Commentary

Johan Santana's decline has begun ...

There's a very real possibility the two-time Cy Young winner finishes outside top 100

Updated: February 26, 2010, 5:08 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Name value, postseason hardware and past heroics can go a long way toward overinflating a player's draft day price tag. Johan Santana provides a prime example of that.

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Since the beginning of the 2004 season, Santana is the major league leader in wins (99), ERA (2.86), WHIP (1.05) and strikeouts (1,335), with the ratios including pitchers with at least 800 innings. He's also a two-time Cy Young award winner (2004, 2006), a four-time All-Star ('05, '06, '07, '09) and was twice fantasy baseball's top pitcher (again 2004 and 2006).

None of those facts should come as any surprise. For a half decade, the words "Johan Santana" and "consensus first-round pick" were synonymous. In fact, if not for elbow surgery on Sept. 1, 2009, he might be equally highly regarded in 2010 drafts. Remember, Santana's average draft position last season was 9.1, and if you project his 2009 numbers to a 33-start season, he'd have been a 17-game winner with 193 strikeouts to go with his 3.13 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.

Those numbers sure do sound "Johan-like," don't they? Judging by those, all it would likely take is a few healthy appearances during spring training and the Santana backers -- those who assume he's still capable of finishing as a top-5 starting pitcher or top-25 overall -- would come out in droves.

Not that I'd blame them. After all, I have Santana ranked No. 58 in my Top 200, and there's a very good reason for it: There are only a handful of pitchers whose most-optimistic, peak-level projection has them a Cy Young vote-getter. Santana is one of those pitchers.

Johan Santana
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireJohan Santana got the job done in 2009, but he wasn't as dominant as he was in seasons past.

That said, the drawback to name value is that it can blind fantasy owners from a player's rapidly growing downside. I don't think there's nearly as much discussion about a player's range of projected value as there is his specific statistical projection. For instance, Adam Dunn is about as safe a bet as there is to meet our .243-38-100 projection, while Stephen Strasburg might have equal chances to win the Rookie of the Year award or spend the entire season in the minors as to meet our projections of 11 wins, a 3.63 ERA and 158 strikeouts. Pricing players requires as much examination of a player's best- and worst-case scenarios as it does his most likely expectation.

It's at this point I get on my soapbox: Johan Santana's downside is a finish outside the top 100 players of 2010 and easily out of the top 10 starting pitchers. Not only that, but I'd even argue that it's almost twice as probable an outcome as a season that puts his name into serious Cy Young discussion.

That's not based entirely upon concerns with his ongoing rehabilitation from surgery, though that's absolutely a factor. It's more than that: Santana's declining strikeout rate, diminished velocity and the New York Mets' weakened offense are all warning signs that a collapse might be coming.

Johan's declining strikeout rate

On the surface, Santana's 7.88 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio of 2009 might not seem so troubling, even though it does represent a drop from 7.91 in 2008 and 9.66 in 2007. It still placed him 23rd among qualified pitchers in the category last season. And returning to that point about his being on pace for 193 strikeouts in a 33-start campaign, well, 193 K's would have placed him 16th in the majors (as opposed to 43rd, where he actually finished). Santana also has consistently held opposing hitters to a contact rate noticeably beneath the league average, even as a Met:

Opposing hitters' contact rate during Santana's Twins career: 71.4 percent
Opposing hitters' contact rate during his Mets career: 76.9 percent
MLB average contact rate since his 2000 debut: 80.9 percent

But it's how Santana has come to his strikeout totals as a member of the Mets the past two seasons that is most disconcerting. One of the advantages of migrating to the National League following the 2007 season was that he'd get to face pitchers more often, as opposed to loaded lineups featuring the designated hitter. And sure enough, he did capitalize on facing those light-hitting pitchers; he whiffed 49 of them in 93 at-bats against him (an astonishing 52.6 percent) the past two seasons combined.

But extract those pitchers' statistics and here is how Santana's opposition fared:

Opposing non-pitchers' contact rate with Twins: 71.5 percent
Opposing non-pitchers' contact rate with Mets: 78.9 percent
2008-09 National League non-pitchers' contact rate: 80.5 percent

You read that right; Santana has been only marginally better than the league average facing real hitters the past two seasons. That is not at all an encouraging development for a pitcher who was supposed to have it easier in the NL.

It's also especially problematic for a fly-ball pitcher because it's only common sense that a pitcher who gives up fly balls on more than 40 percent of his balls in play (42.8 percent in his career since 2002, according to FanGraphs.com, and 47.5 in 2009) is at greater risk to give up home runs the more times a hitter makes contact.

And the other warning flag: Santana's swing-and-miss percentage -- usually a good indicator of a pitcher's strikeout potential -- has been in precipitous decline since joining the Mets, especially last season. Here are his numbers and rankings among qualified major league pitchers in the category since 2004:

2004: 66.3 percent contact rate on swings (1st)
2005: 74.2 percent (2nd)
2006: 74.8 percent (1st)
2007: 73.2 percent (2nd)
2008: 77.0 percent (10th)
2009: 78.4 percent (21st)

Clearly Santana hasn't been fooling NL hitters nearly to the levels he did as an American Leaguer. So what was different?

