Introducing Ervin Santana

Ervin Santana and Frank Wren at yesterday’s new conference. Graphic created by Fred Owens

Yesterday’s announcement that the Braves had signed free Agent pitchers Ervin Santana to a one year $14.1M contract fills the void left by the injury to Kris Medlen. What did the Braves get for their money and what can they expect this season.

Ervin Santana was born in La Romana, La Romana, Dominican Republic on December 12, 1982. His given name was Johan Ramon Santana and he played under that name until the beginning of the 2003 season. He changed from Johan to Ervin so he wouldn’t be confused with the other Johan Santana late of the Mets. Why Ervin? “I just came up with Ervin.” I have no idea hwy he didn’t simply call himself Ramon Santana perhaps he didn’t want to be confused with the city. I digress.

He was signed by the Angels as an International Free Agent in September of 2000 and worked his way up through the Angels system over the next 4+ seasons. He was rated Baseball America’s 51st prospect entering the 2003 season and moved up to 29 on the list the next year. He made his major league debut on May 17, 2005 against the Indians giving up six runs – including two home runs – in his four innings of work. He remained with the Angels the rest of 2005 posting a 4.65 ERA and 1.392 WHIP is 23 starts and 133 2/3 innings of work.

Ups and Downs

In 2006 he started 33 games for Anaheim throwing 204 1/3 innings with an ERA of 4.28 and a 1.230 WHIP, striking out 141 and walking 70.  2007 wasn’t a good year for Santana, his ERA shot up to 5.76 and his WHIP went along rising to 1.547 in his 28 starts managing only 150 innings of work. The next season saw him rebound as he started by winning five straight starts equaling the Angels’ record. He was an All Star in 2008 and  finished with a 3.49 ERA and 1.119 WHIP in 219 innings over  33 starts.

He began the 2009 season on the disabled list with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and didn’t start his first game until May 5. He struggled most of the  season and only began to show signs of coming around towards the end of the year. In September he threw a complete game shutout against the Rangers to clinch the AL West title however  he finished with a 5.03 ERA and 1.475 Whip in 139 2/3 innings.

The 2010 season saw the Angels struggle but Santana himself did not.   While the team finished two games under .500 he posted a 17-10 record and e finished the year with a 3.92 ERA/1.320 WHIP in 222 2/3 innings. His good performances continued into the 2011 season. Although he went 11-12  he was a much netter pitcher than that. he threw his first no-hitter against the Indians striking out 10 while walking only 1 and finished with the best numbers of his career – a 3.38 ERA1.220 WHIP and 228 2/3 innings in 33 starts.  That season had many predicting he had finally figured it out and while his WHIP did settle at 1.220 for 2012, his ERA climbed back to 5.16 in 30 starts – 178 innings – due in large part to allowing an AL leading 39 home runs. Following that season the Angels picked up his $13M option then traded him to the Royals along with $1M for minor league pitcher Brandon Sisk even though the Angel rotation was unsettled and uninspiring and they gad no one lined up to replace his innings.

Kansas City agreed with Santana. In 2013 he posted his best statistical season to date with a 3.24 ERA (ERA+ 127) and a 1.142 WHIP in 211 innings (32 starts.) After the season the Royals made a qualifying offer to Santana but he rejected it hoping for a multiyear contract close to $100M.  Whether it was the Tanaka posting saga, the draft pick and associated pool money lost by signing him or teams being leery of him being able to sustain statistics like that, he found himself without a job when the Braves called on Sunday to check.

Update:  For a look at Santana at home I recommend this video from last year. It says a lot about the man off the field.

What Can The Braves Expect

Barring injury Santana will give the Braves 30 starts and 200 plus innings. Moving to the NL East from the AL West should drop his ERA a bit as will having the Braves defense behind him.

The Pitches

He’s a fastball pitcher who throws an occasional change and uses a slider as his breaking pitch. Until the 2103 season he featured his four seam fastball over 60% of the time. Last year however he dropped to less that 35% in every month except July but his velocity remained between 91 and 93. The lost fastballs weren’t gone, they were simply identified as hard sinkers from 90-92 mph.  The velocity of his change was fairly constant at 85 and his slider ran from 83-85 making it hard to differentiate it from the change.

Here’s a graph of release velocity for his pitches from last season from Brooks Baseball.

Speed of pitches at release Courtesy Brooks Baseball's Pitch F/X data

Speed of pitches at release Courtesy Brooks Baseball’s Pitch F/X data

(NOTE: This is insider stuff and may be boring so feel free to skip on by it. The differentiation between the two fastballs stems from the way Pitch F/X identifies each pitch. My numbers come from Brooks Baseball’s Pitch FX database based on data from Pitch Info. I am aware that Fangraphs doesn’t distinguish between his four seamer and his sinker so their numbers won’t match mine. That may be due to who interprets their data.  I prefer Brooks Baseball site for this; YMMV,  to each his own etc.  Now back to your regularly scheduled post.)

