Amid all of the hoopla generated by the Kansas City Royals trade with Tampa Bay Rays in December, Dayton Moore’s trade from a month earlier of minor leaguer Brandon Sisk for Ervin Santana sort of just got pushed to the back burner in everyone’s mind. As Spring Training draws closer, let’s revisit the potential positives and negatives of the Royals’ new $12 million investment.
Ervin Santana could serve as the prototypical high reward/high risk pitcher, especially for the small market teams that can’t afford costly mistakes with their payrolls. At first glance, Santana’s 2012 surface stats are not impressive. His 5.16 ERA and a 9-13 record just scream awful. His WHIP though, at 1.27, while mediocre, didn’t match the train wreck of an ERA. Closer scrutiny revealed one especially horrific statistic. Santana gave up 39 home runs in 2012 – a whopping 19% of all his fly balls left the park and 5.10% of all pitches he threw were knocked over the fence. Santana gave up nearly 2 home runs per nine innings, a spectacular figure. This certainly looks like an outlier considering the next highest HR/9IP was 1.56 clear back in 2007. If that is the case, he is clearly a candidate for positive regression in 2013.
Here’s the rub though. Is he a candidate for regression or is this a new, career threatening trend? According to some research by Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman, Santana lost nearly 2 mph off his fastball from the first month of the season to the last. That is a fairly drastic drop in velocity in a relatively short amount of time. Despite this fact, August and September were Santana’s best two months of the season. His K/9, BB/9, and K/BB were all improved after he missed time in July. His stats improved across the board except for one intriguing exception; his HR/9 stayed up. In fact, Santana only walked 16 batters in 62 innings but gave up a whopping 15 home runs in those same 62 innings. Translation – Santana was striking more batters out, walking fewer, but batters were still bashing the ball over the fence.
The four-seam fastball is Santana’s predominant pitch. According to texasleaguers.com, he threw that pitch 55.2% of the time in 2012, and threw it for a strike 60.2% of the time. Batters swung at it 42.2% of the time. The key part of all of this is that hitters only whiffed on his four-seamer a miniscule 2.6% of the times they hacked at it. For whatever reason, in 2012, batters were having no trouble teeing off on his fastball. If you take a look at a chart showing the location of all of his pitches in 2012 (again, the same page at texasleaguers.com – 7th chart down), you will notice something interesting. Santana threw very few fastballs down and away. His fastballs seem to be clustered high in the strike zone or inside. Notice also, the placement of his slider, which he had a much better whiff rate of 17.9%. While there are many more sliders down and away, there is a big cluster of them thrown right down the middle. These charts would indicate that hitters did not have to worry much about the lower, outside quadrant of the strike zone. These charts also suggest that Santana has become predominantly a fastball/slider pitcher. A reasonable explanation to the spike in home runs could be that hitters were expecting him to pitch to the middle in of the strike zone. Add in a drop in velocity and it is easy to see why he may be suffering from whiplash this off season.
Another interesting tidbit, again from Jeff Zimmerman, this time at royalsreview.com, is a look at release points and their indication of a possible injury. He also theorizes about the loss of velocity and what it could mean. It will be interesting to monitor pitch velocity for Santana in Arizona and if it is revealed over time that Santana was having arm trouble last season and if it will carry over in 2013.
There is one more factor to consider and it is more of an intriguing theory than an actual fact at this point. What impact, if any, is throwing to wonder boy backstop, Salvador Perez going to have on Ervin Santana and the rest of this new rotation for the Royals? Not considering aspects of his defense, like erasing base runners and blocking balls, how will all of these new pitchers react to his pitch calling and game management? Did Jeremy Guthrie‘s turnaround with the Royals have anything to do with having Perez behind the plate? Yes, Guthrie came from the pitcher’s graveyard that is Coors Field, but did Perez help Guthrie to get where he needed to be as a pitcher? The 2013 season may be a proving board for what exactly the Royals have on their hands in Salvador Perez. Is Perez going to be a leader of this team going forward with his defense and offense, and can he improve a pitching staff just by his presence behind the plate? For a pitcher like Santana, if Perez can coax him to improve the location of his pitches, it is not unreasonable to see Santana returning to the effectiveness he has shown in the past.
With all this minutiae, it is hard to understand why the Royals would trade for Ervin Santana, and be willing to pay him $11 million (after the $1 million the Angels threw in). The fact is, Santana has been an effective pitcher in the past, in 2008, 2010, and 2011, and over the past 2 seasons, he has increased his ground ball rate as well. Yes, he has been inconsistent and there is some worry about health. The Royals’ hope he will return to his 2010-2011 form, there is no injury issue, and he can solidify the middle of the rotation. Opponents to this trade complain that Moore could have found equal value in other pitchers at a lower cost. This is probably true but there is no guarantee those pitchers could have been lured to Kansas City. Moore certainly did not want to get into a bidding war and commit too many years to convince some of these guys to pitch in Kansas City. The value in Santana’s contract is that it is only for this one year. Worst case scenario – Santana’s arm is riddled with issues, he never makes it out of Spring Training, the Royals pay a truckload of money for a whole lot of nothing, and Moore looks like an idiot. This is what we all fear is going to happen. The best case scenario is that Santana pitches as he did in 2010-2011, or better, and earns value equal to that of a number two starter. If this unlikely scenario were to play out, we would all be very excited and hopefully give Moore a nod for taking the chance and having it work out.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Royals consider Santana a stop gap in 2013 as Kansas City awaits the return to health of Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino, and the development of their kids down on the farm. Moore was willing to deal with the high risk for what could be a nice reward. Let’s be optimistic and hope for the best.