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July 22, 2008

Prospectus Today

A July Gut Check?

by Joe Sheehan

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I rarely listen to talk radio, preferring to have ESPNews on if I want background noise. More often, I have nothing on, no radio or TV, no music, just the sounds of the city.

So when I do listen to sports radio, it can be a bit of a jolt. Much of my exposure to it tends to be in the conversations I have on the air in guest segments, and I'm fortunate to work with hosts who know a lot about baseball and who have a lot of buy-in to performance analysis. We don't always agree, but I like to think the caliber of conversations we have when I'm on the air is high enough that we serve the discussion well, no matter who's right or wrong.

That's not what I heard last night, when I turned on the radio while doing dishes at 2 a.m. I honestly don't know who I was listening to, although I will say I was tuned to the elder and more leftward of the city's sports-talk frequencies. The host was rambling about how the Mets had to sweep this week's series against the Phillies to be taken seriously, an utterly ridiculous notion for anyone with a grasp of history, or at least a memory that goes back to last September. A sweep in either direction this week would leave one team three games behind the other with 60 to play; the Phillies were seven games behind the Mets with 17 to play late last season and won the division outright. Then again, it's not like that was a real big story in New York, so you'd understand someone forgetting.

What was more aggravating was the idea, promoted aggressively, that tonight's start is some kind of gut check for Johan Santana. Perceived as a disappointment largely because of an 8-7 win/loss record that you'd think we'd be able to ignore now that we're living in 2008 and not 1908, Santana has been one of the better starters in a deep NL this season, ranking in the top ten in everything worth mentioning, and just outside the top ten in metrics such as Support-Neutral Value and VORP, thanks in part to Thursday's terrible outing against the Reds. Santana's record has more to do with middling run support-33rd among the 66 NL starters with at least 80 innings pitched-and below-average bullpen support than it does his own work. Santana has six quality starts in which he's received either a loss or a no-decision, and had a streak of four straight quality starts without being credited with a win stretching back to June 6. He's pitched well, he's just not been credited with wins.

How well has he pitched? Santana misses bats (8.0 K/9, 10th among starters) and controls the strike zone (3.05 K/BB, ninth) well enough. However, his relatively low ranks in SNLVAR and VORP can be traced to the fact that he does neither of those things as well as he did at his peak. Santana's strikeout rate is down two men per nine innings compared to 2007, despite his move to a pitchers' park in the easier league. The extra balls in play are being converted to hits about 29 percent of the time-Santana's BABIP allowed-which accounts for some of the extra singles he's allowing. Throw in his highest walk rate since 2003, and you have a pitcher who's giving up just enough extra baserunners to get himself in trouble. (Random note: Santana had issued two intentional walks in his career through 2007; he's issued four in 20 starts in the NL.)

Despite the perception that he struggles with the long ball, the problem with Santana isn't the home runs, it's the extra singles and walks. Santana's HR/FB (thanks, Hardball Times) is actually down from last season at 14.1 percent, although still well above his average prior to '07. The decline can largely be attributed to the change in home park. Santana has cut down the number of fly balls he allows, however, so he's allowing fewer homers on the whole.

Take a look at Santana's opponents' batting to see how this all comes together. He's allowing a .244 batting average to opposing hitters, the highest he has given up since establishing himself in 2002. His .299 OBP allowed is also a post-2001 high. That's the drop in strikeout rate, concomitant rise in balls in play, and spike in walks allowed. However, Santana's isolated power allowed is .148, a big drop from last year's .180 and in line with the .123, .136, and .144 marks he put up from 2004-2006.

It's risky to draw conclusions from a fraction of a season, especially one in which the player in question is changing teams and leagues. However, what we may be seeing in Santana is a pitcher changing his approach as he loses five percent of his stuff. Santana may be a bit more willing to put runners on, to not challenge as much, because he knows that he's slightly more vulnerable to home runs when he does. So by working down in the zone a bit more-inducing a few extra ground balls (Santana is running the highest G/F of his career)-he can keep more balls in the park. The downside is that he's pitching to contact more, and with the new approach, missing the plate a bit more as well. I suspect that as he becomes more comfortable pitching this way, he'll have another extended run of greatness ahead of him, and more Cy Young Awards coming his way. In fact, I think Santana will pitch well enough in the last two months of the season to deserve consideration for that award-won/loss record be damned-this year.

Which leaves us where, as far as tonight's start is concerned? Just another day at the office for a pitcher who will be evaluated not by any one night, but by a career's worth of work. The baseball season is too long and too difficult to emphasize one game in July above others.

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

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