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September 12, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Mysterious Resurgence of Ervin Santana

by Sam Miller

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On July 30, Mike Scioscia told Ervin Santana that, no matter what happened, Santana was not going to pitch more than five innings in that day’s game. Santana had been struggling. Santana had been one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Santana’s ERA was 6.00. So the Angels wanted to reset him with one short outing, an outing in which Santana wouldn’t have to worry about pacing himself and wouldn’t have to hold his mechanics together for quite as long. It’s a trick Scioscia had tried before, most recently with Scott Kazmir, and it’s a trick that you probably don’t hear talked about very often, because Scott Kazmir.

Santana made it through those five innings. They weren’t his best five innings, but he survived them and managed to lower his ERA a tick. Since then, Santana has made seven full starts, and he has arguably been the Angels’ most effective starter in that stretch: a 3.30 ERA, and not a single game score below 50. So, did it work?

***

First, some context for his struggles. The Angels had, by July 30, put the blame on Santana’s arm slot, and particularly his arm slot on the slider. Scioscia:

“It's plagued him probably at times over his career where his arm slot will get away from him a little bit, particularly with throwing a couple different looks on his fastball and his slider.”

Has be been dropping his arm?

“No, it's getting too far on top, where he starts to push the ball and show a little inconsistency with his release point. He’s working hard on getting back to his natural arm slot and getting ready to repeat it. Sometimes he gets a little too far on top with his slider.”

Is the problem just that it affects his command?

“First thing is it telegraphs your pitches; if you're throwing each of your pitches out of a different arm slot, which has been the case that we're seeing—you want that consistency . You want everything out of the same look. If he does get that same look and you're high, then your slider is gonna have more depth and not as much velocity and your fastball's probably going to be a little straighter without that late life. Some guys throw out of that slot because that's their natural slot; that's the way they pitch. Ervin's slot is really a high three-quarter slot that he's been trying to find, not as much over the top, and at times he does get too far over the top.”

(Quotes are direct; questions are paraphrased recreations.)

***

Next, his performance. He has a 3.30 ERA. Done!

***

Oh, okay.

The good news for Santana is that he’s getting far more strikes now.

2011: 64.1 percent
2012 (pre-July 30): 61.6 percent
2012 (post-July 30): 66.0

That’s, obviously, a huge difference. Good Madison Bumgarner is at 66 percent this year. Bad Tim Lincecum is at 61 percent this year. And Santana has, at least in the rawest of measures, gone from pitching like bad Lincecum to good Bumgarner.

Sliders?

2011: 66.0 percent strikes
2012 (pre-July 30): 67.5 percent
2012 (post-July 30): 72.5 percent

Oh. Well, maybe the sliders weren’t the main problem. Regardless, improvement, with an improved whiff rate, and many fewer sliders put in play.

Strikes are part of a pitcher’s performance. Balls being hit hard are the other part. Santana’s turnaround has come with a .177 BABIP in those seven starts, and the way you read that says something about you. It could mean that he’s been incredibly lucky, and that’s all there is to it. It could mean that he’s no longer being hit hard.

Or, because it almost always is this, it could be something in between. Santana has allowed 10 home runs in those seven starts, so at least 10 batters have still hit him awfully hard.

***

As for the arm slot: get ready to be disappointed by this piece. Looking at the sliders he threw on July 21, his bad last start before the July 30 five-innings experiment, his average release point on sliders was 6.11 feet above the ground. Jumping ahead to September 7th, his excellent most recent start (also at Angel Stadium), his release point was 6.06 feet above the ground. So he got his arm slot a very little bit lower, by about a half inch. But in an excellent August start (also at Angel Stadium), his release point on sliders was 6.15 feet above the ground, a very little bit higher. These small fluctuations just aren’t real meaningful, for our purposes.

Is he more consistent within starts now? No. In the bad start, his sliders deviated from the mean by an average of about one inch. In the good starts, the release point deviated by 1.2 inches. So his slider release point hasn’t change, and it hasn’t gotten more consistent. None of which is to say that the issue wasn't his arm slot on the slider, and that he hasn't fixed the problem. But if it's the case, it's subtler than we can detect with charts and graphs.

Though, for what it’s worth, his slider velocity really does drop as the arm slot gets higher.

***

A couple weeks before the five-inning experiment, Mike Scioscia said this about Santana:

"We don’t have a crystal ball, but I think we’re confident that Ervin Santana is going to pitch better than he did in the first half. You got that crystal ball hanging around, lemme see and I’ll take a quick look for you. That’s a big help."

It was safe to expect Santana to pitch better because he never pitches as badly as he was pitching. It was also safe to expect him to pitch better because he always seems to be a fix away from a good month. In 2011, Ervin Santana took a 4.08 ERA into July. He then went through an eight-start stretch in which he struck out five batters for every walk, had a 1.41 ERA, threw a no-hitter, etc.

But even that success was fleeting, and in the final eight starts of the season, he walked nearly as many as he struck out. He always seems to be a small flaw away from a bad month. For now, his arm slot, or whatever, is slotted right. And, for now, whatever is important for Dan Haren is slotted wrong. There’s that old joke about the campers and the bear. “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.” In the race for the fourth spot in a potential playoff rotation, Dan Haren is still probably winning. But, unexpectedly, Santana is making it close, and the Angels must be holding their breath hoping Santana keeps doing his part to keep it that way.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Angels,  Ervin Santana,  PITCHf/x,  Mike Scioscia,  Mechanics,  Slider,  Arm Slot

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