April 11, 2004

That Boy Ain't Right

The good news for Twins fans is that, as far as I know, Johan Santana made it through yesterday's start without any arm problems. He completed five innings, threw 94 pitches, and appeared as though he could have gone another inning or so, had this been the middle of the year.

The bad news is that he didn't look much like Johan Santana. Santana's bread and butter, the thing that makes him a special pitcher, is his changeup. It is, in my opinion, one of the best in baseball. He throws it extremely well, with the same arm angle as his fastball, and it just drops off the table. When he's got the changeup working, in addition to the very good fastball, it is a deadly combination that leads to tons of hitters looking foolish and a lot of strikeouts.

Yesterday, however, Santana was throwing almost entirely fastballs. He threw some changeups and some sliders, but he was going with the heater in situations when he definitely would have thrown something off-speed last year. I don't know if this has to do with the forearm problems he had in his first start, with the elbow surgery he had during the off-season, or if he simply doesn't have a feel for the off-speed stuff yet. Whatever it is, it has me worried.

Santana talked all spring about not having a feel for his changeup, and then he had a couple good outings right before the season started, and he seemed to have found a comfort zone for his best pitch. He clearly didn't have that feel during his first start and he didn't have it yesterday either.

Santana was able to get to two strikes on a hitter 11 times yesterday, but he simply couldn't put anyone away.


Carlos Guillen 1st Ground Out
Rondell White 2nd Fly Out
Craig Monroe 2nd Walk
Greg Norton 2nd Ground Out
Brandon Inge 3rd Strike Out
Fernando Vina 3rd Ground Out
Carlos Guillen 3rd Infield Single
Rondell White 4th Infield Single
Craig Monroe 4th Strike Out
Greg Norton 4th Strike Out
Fernando Vina 5th Ground Out

Getting 11 batters to two-strike counts in five innings seems like a pretty damn good number to me. He was only able to get that all-important third strike on three of them though, which is concerning.

In some cases, not only was Santana not able to put the batter away after he got two strikes on them, he threw a ton of pitches trying. Check out the number of pitches Santana threw after he got two strikes on the batter in each of those 11 instances:

TWO STRIKES ON        INN        #

Carlos Guillen 1st 3
Rondell White 2nd 1
Craig Monroe 2nd 2
Greg Norton 2nd 4
Brandon Inge 3rd 5
Fernando Vina 3rd 4
Carlos Guillen 3rd 1
Rondell White 4th 5
Craig Monroe 4th 1
Greg Norton 4th 5
Fernando Vina 5th 1

In all, Santana threw 32 pitches after getting two strikes on a batter, which seems to me like a tremendous amount. In other words, 34% of the total pitches he threw yesterday came after he already had two strikes on the batter. Yet, he was able to get a strikeout on just three of those 32 pitches.

Here's another concerning thing...

Over the last two years, Santana has been one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in all of baseball. In 2002 and 2003 combined, Santana induced 329 fly balls compared to just 206 ground balls, for a GB/FB ratio of 0.62. To put that GB/FB ratio in some context, none of the 92 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last year had a ratio that fly ball dominant.

Yet, despite getting more fly balls than anyone, Santana has been exactly the opposite so far this season. Santana recorded 15 outs yesterday. Three of them were on strikeouts, two of them were on fly balls, and 10 of them were on ground balls. Santana was very similar in his first start of the year, getting eight ground ball outs and just three fly ball outs.

That means, for the year, Santana has a GB/FB ratio of 18/5, or 3.60/1. To put that in some context, only one of the 92 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title had a higher GB/FB ratio. Derek Lowe, with his heavy sinker, had 3.92 ground balls for every fly ball.

Essentially, Santana has gone from being perhaps the most extreme fly ball pitcher in baseball over the past two years to being one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball in two starts this year. Now, two starts are just two starts, and it's somewhat silly to get worked up about what someone does in nine innings in April, but I think it is clear that Santana is not quite right.

Santana got tons of outs on pop ups and weak fly balls last year, thanks to that changeup and his ability to keep batters off balance. It would make sense then that, in not throwing as many changeups and not throwing them effectively, Santana would not be able to induce as many of those weak balls in the air. Instead, he's throwing his fastball without keeping people off balance with the changeup, which leads to a lot more hard hit balls and a lot more grounders and line drives.

Just when I thought I'd seen everything...

...in the eighth inning yesterday, Henry Blanco hit a ball into the gap in left-center (no, that's not the strange thing). The ball skipped to the wall and the outfielder had a little trouble picking it up cleanly. So Blanco, not satisfied with a double, decides he's going to try for a triple.

The idea looked and probably felt to Blanco like a good one right up until he was about halfway to third, at which point he was clearly out of gas. The throw beat Blanco to the bag by about 10 feet and Blanco went "sliding" into third with some sort of a belly flop/somersault combination.

The next batter (Cristian Guzman), of course, hit a line drive into that same gap in left-center for a double that would have scored Blanco from second without much trouble.

The lesson here? Two things, actually.

1) If you make an out at third base, the next batter is going to get a hit.

2) If you're Henry Blanco, be happy that you're in the major leagues, be happy you have a hit, be happy it's a double...AND DON'T GET CUTE AND TRY FOR A TRIPLE.

That is all.

Actually though, whatever has gotten into Henry Blanco for the first week of the season is pretty amazing. This is a guy who came into the season as a .219/.295/.353 hitter in over 1,400 plate appearances. The Twins made it known that they were signing him strictly for his defense behind the plate and the fact that they wanted a veteran like him around to work with Joe Mauer.

With Mauer (and Matthew LeCroy) out of action, Blanco has been forced into more playing time than even he could have dreamed of. Through yesterday, he is batting .267/.476/.733, which looks like a line out of Barry Bonds' career. Blanco has two homers and that double I just talked about in 15 at bats, and has walked five times already.

I was looking at Blanco's career numbers and it struck me that, if you ignore batting average, he isn't a bad hitter for a catcher. Look at his career numbers, prorated to a "full-season's" worth of playing time:

 AB     HR     2B     3B     BB

473 10 27 3 51

He's no Mike Piazza, but those are some respectable power numbers and he's got quite a bit of plate discipline (although some of those walks are intentional, thanks to him batting #8 in the NL).

With all that said, he's a career .219 hitter, which is why his overall offense has been so incredibly bad. Actually though, that makes the fact that he has managed to draw so many walks somewhat impressive.

The Twins are 3-3 and Henry Blanco and Jose Offerman have probably been their two best hitters. I'm not sure if those are good things or bad things.

Today's picks:

Arizona (Webb) -125 over Colorado (Jennings)

Pittsburgh (Benson) +200 over Chicago (Maddux)

Total to date: $685

W/L record: 11-9 (2-1 on Friday for +160, including a nice +200 on Jon Garland and the ChiSox.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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