Before the 2013 season, the Royals made drastic changes to their starting pitching. As a result, Royals starters finished the season with a 3.87 ERA, up from the 5.01 they posted last year. In addition to this, Royals starters pitched 96 2/3 more innings than last year. This allowed an excellent Royals bullpen to have plenty of rest.
In general, the starting pitching was better than it has been in many years, but how did the Royals rotation perform individually? Earlier, I looked at James Shields, which means that it is now time to look at his partner atop the Royals rotation, Ervin Santana.
The Royals desperately needed a #2 starter and Santana stepped up in a big way, posting the second best numbers of his career. The most important factor for Santana’s success this season was that his home run rate dropped to near career normal levels. After giving up 39 home runs in 2012, Santana brought that number down to 26 in 2013. Part of that is due to a natural regression in his home run to fly ball ratio.
Last season, Santana gave up home runs on 18.9% of all fly balls despite pitching in one of the least homer friendly ballparks in the game. This is the second highest rate in a single season among all qualified starters since this sort of data started being collected in 2002. That’s out of a total of 1042 qualified starters.
It’s safe to say that Santana’s home run numbers from 2012 were a fluke, but Santana certainly helped himself by proving it. Another reason that Santana gave up fewer home runs this year is that his ground ball rate was a career high, at 46.2%. According to PitchF/x data obtained from Fangraphs, Santana threw a two seam fastball and his slider at a greater rate than during any other point in his career.
It’s common knowledge that two seam fastballs produce more ground balls than four seamers, but, according to this study by John Walsch, sliders also lead to many more ground balls than four seamers. Santana’s likely made a conscious effort this season to throw these pitches more often in order to reduce the number of home runs hit off him. Also, Santana’s walk rate was much improved over recent seasons while his 18.9% strikeout rate was his second best number since 2008. Overall, this was a great season for Santana.
The worry on most fans minds is that Santana will not be back next season. This will likely be the case as Santana will be one of the more sought after commodities on this year’s free agent market. If Santana ends up with a 5 year $75 million contract, the paying team will likely be expecting Santana to replicate this years success over the course of those five years.
This is not likely to be the case and here’s why. The first reason is that Santana will be 31 at the start of next season. Generally speaking, baseball players get worse as they age. Santana might age better than average because of his history of durability and good command, but age will still take a toll on him.
Additionally, the long ball is still a problem for Santana. Despite cutting his home run rate down, Santana still gives up an above average amount of home runs. His career rate is above average, so if this year’s numbers fall, the number of home runs that Santana gives up still won’t likely be low.
Another thing to worry about with Santana is consistency. Sure, he was very good this year, but Santana has had two seasons with ERAs over 5 since 2009 and three such seasons since 2007. It’s a little hard to believe that Santana would not have a clunker or two during an extended contract. So, while Santana was very good for the Royals this year, and may very well be good next year, the Royals would probably be better served letting him walk away as a free agent.
Ervin Santana was a great pickup for the Royals this year. He provided the second half of a potent 1-2 punch atop the Royals rotation, leading them to their highest win total in a long time. There were a lot of promising things about Santana this year, but the Royals should be wary about committing to Santana in the long term due to the issues with home runs and consistency.