seven-year stretches. None quite equaled his peak score, but still, that's an impressive run. The next thing I knew, an hour had passed and I'd put together a spreadsheet covering 141 seven-year stretches, from 1871–77 to 2011–17, to see:
A) The extent to which Hall of Fame starters dominated the proceedings
B) How Santana stacked up.
What I found was eye-opening. Beginning with the 1881–87 stretch (led by early changeup master Tim Keefe) and running through 2000–06 (Randy Johnson), 25 Hall of Fame starters led the majors in WAR for at least one seven-year span, with 23 leading for at least two spans and 19 for at least three; Cy Young (12) and Lefty Grove (11) had the most. The big names show up—Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Koufax, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Clemens, Maddux, Martinez, the Big Unit—with surprises such as Stan Coveleski, Dazzy Vance, Hal Newhouser and Don Drysdale thrown in. Only eight of the 120 stretches were led by a non-Hall starter: three by Browns and Yankees pitcher Urban Shocker, starting with 1919–25; one by Reds star Bucky Walters ('39–45); and four by Stieb, starting with '79–85 (no, Morris never led). The 2001–07 stretch, just outside the frame, was led by Schilling (whose performance merits election), with Santana leading the next three stretches, and Halladay (two), Verlander (one) and Kershaw (four) taking us to the '11–17 stretch.
That's good company. Even those below the JAWS standard are generally pretty close to the peak standard. For Santana (and Stieb, with the identical peak score) to be among them is impressive. Mind you, I'm not quite sure what to do with those findings yet, but there's something to be said for the continuity of dominance that my system currently doesn't capture. For what it's worth, the original conception of JAWS, covering the 2004 and '05 voting at Baseball Prospectus, used a five consecutive year definition of peak, with allowances for military service and major injuries; I switched in the name of simplicity.
In any event, the crowd on the current ballot makes it particularly difficult to justify a vote for Santana, and so far, no voter is on record as doing so. Nonetheless, his impressive career is worth appreciating and remembering, and he’ll remain a relevant yardstick for those of us who ponder future elections.