It hasn’t been the ace-like season for Johan Santana. This blog has been mentioning some of the statistical concerns over Santana of late. Matt has pointed out the decreasing strikeout rate, the higher than normal xFIP and the dangerous combination of being a fly ball pitcher with a poor strikeout rate.
To build on Matt’s foundation, I thought it might be interesting to really take a look at and try to pinpoint some differences we see in Santana this year, compared to season’s past and to elaborate on some of Matt’s excellent observations.
First let’s take a look at the strikeout rate. For his career, Santana has averaged 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, he is only averaging 5.7. This is a fairly dramatic decrease even from 2009 and 2008 when he was averaging 7.9. We have seen a steadily decreasing rate of strikeouts as the years have gone by and the lack of punch outs have had a negative impact on his FIP (3.90) and xFIP (4.71) in 2010. The lack of strikeouts and the fairly steady stream of fly balls that Santana tends to allow have given him a bloated xFIP.
To date, Santana has been relatively fortunate in the home-runs-allowed department. He has allowed just 8 home runs on the year and the good news is that only one of those home runs has been hit at CitiField. Obviously Santana is enjoying the high walls and the deeper alleys of his home ballpark. But the concern is that this his typical elevated fly ball rate with the lack of strikeouts will catch up with him and his ERA may increase even further.
So those are the worrisome statistical trends, but is there something that we can identify that’s different in Santana this year than last season or the seasons before? Why are we seeing this concerning slide? Is he not eating his Wheaties or getting enough sleep?
Remember that Santana is coming off surgery that cleaned up bone chips in his elbow. Whether there are some lingering ramifications from that procedure, it’s hard to say, but his velocity has gone down this year which may attribute to some of the poorer strikeout numbers. Santana’s fast ball is only hitting about 89 mph on the radar gun whereas in the past, it’s always been in the low 90’s. Consequently, batters are able to make contact on him this year and extend their at-bats, making Santana throw more pitches. Hitters are making contact 82.3% of the time compared to a lifetime mark of 74.1%. Huge disparity there.
Historically, Santana has always been equally effective against right-handed batters and left-handed batters alike. For his career, righties are batting .223 against Santana versus .235 for lefties. Also for his career, he has an average K/9 against righties of 9.26 and a career average K/9 against lefties of 8.73. All very impressive numbers.
But this year has been a completely different story. We already know the strikeouts are down, and it’s not surprising to learn that Santana’s K/9 against right-handed batters this season is 6.08. What is surprising is that he possesses a K/9 against lefties of only 4.50. It also appears that lefties have been hitting him fairly well with a .289 batting average and a .346 OBP.
With some help from TexasLeaguers.com, I took a closer look at how Santana has pitched against lefties the previous three seasons from 2007 to 2009. I examined pitch selection and effectiveness of those pitches. I then looked at the current 2010 season by comparison.
Take a look at the two pictures below. The first one represents Santana versus lefties from 2007-2009. The second picture represents Santana’s 2010 season versus lefties.
What stands out as the biggest disparity between the two sets of numbers is the changeup (CH). Santana doesn’t use his changeup very much against lefties. He throws that pitch hit far more against right-handed batters. He mostly uses the slider and fastball against lefties to set up the changeup. But when he does throw it, it has had very effective results in the past.
Notice that high whiff rate for the changeup in the first set of numbers is 19.6% from 2007-2009 versus 8.5% this season. Lefties are simply not swinging and missing on this pitch. It also appears that his command of the changeup is down this year by more than 14% as he has been unable to throw it consistently for strikes. And then we can also see from the data that lefty batters are fouling off the pitch more frequently than in the past three years, thereby extending their plate appearance and obviously having overall more success against Santana.
The loss of velocity on the fastball has been concerning enough. But Santana’s command of the changeup has been compromised as well. And of course the two work hand-in-hand with each other. The more speed on the fastball, the more the changeup fools the hitter because of the wider variation in speed. If there is less speed differentiation, then the hitter has an easier time making contact. If Santana’s changeup isn’t working, then he has to rely more on his fastball. But that pitch has been decreasing in velocity, so this may explain some of the struggles he is facing this year.
Hopefully, these are adjustments that Santana can make going forward. He usually gets blistering hot in the second half of seasons and hopefully he will regain the touch on his changeup that can make him so dominant. Certainly, the Mets are counting heavily on Santana the rest of the way.