July 13, 2006

Johan The Great

The following article appears in the most recent edition of GameDay, the independent program that's available outside the Metrodome before every Twins game. I'd like to thank GameDay's editor, John Bonnes, for asking me to write something about my favorite topic. Enjoy.

No one ever wonders whether or not Nick Punto is one of the top dozen utility infielders in baseball or where exactly Willie Eyre ranks in the storied history of big leaguers named "Willie." For some guys, just being major-league players is more than enough to satisfy most everyone's curiosity.

However, once it's been established that a player is truly great--like in the case of Johan Santana--the mind naturally begins to wonder how great. For instance, is Santana the best pitcher on the Twins' staff? With all due respect to Joe Nathan's dominance out of the bullpen and Francisco Liriano's superstar potential, that answer is of course a resounding yes.

Is Santana the best pitcher in the entire American League? Santana unanimously won the AL Cy Young Award in 2004 and deserved to win it again in 2005. In fact, if not for the voters' maddening tendency to focus solely on individual wins and the lack of offensive support the Twins' lineup provided Santana, he would have cruised to back-to-back awards. In short, the answer is yes.

So he's the best pitcher on the Twins and the best pitcher in the AL, but is Santana the best southpaw in all of baseball? That question is a little more difficult to answer, because the competition is pretty stiff. Take a look at how Santana's combined numbers from 2004 and 2005--his first two seasons as a full-time starter--compare to the other top left-handed starters around MLB:

                   IP    ERA    W   WIN%   SO9   OAVG
Johan Santana 460 2.74 36 .735 9.9 .201
Andy Pettitte 305 2.80 23 .639 7.4 .229
Randy Johnson 471 3.17 33 .600 9.6 .220
Dontrelle Willis 433 3.26 32 .604 6.4 .257
Mark Buehrle 482 3.51 32 .640 5.9 .267
Mark Mulder 431 4.05 33 .673 5.3 .269
C.C. Sabathia 385 4.07 26 .565 7.0 .250
Kenny Rogers 407 4.14 32 .653 4.7 .282
Barry Zito 441 4.16 25 .510 6.8 .242
Cliff Lee 381 4.56 32 .711 7.2 .259

There are some great pitchers on that list, but from 2004-2005 Santana led all left-handed starting pitchers in ERA (2.74), wins (36), winning percentage (.735), strikeouts (503), strikeouts-per-nine-innings (9.9), and opponent's batting average (.201). The only two major categories he didn't lead all southpaws in were strikeout-to-walk ratio and innings pitched, where Santana ranked second and third, respectively.

Santana is also putting together yet another Cy Young-caliber season this year, while many of those other lefties listed above have been less than dominant. In fact, with future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson's performance declining right around the same time that Santana began emerging, the torch has definitely been passed from The Big Unit to Johan as the premiere southpaw around.

It may seem difficult to go much further than that--best on the Twins, best in the AL, best lefty in MLB--but more than any other sport baseball lends itself to examination through history and numbers. If you're not satisfied in knowing that Santana is the best left-handed pitcher around today, the next step is to examine how he ranks among past southpaws.

Last season was Santana's "age-26" campaign and after going 16-7 with a 2.87 ERA in 231.2 innings his career totals looked like this:

  G    GS    ERA    W    L   WIN%    IP     H    SO    BB
184 108 3.31 59 25 .702 856 699 901 265

Simply amazing, and of particular note is that among pitchers with at least 50 wins, 1940s Yankees great Spud Chandler is the only one in baseball history with a higher winning percentage than Santana's .702 (Pedro Martinez is right on Santana's tail at .701).

With that said, rather than comparing Santana to other left-handed pitchers in each individual category, there's an easier way to go about determining his place in history. Thanks to a statistic called "Runs Saved Above Average" we can actually boil each pitcher's contributions down to one catch-all number.

RSAA compares each pitcher's performance to what an "average" pitcher would have done over the same number of innings, all while making important adjustments for such overlooked factors as home ballpark, league, and era. In other words, it's silly to compare raw, unadjusted numbers for someone pitching at Coors Field in 2005 and someone pitching at Dodger Stadium in 1975.

