November 12, 2004

Unanimously Johan

I feel a bit like a proud father today. In the 28 months I've been writing at my blog and the nine months I've been writing at The Hardball Times, I have penned well over a million words (Blogger says I've written 926,480 words on the blog alone, and I babble plenty at THT too). And for anyone who has been reading me for a while, it probably seems as if at least half of those words were written about Johan Santana.

In August of 2002 -- the first month of the blog's existence -- I wrote the first of what has turned into countless columns about Santana.

I suspect that many of you are not very familiar with Mr. Santana, but with the way he has pitched this season, that might change very quickly.

At the time I wrote that, Santana was a 23-year-old former Rule 5 pick with a total of 206.2 major-league innings under his belt, and he had a career ERA of 4.96. But in his third stint with the Twins, I saw something in Santana that was special. He had a blazing fastball, but what set him apart was that he also possessed an outstanding slider and one of the filthiest changeups I had ever seen. He wasn't just striking people out, he was making them look silly at the plate.

In October of 2002, after Santana went 8-6 with a 2.99 ERA down the stretch for the Twins, I wrote the following in my end-of-season assessment of the team:

More than any pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization, I believe Johan Santana has a chance to be something very special, a chance to be a dominant pitcher at the major-league level. One thing they do not have is a guy who has a chance to become a true "ace," a #1 starter, a dominant, top level starting pitcher. I think Johan Santana is that guy.

They need to find a full-time spot in the starting rotation for Santana, whether that means trading Rick Reed or doing something else, since he deserves a chance to make 30-35 starts and pitch 200 innings. If he gets that chance, by this time next season Johan Santana will be a household name and one of the best pitchers in the American League.

When the Twins kept Santana hidden away in the bullpen for most of the 2003 season, I campaigned constantly for a move to his rightful place in the team's rotation. My blog essentially became the Johan Santana Fan Club, and when THT started up this March, I infested a second website with my Santana worship. At first people thought it was kind of cute -- I started calling him "The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog" and other bloggers would toss in a line about me loving him whenever they mentioned Santana.

Then at some point my weekly (and sometimes daily) Santana chronicles became too much for some people to take. I began to get e-mails from readers who complained that I talked about him too much, and whenever a Santana-related column of mine would show up at THT, several people would strongly suggest that I keep the Santana stuff on my blog. My response, usually, was that by the middle of this season Santana was no longer a topic for Twins fans, he was a topic for baseball fans.

The run he made during the final four months of the season is one of the greatest in the history of the sport. Since the start of June, Santana went 18-3 with a 1.50 ERA, including 13-0 with a 1.18 ERA after the All-Star break and a nearly unbelievable 5-0 with a 0.26 ERA in September. And all the while I couldn't stop smiling. I am not an expert on baseball talent and I would be utterly useless as a scout, but for some reason I saw something in Santana that I hadn't seen in other players. Whether it was the pitches he threw or the style he threw them or his supreme confidence on the mound, I saw a player who wasn't very well known and I knew instantly that he'd become a star. He just needed the chance.

That long-awaited chance came this season, as the Twins finally put him into the rotation to begin the year and made no talks about shuttling him back and forth. It was the moment I had been waiting for. Before the start of the season, THT's writers made predictions about the 2004 standings and award winners. I predicted Santana would win the American League Cy Young and was the only person to do so. But while I had all the confidence in the world in Santana, I never in my wildest dreams could have expected a season like the one he had.

Santana started off struggling, going 2-3 with a 5.61 ERA in April and May while complaining that he didn't have a good "feel" for what he was doing on the mound following offseason elbow surgery. He then took his fourth loss of the season in his first start in June, giving up four runs to the Devil Rays. Even in the loss, something clicked in Santana that day as he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before the wheels came flying off, and he finally started pitching like the guy who got me so worked up during the past two years.

From then on, Santana didn't make a single bad start. Not one. He made 22 starts to finish the season and the most runs he allowed in any of them was three, which happened once. Six times he didn't allow a single earned run to score and nine times he gave up just one. He had a 33-inning scoreless streak in September, reeled off 21 straight Quality Starts, and likely would have gone for 22 in a row if he hadn't been yanked from his final start of the season after five innings to rest up for the playoffs. Had whatever clicked in Santana in June clicked in him a little sooner, he would have had one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher in baseball history, a year that perhaps could have rivaled what Pedro Martinez did in 1999 and 2000.

Instead, Santana had to settle for leading the league in ERA, strikeouts and opponent's batting average, setting the Twins' all-time record for strikeouts in a season, and putting on a show in the second half that baseball fans aren't likely to forget anytime soon. And now he can add the American League Cy Young to his list of accomplishments, and he can do so knowing the voting was unanimous in his favor.


