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Keeper Status: Johan Santana

New York Mets starting pitcher Johan Santana throws a pitch to the St. Louis Cardinals in the second inning of their MLB National League baseball game in New York, July 28, 2010. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Despite a regression in peripheral stats, Johan Santana had himself a good year for fantasy owners. His price on draft day was lowered due to season ending elbow surgery in 2009 and he put up a 2.98 ERA and 1.18 WHIP while winning 11 games. However, Santana is done for the rest of the 2010 season and may undergo surgery to repair a torn capsule in his throwing shoulder (he is awaiting a second opinion).
 
Johan has been a solid keeper option in the past and he’ll only be 32-years-old to start the 2011 season, but how will his current injury and 2010 season as a whole affect his status for 2011 and beyond?
 

At the start of the season, Johan Santana looked like the ace of old. He posted a 2.08 ERA and 2.57 FIP in April with a 8.31 K/9 and 2.67 BB/9. However, May and June were far from ace-like. Santana posted a 3.73 ERA in May and a 4.68 ERA in June while seeing a sharp regression in strikeouts. For a third straight season, we saw a noticeable drop in velocity from Santana overall, but in particular in those two months. As you can see from his velocity chart (via Fan Graphs), Santana has never regained the velocity he lost toward the end of last season, when he eventually needed season ending elbow surgery.

 
 
Losing velocity can be a huge detriment to some pitchers (see: Vazquez, Javier), but Santana recognized his flaw and adjusted to it. This season, he concentrated on movement more so than ever before by throwing his two-seam fastball, which he added last season, almost 29 percent of the time as opposed to roughly 16 percent in 2009. He also set a career high in the use of his slider. According to pitch f/x, Johan’s two-seam fastball moves about three inches more horizontally than his four seam fastball.
 
The increase in use of his two-seam fastball is interesting in the fact that it didn’t result in more ground outs.  In fact, his ground ball to fly ball ratio remained almost the same and it didn’t result in more swings and misses.  Instead the opposite happened, as his whiff rate decreased for a fourth straight season. It did, however, seem to have an affect on the results of balls in play. Johan’s extra base hits per nine innings — (2B+3B+HR)/IP*9 — went from 3.03 XBH/9 in 2009 to 2.32 XBH/9 this season. The biggest part of that equation was the fact that Johan saw a drop in home runs allowed from 1.08 HR/9 in 2009 to 0.72 HR/9 this season (his career best). In other words, even though hitters were able to put the ball in play more often, the results of their balls in play were far less damaging. Some of that may be due to luck (.281 BABIP against with a 20.3% line drive rate), but some of it can certainly be attributed to the added movement on his fastball, specifically to right handed hitters. The movement of his two-seamer goes away from the barrel of a right hander’s bat. Fastballs that they once squared up now moved away just enough to lessen the impact of the contact. Johan’s splits back this up. From 2008, in which Johan never used a two-seam fastball to 2009, when he started to lose velocity and add movement, to this season, in which he used his two-seamer and slider more often than ever before.
 
Santana vs RHB
 

Season

Two-Seam

Slider

LD%

FB%

HR/FB%

2008

0.0%

5.9%

21.7%

39.0%

7.7%

2009

16.6%

9.1%

17.2%

48.7%

5.9%

2010

28.5%

13.2%

18.4%

48.8%

5.7%

 
Since the initial and increased use of his two-seam fastball, Johan has allowed fewer line drives to right-handed hitters and induced many more fly balls. The fly ball rate is somewhat concerning, as a batters ability to lift a pitch correlates with his chances of lifting the ball over the fence for a home run. However, fly balls are also the ball in play type most likely to result in an out. Johan’s home ballpark helps in this regard as it suppresses home runs overall. Still, there is inherent risk involved with such a high fly ball rate combined with decreasing velocity. 
 
Since becoming a Met, Santana’s fly ball rate against is higher at home than it is on the road.
 
What I believe we have established so far is that Johan Santana is a damn smart pitcher. He has adjusted to his loss in velocity by adding movement and working more offspeed pitches into his plan of attack. However, the regression in velocity and strikeouts  combined with arm issues over the past two seasons are major concerns and cannot be ignored.
 
Santana’s strikeout rate and average velocity have decreased for three straight seasons now. Strikeouts help a pitcher limit the effects that defense and park factors have on their results and since strikeouts are a category for fantasy baseball, the more the merrier. Based on the three-year regression in Santana’s ability to miss bats as well as his arm issues, there is no way to assume he will regain his velocity or see a significant increase in strikeout rate going forward.
 
This morning, injury expert Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus laid out his thoughts on Johan’s current arm troubles. Basically, Johan can come back and pitch in 2011, but it would likely be April-May at the earliest with a chance that he is out until the all-star break. Based on that information and taking into account the regression of his peripheral stats, there is no way to support using a keeper spot on Santana for 2011. Aside from his general decline, Santana is no longer an elite pitcher so his replacement level production, especially with the re-emergence of pitching in the game of baseball overall, is easier to find. Brett Myers, Clay Buchholz, Carl Pavano and Gio Gonzalez all rank close to Johan in Yahoo!’s rankings and were available in the later rounds or as free agents in 2010. Add on top of that the risk of not having any production from April through mid-July.
 
Long-term, there is still some hope that Santana will continue to be an effective pitcher. He showed this season his ability to adjust and maintain a low ERA and WHIP. Still the risk is high enough to warrant dropping him in long-term leagues that use 3-7 keepers. Leagues with deeper keeper rosters or dynasty formats can still afford to hang onto Santana if there is a lack of better options available.
 
The bottom line is that there is a good chance Johan Santana comes back from this injury and pitches fairly well. However, one has to imagine based on his regression over the last three seasons that his days as a fantasy number one are over. He may very well end up being a solid value if he falls to the later rounds on draft day for one-year-only formats, but keeper leagues need to take a serious look at their format and decide if 3/4 to 1/2 of a season of Johan is worth the keeper spot.