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December 12, 2008

Player Profile

Ervin Santana

by Marc Normandin and Eric Seidman

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The Angels have long hoped that Ervin Santana would translate his potential into production, but before 2008 the Dominican right-hander had struggled to maintain any consistent success on the mound. This past season though, things finally came together, with Santana turning in an ace-like campaign that helped the Angels reach 100 wins. Is this change in production sustainable, or was that as good as it gets for the young hurler?

Johan Ramon Santana was signed as an undrafted free agent by Clay Daniel of the then Anaheim Angels back in 2000. Just 16 years old and without yet pitching professionally, prior to the 2001 season Baseball America nevertheless rated him the 20th-best prospect in the Angels' organization. They pointed out his fastball that was already consistently hitting 90-93 mph and capable of topping out at 95, and that his secondary stuff was in need of refinement. He was advanced for his age though, despite how raw he was.

Santana would make his stateside debut in 2001, splitting his season between the rookie-level Arizona League and the Pioneer League. He struck out over a batter per inning at both stops, but had issues with his command, posting a K/BB of just 1.9. Although he only threw 10 starts in the Arizona League, he led the circuit in both strikeouts and walks.

This early success boosted him to the ninth spot in Baseball America's organizational prospect rankings, as they praised the action on his lively fastball, but also mentioning his advanced changeup. He had been tweaking his curveball during instructional league, but it still wasn't where it needed to be, and Santana still struggled to throw it for strikes. Though these are common issues for a pitcher his age, he was still light years ahead of most.

Santana would move up to full-season Low-A in the Midwest League, where he would whiff 146 hitters in 147 innings while bumping his K/BB ratio up significantly to 3.1. That's impressive for a 19-year-old, and there were reasons for his progress. He had grown two inches and gained 20 pounds since signing at 16, and he could now touch 98 with his fastball. In addition, he began working on a slider that quickly became a plus breaking pitch.

Part of the reason for his improved control and smoother motion was the work of Anaheim's minor league pitching instructors, who helped Santana get rid of some extraneous head movement during his delivery. According to Baseball America, who rated him the fifth-best prospect in the system heading into 2003, he still needed to "fine-tune his command to move the ball to different quadrants of the strike zone," but the speed at which he was progressing was nonetheless impressive.

Johan Ramon Santana would make another change heading into 2003, altering his first name so as not to be confused with the other Johan Santana. Ervin was not a family name or anything of that sort; he just liked the way it sounded.

In his first season as Ervin at High-A Rancho Cucamonga, Santana would throw 124 2/3 innings while racking up 130 strikeouts. He walked just 2.6 per nine, and kept the ball in the park as well (0.6 HR/9). The 20-year-old righty would move to Double-A before the season ended, where he would perform admirably for one so young: 7.0 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in 29 2/3 innings. He would, however, miss a few starts due to a sore elbow.

Santana would see another change in his biography before the 2004 season, when he was discovered to be 10 months older than his listed age. Regardless, his progress through the minors and his success at Double-A at the age of 21 remained impressive. Baseball America 2004 noted that not only was he advanced for his age on a pure stuff level, but he was also capable of making in-game adjustments to his delivery. Justin Verlander had struggled for most of the first half of 2008 when he was unable to keep from pitching with his front side flying open, but Santana was recognizing that he was doing so and correcting it, even if he might occasionally relapse during the season.

Santana's 2004 was a lost year; he stayed in extended spring training due to a sore shoulder, and went out with more elbow issues a month later. An MRI showed that there was no structural damage that needed to be repaired, and Santana was rested until the end of instructional league. In addition to the health problems, Santana was sorting through a bothersome notion in his head: he had a quality changeup, but he was loathe to change speeds in a jam, instead pitching as if more velocity was the solution to getting out of them. He had not pitched much at the higher levels yet, so there was still time to learn that his off-speed pitches could be his best weapons.

He would begin the 2005 season at Double-A Arkansas again, tossing 39 1/3 innings with stats comparable to his 2003 stint there. He would earn a promotion to Triple-A, and despite not dominating at the level, would stick there for just 19 1/3 innings before the Angels brought him up to Anaheim and stuck him into their rotation. In his first game, he would be hit hard, giving up a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in his first inning of work, but in his second start he threw a complete-game shutout against the White Sox.

He would be sent back down to the minors when Kelvim Escobar returned from his injury, but Escobar's elbow issues were not resolved, and Santana would soon return, throwing 133 2/3 innings filling in for the injured starter, striking out 6.7 per nine while allowing 3.0 UIBB per nine. Though not a starter for the Angels in the playoffs, he did come into Bartolo Colon's injury-shortened Game Five of the ALDS against the Yankees and threw 5 1/3 innings. While it wasn't the prettiest effort-just a pair of strikeouts and walks along with three runs allowed-it was enough to win the game and the series.

Baseball Prospectus 2006 was a fan of Santana's, saying:

With a young pitcher, it's often not a question of talent, but a matter of achieving consistency through repetition. Santana's first major league season bears that out: in his 23 starts, he gave up two or fewer runs 12 times, but a less happy five runs or more six times. When he learns how to mitigate the damage in some of those shellings, and he will, he's got the stuff to be mentioned among the American League's elite hurlers. Elbow trouble has been a problem in the past, so he'll have to be handled carefully, but the Angels have a good track record with their charges.

Santana kept his full-time job in the rotation for the 2006 season, throwing 204 innings that looked similar to his 2005 campaign: 6.2 K/9, 3.0 UIBB/9, and 0.9 HR/9. Though his low .269 BABIP helped him considerably, he was awful with runners in scoring position, stranding only 67 percent of his baserunners. Normally, a below-average strand rate is something that should regress to the mean, but Santana just was not as good from the stretch as he was from the full windup, allowing a .292/.346/.506 line with RISP, as opposed to .237/.305/.383 with nobody on.