Johan's diminished velocity

Upon examination, the reason for Santana's diminished dominance is his drop in fastball velocity, not to mention that his slider has lost some of its effectiveness. Now, I know what you're thinking: "Santana never generated strikeouts or blew people away with a blazing fastball anyway." Here's the problem: It's his changeup that has been the driving force behind his dominance the past half decade-plus, but a critical factor in maintaining success with a changeup is maintaining enough difference in velocity from a pitcher's fastball.

Sure enough, Santana's average fastball velocity in 2009 was a career-low 90.5 mph, according to FanGraphs, and the 9.0 mph differential between his fastball and changeup also represented a career-low difference. Compare that to a 14.1 mph split in his remarkable 2004, 11.2 as recently as 2008 and 11.0 in his career, and it's sound thinking that Santana's changeup was easier to identify in 2009.

FanGraphs reports that Santana's changeup, in fact, was worth only 0.37 runs above average per 100 changeups thrown in 2009, a significant drop-off from 2.33 in 2008, 4.35 at his peak in 2004 or his 2.32 career number (since 2002). His slider, meanwhile, was in the red in each of the past two seasons (minus-0.88 runs versus the average per 100 thrown in 2009, minus-0.64 in 2008), which is especially troublesome because, as Inside Edge notes, Santana threw sliders most often versus left-handed hitters (23 percent of his pitches to them the past two years). That might help explain why lefties, who have always had a slight advantage versus Santana historically, managed career bests in batting average (.267), home runs (10), slugging percentage (.506) and OPS (.814) against him last season.

Johan's return from surgery

It'd be foolish to ignore Santana's elbow surgery as a significant risk factor, even though he had a similar operation to remove bone chips following the 2003 season and bounced back with Cy Young statistics in his best campaign in 2004. That's still two surgeries on his résumé, and while I'd be fine with dismissing either the risk from his operation or his decline in performance outlined above, I'd call it quite the leap of faith to cast aside both.

Johan Santana
Noah K. Murray/US PresswireJohan Santana's 2010 bullpen sessions have been closely monitored.

It'd also be foolish to ignore the fact that the Mets amassed a major league high in man-games lost to the disabled list -- more than 1,480 -- in 2009. No matter your opinion of their medical staff, that's a lot to swallow, especially in light of examples such as Jose Reyes, who suffered numerous setbacks with his hamstring, or Carlos Beltran, who reportedly was at odds with the team following news of a surprise January knee surgery. To approach a Mets player's rehabilitation with a higher degree of skepticism than one from an average team isn't unwarranted, no matter how positive the reports have been from Santana's early throwing sessions.

Speaking of those sessions, the left-hander himself has admitted his plan includes five spring-training starts and a pitch count of 90 before breaking camp, which doesn't quite sound like an Opening Day workload befitting an ace. It also leaves little room for setbacks, and a setback would be bad news for both the Mets and fantasy owners alike.

Mediocre run support

Ah, the grand problem for Santana in 2008, and that was back when the Mets were a team that averaged 4.93 runs per game with a .761 OPS, eighth- and 12th-best in baseball, respectively. By comparison, the 2009 Mets dropped to 4.14 RPG and a .729 OPS, which were 25th and 22nd, respectively, in the majors. Santana did win only three fewer games in 2009 than 2008 in nine fewer starts, however, and he did it despite his run support dropping from 4.92 per nine innings to 3.89.

One would think the Mets, snake-bitten as they were last season, should pick up the pace offensively, but to what degree? With Beltran sidelined, their projected Opening Day lineup (including probable platoons) will feature four starters whose 2009 OPS was beneath the league average at their respective positions: catcher Rod Barajas (.661 OPS, .717 MLB average), first baseman Daniel Murphy (.741, .846), second baseman Luis Castillo (.732, .752) and right fielder Jeff Francoeur (.732, .791). Plus, if Gary Matthews beats out Angel Pagan for the center-field job (in Beltran's absence), he'd represent a fifth (.697, .749).

Even the most generous expectation shouldn't have the Mets rated better than a middling offense, meaning Santana's chances at a league-leading win total will hinge more upon effectiveness than support. It'd be foolish to expect him to get close to the 20-win plateau, even in a fully healthy season.

Sum up the risk factors and you have a pitcher who by all rights should not be selected among the top 50 picks -- effectively the first five rounds -- of a mixed-league draft, barring, of course, a lights-out spring. A lot can change between now and Opening Day, when Santana is tentatively expected to throw his first official pitch of 2010, and his velocity and effectiveness are well worth watching during the spring games.

Seeing how steep his hill is to climb, however, pardon my skepticism.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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