It's an apples-to-oranges comparison because the modern Rockies pitcher has all sorts of disadvantages, including a home ballpark that is death to pitching and an overall era that is extremely hitter friendly. In other words, not all 3.00 ERAs are equal, and RSAA accounts for that.

With a 59-25 record and 3.31 ERA in 856 career innings coming into this season, Santana's RSAA stood at 125, meaning he's been 125 runs better than your average starter over that time. Here's what the all-time RSAA leader board looks like for left-handed starters through the age of 26:

Hal Newhouser 235
Noodles Hahn 147
Mark Buehrle 138
Lefty Gomez 129
Rube Waddell 119
Barry Zito 116
Vida Blue 110
Billy Pierce 100
Frank Tanana 96

There are some names on that list that you may not recognize, in large part because many of those lefties pitched during the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Noodles Hahn and Rube Waddell--where did all the cool-sounding baseball names go?--were both done pitching by 1910, and Hal Newhouser and Lefty Gomez were both finished before the Twins moved to Minnesota in 1961.

All of which makes Santana's fifth-place standing even more impressive. Among "modern" lefties--that is, guys who began their career after MLB lowered the pitching mound in 1969--the only one from the above list who can top Santana's 125 RSAA through the age of 26 is White Sox ace Mark Buehrle.

At first glance it may seem odd that Buehrle saved more runs than Santana through the age of 26, but it's important to remember that Santana got a relatively late start on racking up his incredible numbers. Snagged from the Astros in the 1999 Rule 5 draft--think Houston would like to have that one back?--Santana spent the 2000 and 2001 seasons pitching out of the back of the Twins' bullpen, totaling just three wins, nine starts, and 130 innings.

He then spent a large portion of 2002 in the minor leagues, working with Triple-A pitching coach Bobby Cuellar to develop his now unhittable changeup. Santana spent all of the 2003 season in Minnesota, but didn't get a full-time spot in the rotation until late in the season. Santana's first year as a full-fledged member of the starting rotation came in 2004, at which point he was already 25 years old.

For comparison, by the time Buehrle turned 25 years old he already had three full seasons in Chicago's rotation and 53 big-league wins under his belt. The aforementioned Noodles Hahn had 106 wins on his resume by the age of 25. That Santana was able to make up as much ground as he did despite giving everyone else such a big head start is a testament to his brilliance.

It's impossible to predict how many RSAA Santana will end up with in 2006, his age-27 season. He's on track for another spectacular year and it's safe to say he'll end up somewhere around 40 RSAA (Santana totaled 54 in 2004 and 39 in 2005). If you give him credit for 40 RSAA during his age-27 season (and give Buehrle, also 27 this year, 30 RSAA) here's what the age-27 leader board would look like:

Hal Newhouser 268
Mark Buehrle 168
Rube Waddell 159
Noodles Hahn 144
Lefty Gomez 132
Barry Zito 132
Sam McDowell 124
Whitey Ford 122
Larry French 119

That's amazing company. Newhouser, Waddell, Gomez, and Whitey Ford are all in the Hall of Fame, Sam McDowell was a six-time All-Star, and Barry Zito won the AL Cy Young two seasons before Santana. He's unable to make up significant ground on Newhouser, but by the end of this season Santana could very well be the owner of the No. 2 spot on the list or at the very least prepared to overtake Buehrle early next year.

Finally, here's how the RSAA leader board through age 27 looks for left-handed pitchers if we limit the pool to guys who pitched after baseball lowered the mound in 1969:

Mark Buehrle 168
Barry Zito 132
Steve Carlton 113
Vida Blue 112
Jimmy Key 100
Frank Tanana 95
Mike Hampton 95
Dave Righetti 85
Mark Mulder 81

That list paints a pretty good picture of exactly how extraordinary Santana has been. Despite spending his first two seasons as a mop-up man and not getting a chance to start every fifth day until the age of 25, Santana is neck-and-neck with Buehrle for the top spot and significantly ahead of big names like Barry Zito, Steve Carlton, and Vida Blue.

Along with being the best pitcher on the team, the best pitcher in the league, and the best lefty in baseball, you can add "best southpaw of the modern era through the age of 27" to Santana's growing list of accomplishments. Now the only question is, what can he do next?

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