What Happens To The Pitches

Like most pitchers who feature a four seam fastball, Santana has always given up home runs averaging 1.2 every nine innings; 25.4 a season.He had one 200+ strikeout season (2008) but his 7.1 per 9 innings works out to about 142 a year if he throws 200 innings. Likewise his average his 2.8 every nine innings which would put him at about 500 in the coming year. All of that assumes everything is about the same where he’s going as where he’s been. It  isn’t.

Park Factors compare the rate of stats at home to the rate of stats on the road. Above 1.000 is good for hitters while below 1.000 is good for pitchers.

A look at ESPN’s Park 2013 Factors for his past and future home gives us a little insight.

Turner Field 0.956 0.925 0.987 0.924 1.250 0.945 NL East
Kauffman Stadium  1.082 0.880 1.036 1.059 1.522 0.993 AL Central
Angel Stadium 0.968 0.902 1.014 0.958 1.000 0.989 AL West

The wide open spaces in Kansas City encourage more hits of every type except for those that leave the yard while the Halo’s home encourages doubles and triples and is more generous to the homer. As you can see the Ted is close to the Big A in runs but slightly higher for home runs. The numbers for the NL East and AL west are comparable while the AL Central are generally a bit more hitter friendly.  Offsetting that is the relative weakness of the NL East compared to all AL divisions.

In his post “Finding the Toughest and Weakest Divisions” over at Fangraphs Jeff Sullivan quantifies this based on fWAR. His numbers make a nice graph but it doesn’t take a statistical study to know that the Marlins lineup is about replacement level, the Phillies are dangerous if their age doesn’t betray them and Cole Hamels gets healthy while the Mets are a rebuilding team lacking enough pitching at least a year away from a challenge. This leaves the Nationals and the Braves to fight things out. Other divisions are deeper and stronger. For Santana this is a good thing.

The relative weakness of the NL East will help him keep his WHIP and ERA down. If he continues to use that sinker – with perhaps some help from Roger McDowell – he can bring the home run number down as well and of course most of the hitters haven’t seen him enough to have a book on him so for the first half at least he should have an edge.

I will say in advance that I know these are optimistic numbers but something has to go our way. . .  right? The fWAR guess prediction is low according to the Simple War Calculator if the rest is close but I’m not going higher. The other estimate are from Fangraphs player page.

Season Team W L G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA WAR
2013 Royals 9 10 32 211 6.87 2.18 1.11 .267 3.24 3
2014 Steamer 12 11 30 192 6.63 2.65 0.89 .289 3.99 2.9
2014 Oliver 13 10 32 208 6.42 2.56 1.39 .273 3.9 1.4
2014 ZiPS 10 10 29 185.70 7.12 2.67 1.31 .294 4.26 1.7
2014 Fred 16 8 30 210 7.60 3.00 1.10 .260 3.50 3.1

That’s A Wrap

Santana would not have been my first choice but he is a pretty good option and he answered the question quickly.  This could well be his break through year, being in the NL helps and although he’s been in the AL his whole career, he apparently wanted NL.

(Blue Jay’s)GM Alex Anthopoulos told reporters Wednesday he was informed by Santana’s agent, Jay Alou, that “he wanted to pitch in the NL. Couldn’t compete with it. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t years. He had a strong desire to pitch in the NL, and there was no way to compete with that.”

Adding that to his desire for a big contract next year and the benefits he gains by coming to the NL East and we could see a very different Santana than anyone has seen so far.

Briefly on a related topic

Much has been said about how bad Liberty Media is as an owner but they reacted within an hour of the request to spend an extra $14.1M this year. That’s pretty good response from a corporate decision making team. The reason they reacted was that the Braves are in a win now mode. The coming move to a new ballpark and extensions to core players should have told everyone that prior to this event. I made the point a few weeks ago that the Braves had a two year window to win. The extensions were meant to extend that window and guarantee a competitive team in the new ballpark. The injury to Medlen and Brandon Beachy’s inability to pitch without discomfort could have brought that window crashing down. Terry McGuirk and the baseball operations staff made that solid business position crystal clear to Liberty and they accepted it.  That shows a far better thought process that throwing money at aging superstars then regretting it for years after.

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  • carpengui

    I’m a bit more bullish on some of those stats, though maybe not on some others:
    Innings: 198 due to a slowish start, K/9 seems about right, hoping for a little better BB rate. I also believe the combination of ‘newness’ to the league and lack of DH should help him to come in with a sub-3 ERA. 16-8 feels about right; 17 or 18 wins if he catches a couple of breaks.

    Great detail – if you only look at fangraphs, he just looks like a two-pitch pitcher. Almost wonder if he and Teheran need to be separated in the rotation (maybe with Garcia or eventually Minor in between) just to change up the look.

