Thursday, April 4, 2013

Thoughts on Ervin Santana

            In their quest to improve the starting rotation, the Royals traded for Ervin Santana and his $13 million contract.  The Royals gave up Brandon Sisk, a AAA reliever who did not factor into the Royals’ plans.  In addition, the Royals are on the hook for $12 million of his contract.  Santana was arguably the worst starting pitcher in baseball last year*, and reportedly the Angels were going to cut him if they couldn’t swing a trade.  In their desperation, the Royals obliged the Angels.  If you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of this trade.  Santana likely would have gotten less on the open market, but Dayton Moore feels the need to make moves early in the offseason period before the market develops.  Regardless, the move was made and Santana will pitch.

*And Francoeur was arguably the worst position player in baseball last year.  The new market inefficiency; collect them all!

            The move is not entirely without upside.  In 2008, Santana accrued 6 WAR over 32 starts and 219 innings.  That Ervin Santana is worth his salt and more; however, that Ervin Santana is gone.  As recently as 2010 and 2011, Santana was hovering around league average.  200+ innings of league average pitching is valuable, and Santana has the potential to provide that.  This is a contract year for Santana, as he is a free agent after this season.  Generally, performance improves in contract years to increase the payday in free agency.

The move has its risks, as well.  Santana’s fastball velocity, which is an indicator of future performance and injury risk, has decreased significantly from 95.6mph in 2008 to 92.4mph in 2012.  A decrease of even 1mph affects pitcher performance.  Santana’s fastball velocity declined throughout 2012 as well, leading many to speculate that he was dealing with an actual injury last year.  The Royals have stated that he has checked out medically, so it’s possible the decline in velocity is due to other reasons.

            So, what will it take for Santana to provide value?  He needs to recapture his 2011 performance.  Is he likely to do that, though?  Possibly, but unlikely.  In 2012, Santana gave up about 600 home runs, for an astronomical 18.9% HR/FB.  Given that Santana’s velocity is decreasing, his fastball is becoming less valuable.  Unfortunately, Santana relied on his fastball significantly in 2012, throwing it 58% of the time.  In 2010 and 2011, when Santana was roughly average, Santana’s pitching repertoire included a sinker, which helped him generate ground balls at a much higher rate than in previous years, and he threw his fastball less.  Predictably, Santana’s HR/FB% in 2010 and 2011 were much lower than in 2012.  Santana’s second pitch is a slider, which is a very good pitch.  Anyone who watched his first start as a Royal can see his slider is good; Santana struck out 8 guys mostly on sliders.  Santana also has a decent changeup.  Unfortunately, he gave up 3 home runs, all on extremely fat upper 80s/low 90s fastballs over the middle of the plate.  Any major league hitter will take those yard. 

In order for this trade to work, Santana must rely on his secondary pitches.  His fastball is just about useless, so in order to keep his fastball from damaging the team, he needs pinpoint control with it, and he needs to use it less.  He did not have pinpoint control in his first start (and didn't have pinpoint control last year), but he did use it less (about 52% of the time).  His average fastball velocity declined even further to about 90mph.  Santana needs to rely on his slider to generate whiffs, which he did in his first start (used about 43% of the time).  Essentially, the Royals saw the two sides of Santana; when Santana misses with his fastball, he gets hammered.  When he locates his fastball, he will be at least decent.  A return of Santana’s sinker, which averaged 92.8mph and 93.7mph in 2010 and 2011 respectively, would also help keep the ball in the park.  A little luck wouldn’t hurt, either.

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