As a Yankee fan, it was rough watching Johan Santana put down my boys on Wednesday night.

As a baseball fan, it was an absolute joy.

Santana threw seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out six, before tiring quickly and leaving in the eighth. His final stat line–two runs, five hits in seven-plus–doesn’t do him justice; he was in complete control of a Yankee lineup that is one of the very best in baseball. After teasing us–and the Twins–for the past two years, Santana has been in the rotation since Opening Day for the first time, and has had the best summer of any pitcher in the game.

It didn’t look like it was going to be this way. Santana, who was one of the AL’s best pitchers in the second half of last season, opened 2004 looking like he’d spent a bit too much time around Terry Mulholland. Just four of his first 12 starts were quality starts, and he left his June 3 start against the Devil Rays with a 5.51 ERA. It’s funny…I was doing a chat session during that game. With Santana working on a no-hitter through five innings, I threw out:

“It’s just the Devil Rays, but it looks like Johan Santana has finally shown up.”

As the electrons carrying that wisdom were scurrying through InternetLand, Santana gave up four runs on four hits in about 19 seconds in the sixth inning, and would leave in the eighth, having been tagged with the loss.

Regardless, though, something had clicked. Five days later, Santana struck out 10 men and allowed just one run on five hits in seven innings against the Mets. Starting that day, he’s now made 14 straight quality starts since that day-game debacle against the dastardly Devil Rays–see what I did there?–with the following line:

     IP    H    SO   BB    HR    ERA   IP/S
  104.1   52   135   22    11   1.73   7.45

That’ll do. The last column might be disturbing for workload watchers, but because Santana has stopped walking people, he’s yet to have a Category IV start, maxing out at 116 pitches. I don’t see anything dangerous about his usage.

As of right now, Santana deserves the Cy Young Award. His primary competition is Mark Mulder…let’s just run a chart.

                     IP    ERA    RA    H   SO   BB   HR    VORP
Johan Santana      173.0  3.23  3.43  128  196   45   23    53.1
Mark Mulder        185.0  3.75  3.89  165  119   61   18    46.3
Curt Schilling     167.2  3.60  3.70  166  143   28   19    45.5
Tim Hudson         128.1  2.95  3.23  129   66   27    3    41.6

(All stats are through Wednesday, The lack of Support-Neutral stats–my favorite pitcher-evaluation metrics–is because those figures are a tad out of date. We’re working on it.)

There’s a second tier of guys high up on the ERA list. Of that group, I can’t realistically consider Ryan Drese or Jake Westbrook, with strikeout rates and strikeout-to-walk ratios that don’t measure up to the ones above. Brad Radke is having a good year, but it’s basically an inferior version of what Curt Schilling is doing. Joe Nathan might have been listed if I’d done this piece for Thursday. His lousy game against the Yankees last night points out the fragility of reliever candidacies for major awards.

I should reverse field just for a second here and point out that Tim Hudson has probably been the best pitcher in the AL this year. However, his left oblique strain cost him eight starts, so he doesn’t have enough innings to hang with the primary candidates. Had he been healthy all season, he would have presented an even more extreme case than Mulder does in this context: How do you compare pitchers who keep runs off the board in such disparate ways? The difference between Santana and Hudson is, speaking loosely, as if they had the same season through about the first week of July, but then Santana threw 45 innings in which he got every single out by strikeout, walked 18 guys and allowed 20 homers.

With the remaining two pitchers, this isn’t a case of some metrics having one pitcher out front, and others having someone else. Santana leads in VORP, leads in ERA and RA, would probably lead in SNWAR and SNVA (he was virtually tied with Mulder two weeks ago, and has pitched better since then), has relied less on his defense than the other two. He’s within two starts of both–and gaining–in innings and is blowing them away in peripheral categories such as strikeouts and opposition batting.

The problem for Santana is in a column not listed above. Because Mulder has been credited with 16 wins, he is probably the media candidate. Mulder has pitched well, although not as well as Santana has, and he gets better support from a superior Oakland defense. The difference is entirely run support: Santana has gotten 4.89 runs a game from his Twins’ mates, while Mulder and Schilling have each received more than six tallies a game, Mulder getting 6.91. That two runs a game–having nothing to do with pitching–is Mulder’s entire edge in this discussion.

What matters to Cy Young voters in most years are wins, especially 20 wins. It’s very hard for a pitcher to win the Cy if a comparable starter has 20 or more wins and he doesn’t. To do so requires winning at least one of the ERA or strikeout titles, both of which are within Santana’s reach. He could still win 20 games, actually, which would make the whole thing moot. But if he ended up, say, 18-9 while Mulder gets to 21-7 and no other AL starter wins 20, this is probably going to be the postseason award that shines a spotlight on the differences between the performance analysts and the voters.

Next time he pitches, though, throw out the analysis and just pull up a chair. Johan Santana is as much fun to watch as any pitcher in baseball. Even if he gets shorted for an unattractive trophy this year, he’s still one of the season’s best stories.

On Thursday, it was announced that Bud Selig’s contract had been extended through the year 2009. This isn’t a big surprise; Selig, who once claimed to have no interest in the commissioner’s role, and more recently insisted that he wouldn’t stay past the end of the deal, had shown signs of wanting to keep the job past the end of his current deal.

I had a lot of thoughts of the matter, mostly pertaining to the way in which “good for baseball” and “good for baseball team owners” have diverged in the past 15 years, but I wasn’t able to get them out. Thanks to Dayn Perry, I don’t have to.

I fear for 2006, though.

I’m back Saturday, as we send out a special weekend newsletter.

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