Johan Santana 28 -- -- 140
Curt Schilling -- 27 1 82
Mariano Rivera -- 1 24 27
Pedro Martinez -- -- 1 1
Joe Nathan -- -- 1 1
Francisco Rodriguez -- -- 1 1

I had a lot of doubt about whether or not the voters would see just how great Santana was this season, although most of that vanished for me once he got his 20th win of the year. For most people that is the magic number, and as long as Santana got to it he was safe, even if Curt Schilling was one spot ahead of him with 21 victories. There were 28 votes cast for the best pitcher in the league and 28 votes for Santana. What this means, aside from the fact that I should maybe give the people who vote for these awards just slightly more credit than I have been, is that no one who matters in the world of baseball listens to or thinks like John Kruk.

That should have seemed obvious to anyone who has heard Kruk before, but I had my doubts. For the past couple months, Kruk has talked up Schilling as the best pitcher in the AL, first infecting us with his opinion on ESPN's Baseball Tonight and then, as the voting for the award came closer, popping up in newspapers too. In a St. Paul Pioneer Press article from earlier this week that appeared in papers across the country, Kruk was quoted extensively.

ESPN analyst Jon Kruk said there is only one statistic that should matter in the voting.

"I'm just always under the impression that the guy with the most wins is the best pitcher," said Kruk, who does not have a vote and admitted being biased toward his former Philadelphia Phillies teammate. "People at ESPN are into numbers and they say, 'Well, Santana's ERA is better and Schilling had more run support.'"

Boston averaged seven runs in Schilling's starts; Minnesota averaged five runs in Santana's starts. "I understand that," Kruk said. "But what's the big thing for a pitcher? Win 20 games, right? You never hear, 'I want to win the ERA title.' They want to win."

In the past two seasons, the AL runner-up had a lower ERA and more strikeouts than the winner, who in both instances had only slightly more victories. Last season, for example, Toronto's Roy Halladay (22-7, 3.25 ERA, 204 strikeouts) won easily over Chicago's Esteban Loaiza (21-9, 2.90, 207).

"One game's huge," Kruk said.

Sadly, I think it's fairly likely that a lot of the voters do, for the most part, agree with Kruk. In fact, we just saw that this is true in the National League Cy Young voting. However, thankfully in this case Santana was able to get to that magic 20th win, which was enough to pull what is apparently everyone in the free world except for Kruk into his camp.

My favorite Kruk line is that, "People at ESPN are into numbers." It reminds me of a bit I heard a comedian (I can't remember who, strangely) do once. He said, "I know a lot of people who say 'I'm not really into computers.' You know, at this point saying you're 'not into computers' is like telling someone, 'I'm not really into this whole telephone thing.'"

In other words, with all the wonderful information we have at our fingertips now that wasn't around even 10 years ago, anyone who bases their opinion of who the best pitcher in a league is on the number of wins they have is so beyond not worth listening to that it isn't even funny. Among other things, ESPN should be embarrassed by the fact that, as the largest form of sports media in the country, one of the three major baseball analysts they employ isn't really into the telephone.

The sad thing is that Kruk will likely continue to ruin what was one of the best shows on television each time he appears on Baseball Tonight with his mindless, illogical, mindnumbing "analysis." The good news is that no one, from statheads and blog writers to the members of the mainstream media who actually decide who wins awards are paying one bit of attention to what he thinks or says. When you're still towing the party line that "the guy with the most wins is the best pitcher" and you've been surpassed in baseball enlightenment by every member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, that might be a sign that it's time to give up the fight and take a look at a few of those dreaded numbers.

The other day someone asked me why I hadn't written anything about my picks for the season-ending awards and hadn't commented on Jason Bay and Bobby Crosby winning the Rookie of the Year awards or Clemens winning the NL Cy Young. I told them I really didn't care about the awards anymore, because if a group of baseball "experts" are still using wins and RBIs as their barometer for greatness, why should we care what they think?

Santana was the best pitcher in the American League this season and it wasn't particularly close, yet as sad as it is, I was surprised that everyone in charge of handing out that honor actually saw that. But in a couple days, when the American League MVP is announced and Santana finishes nowhere near the top, order will be restored and I can go back to wondering why we care what 28 writers who often seem as if they haven't made an effort to learn anything new about the sport they cover in the last decade really think about who deserves awards. For now though, it feels pretty good to know that Johan Santana is the 2004 American League Cy Young winner.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- World Cup 2006: A Look Ahead (by Craig Burley)

- Fantasy Keepers: First Basemen (by Ben Jacobs)

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