His home/road splits received a lot of attention; he usually put up ace-like numbers in Anaheim but was below-average everywhere else, and 2006 was no exception, with a 5.95 road ERA and 13 homers allowed in just 87 2/3 innings (1.3 HR/9 away versus 0.6 at home).

Though his peripherals would improve in 2007-Santana would strike out 7.6 hitters per nine against 3.3 UIBB/9-the home runs became too much for him. He allowed 0.8 per nine at home, and an atrocious 2.3 per nine on the road over 73 innings. That resulted in an ERA of 8.38, over five full runs higher than his home ERA. He was no longer all that effective from the windup either, though he was still better there than from the stretch. Santana gave up a line of .305/.373/.523 with none on, and .346/.414/.615 with runners in scoring position.

It's tough to say just what caused this to happen. Was it a problem with concentrating on the hitter once runners moved into scoring position, or was the inconsistency in Santana's secondary pitches being taken advantage of in these situations? Luckily for both the Angels and the 26-year-old, the questions became pointless in 2008, as he would overcome his statistical deficiencies and post the best season of his career.

Santana stopped using his inconsistent curve and change as often, instead relying on his blazing fastball and his slider to get him through each start. Not only did he reduce the damage with runners in scoring position (.244/.327/.363), but he was better on the road than at home, with an ERA that was less than half that of 2007. The homers were still an issue at home (1.3 per nine), but on the road he was keeping the ball in the park at 0.6 per nine. He also brought his strikeout rates up closer to one per inning at 8.8 per nine, and he did that while dropping his walk rate to 1.8 per nine.

The key to Santana's future is keeping hitters off balance with the two pitches he utilizes the most, and changing speeds in order to mix things up. He has great stuff, but two pitches may not be enough to overcome the adjustments that hitters can make over time. He has always had the ability, but as someone who never dominated the higher levels of the minors the same way he torched the lower levels, perhaps Santana just needed more time to sort things out in order to succeed in the way that the scouts who signed him believed he could.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

Following a mediocre rookie season in which he posted a 4.65 ERA and 4.43 FIP, Ervin Santana gave hints of just how valuable he could be with a stellar 2006 campaign. In 33 starts, he logged 204 innings while surrendering only 181 hits. His strikeout and walk rates were less than spectacular, but he managed a 2.0 K/BB nonetheless. Thanks to the slightly above-average rates, and a 7.7 percent HR/FB rate much lower than the 11 percent league average, Ervin's 4.28 ERA virtually matched his 4.20 FIP. His BABIP fell to .269, which more than made up for a poor 67 percent rate of stranding baserunners.

While 2006 looked good on the surface, there were definite reasons to think that the results could have been a fluke. It thus wasn't too surprising in 2007 when his BABIP ballooned to .333, increasing his hits allowed relative to innings pitched as well as his WHIP. Santana's percentage of fly balls increased, as did his HR/FB rate. Combine a spike in homers allowed with a WHIP 0.32 points higher than the year prior, mix in that same 67 percent strand rate, and it's easy to see where things fell apart.

Part of the problem was that Ervin's average fastball velocity, in the 93-95 mph range in 2006, fell to 92 mph in 2007, and batters increased their overall contact rate against him. After throwing just above 50 percent of his pitches in the strike zone for two consecutive seasons, Santana barely topped 40 percent in 2007. With three out of every five pitches he threw landing out of the strike zone, his walk rate naturally also rose substantially. Things were not all bad, however, as Ervin posted a 7.6 K/9, a full strikeout higher than the previous two seasons. On top of that, he increased his rate of opponents' swings on pitches out of the zone.

That Santana was unable to find the zone any more than 40 percent of his pitches is interesting because, over the past five seasons, only three pitchers have had a lower percentage: Kelvin Escobar, John Lackey, and Derek Lowe, all of whom did so in the same 2007 season. For those keeping score, yes, Escobar and Lackey are Santana's teammates, and all four pitched in Los Angeles. Factor in Jered Weaver's only hitting the zone at a 43 percent clip, and it seemed that the Angels rotation was allergic to the strike zone in 2007.

This past year, Ervin returned to the standard 50-51 percent of pitches in the zone, while almost completely scrapping his changeup and curveball. His fastball-which returned to 94 mph-and his slider combined for 96 percent of his deliveries, and Santana saw highs and lows in several statistical categories. His percentage of first-pitch strikes rose to 66.7 percent; his rate of swings on pitches out of the zone to 32 percent, and hitter contact rates on those pitches out of the zone dropped from 70 percent to 54 percent. Overall, hitters' contact rates dropped from 83 to 77 percent. All of this reflects that hitters were jumping much more often on bad pitches, and missing more than ever before. It is no wonder then that his K/9 soared to 8.8 while his BB/9 fell to just 1.9, as he was throwing fewer pitches out of the zone, an even lower percentage of these pitches were being taken, and a higher percentage of offerings were swung on and missed.

In other happy developments, Santana's BABIP stabilized at .302, and he stranded 74 percent of his runners allowed. Even the red flag of his HR/FB does not portend significant regression moving forward. Many will point to a change in his previously ghastly home/road splits, but the underlying reasons for his success seem to be a change in approach, both in terms of his pitch selection and location, and getting back that lost velocity on his fastball. Santana's future success will hinge upon an ability to get batters to chase. If he loses confidence in that slider and has to resort to the curve, or to the changeup that he has all but abandoned-or if he becomes a one-pitch pitcher-the outlook is bleak. For Santana, though, there are no true statistical reasons that he should not keep performing like this for another few seasons.-Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.

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

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