    • fireboss

      I just looked at his walk record and he’s been steady at that walk rate for a long time. I don’t expect that to improve nor do I expect him to stop giving up home runs. A 2 run ERA drop would be wonderful but I don;t expect it.
      I’d certainly go Santana, Minor Teheran, Wood, whoever

  • Lee Trocinski

    A 16-8 record is ridiculous expectations, especially considering the merely above-average ERA. Teheran had the best record at 14-8 last year, and that was with three starters under 3.25 ERA. Also, the WAR doesn’t match up with the ERA, as Minor threw 205 IP with a 3.21 ERA and was only worth 3.1 WAR. The ballpark, league, and defensive help all make Braves pitchers look better than they are. With your projections, his FIP ends up around 4.00, which is actually below league average for Atlanta’s environment. He’s just a high-variability pitcher who could be great or absolutely implode.

    Stuffwise, the heavy slider usage scares me, as that is almost a guarantee of arm troubles. His sinker doesn’t bite like Huddy’s, but it did get a lot of grounders last year. Like most pitchers, he used it incorrectly, throwing more to lefties despite worse results. If he gets lefties out at a decent clip, he usually has a very good season.

    • fireboss

      Lee you never let me down, I knew you’d rip this up. I said the WAR was low, I almost didn’t put it in. The simple WAR calculator called it a 3.5 but apparently it should be 4.4 because although I didn’t know it when I wrote the piece, the line I predicted was essentially Chris Tillman’s line last year; 16-7 206 innings 33 starts 3.71 ERA and a 1.221 WHIP . Tillman’s Theoretical ERA (FIP) was indeed 4.42 but the actual real, in the books number was 3.71. Even though it statistically shouldn’t have happened it did. In 2010 Santana posted a 17-10 line with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.320 WHIP and oddly enough a 3.0 rWAR. So it’s a shame it can’t happen because it already has.with at least 16 wins and a 3.50 or greater ERA line 30 times since 2007..

      • Lee Trocinski

        I’m actually saying the WAR is a bit too high for that ERA. League average for ATL’s environment last year was 3.60, so Ervin would be slightly above average, good for 2-2.5 WAR.

        Tillman also got over 5 R/9 of support, so while Minor got that last year, Medlen and Teheran each got less than 3.75 R/9. It’s possible for Santana to go 16-8, but remember that Kershaw went 16-9 last year with half the ERA.

        Santana’s ERA has been lower than his FIP the past 4 years, but that may be due to the ballparks and defenses he’s had. He’s not an extreme flyball or groundball pitcher, so I’d expect a ERA-FIP split around .2 runs, not half a run.

        Assuming he allows 3.75 R/9 and the Braves score 4.25 R/9, his Pythagorean Win% is 56%, which would be a 14-11 record. 16-8 is possible, but definitely in the 90-95th percentile.

        • fireboss

          Setting aside the fact that 17 of those 30 lines so close to his had rWAR of 3 and above here’s what I see in his favor. !) He’ll be pitching if friendlier ballparks – park factors in the NL East favor pitchers more than the AL Central where he was last year 2) Without Gattis lumbering around in left he will have a better defense except at catcher and depending on who plays there 2nd 3) It’s the NL where ERAs tend to run about half a run lower than the AL. 4) The NL East is the weakest division in baseball right now 5) The hitters haven’t seen him which as I said in the post gives him an advantage at least the first half 6) This is his second straight walk year and he’ll be working to prove those who passed him over they were wrong. 7) This is a little odd but the closer he is to his home when he pitches the better he does.
          On the flip side1) at 32 his slider use worries me too and the sprained MCL in 2009 adds to that; any pitcher can blow out an arm but Atlanta has done a lot more of that in recent years than anyone else. 2) Gattis isn’t nearly the caliber of catcher he’s had in the past and neither is Laird. How well they work together will be important. 3) Santana is what I’d call a mercurial pitcher, his emotions rise are a big factor in how he performs, if he gets into a real funk it could be bad.
          An unknown in this is how he and Roger McDowell will get along. McDowell could help him get that sinker use and slider over use under control or they could have a communication issue and fight. How he settles in with the staff is important too. He seems like a very nice man off the field and having Walden here he won;t be as isolated as he could be. Garcia could well be a positive influence on him and he could in turn be good for Teheran. All of those aren’t quantifiable but they are factors.
          Run support for all of the pitchers has to get better this season or the Braves are going to struggle. The lineup has to be more consistent at 4+ runs a game and not have that average skewed by scoring a dozen runs a few times over the year. So yes it is a problem for Santana but not anything he can control or worry about. There are reasons – nothing I suspect you can calculate – why some pitchers get support and others don’t. I expect him to get support but I worry about a couple of others.
          Finally of course this is an optimistic projection, I am in spite of rumors to the contrary and optimist and I’ve seen situations like this – loss of a loved player and team ace – raise everyone’s game.