5 Keys to Ervin Santana Returning to Top Starter Status in the AL Central
Starting pitching was a glaring problem for the Kansas City Royals in 2012, as their starters combined to go 47-69 with a 5.01 ERA.
Upgrading the team's starting rotation was definitely an offseason priority for Royals GM Dayton Moore. He needed to find at least one viable starter this winter.
On Wednesday, Moore pulled off a trade for the worst starting pitcher in baseball in 2012. Go figure.
As first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the Royals have acquired 29-year-old right-hander Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels. The Royals sent minor league pitcher Brandon Sisk to Anaheim and are also getting some cash that they can put toward Santana's $13 million salary in 2013.
Several years ago, Santana was one of the most promising young pitchers in the league. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2008, winning 16 games with a 3.49 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP.
If Santana does all this all over again, the Royals are going to be out a minor leaguer and a few million bucks with nothing to show for it. Santana has to be better.
Here's a look at how he can turn things around.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Keep the Ball in the Yard
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Yeah, I admit this one's a little obvious. Telling Santana to stop giving up home runs is like telling a kid who can't stop eating paint chips to stop eating paint chips.
Nevertheless, this is something that needs to be said. Santana's home run problem is by far his biggest problem.
When a ball was hit in the air off Santana in 2012, odds were it was going over the fence. FanGraphs calculated his HR/FB rate at 18.9 percent, highest among all major league starting pitchers. The fact that his HR/FB rate on the road was 19.5 percent didn't help.
And if I'm the Royals, this is what scares me the most. Angels Stadium of Anaheim is one of the worst home run havens in Major League Baseball, and Santana won't be pitching there half the time he takes the mound. Because Kauffman Stadium rated as a park much more friendly to home run hitters in 2012, it's not inconceivable that Santana's home run problem could actually get worse in 2013.
It's hard not to think of what happened to Jonathan Sanchez when he put on a Royals uniform. He posted HR/FB rates in the 9.0-10.0 range in three of four seasons before coming over to the Royals, in no small part because of the fact that he was pitching at AT&T Park half the time. He ended up surrendering eight home runs in 53.1 innings as a Royal, and he ultimately ended the year with a HR/FB rate of 12.1.
One thing the Royals could do is assume that Santana's home run problem in 2012 was largely the result of bad luck, as his 18.9 HR/FB rate represented a huge increase over the HR/FB rates he posted in 2010 and 2011. Maybe he just had a few more warning-track fly balls go over the fence due to wind and various other circumstances beyond his control.
The Royals, of course, can't assume anything. They need to be proactive in fixing Santana.
To that end, there are a few ideas they can pursue.
Find a Consistent Arm Slot
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When a pitcher is struggling as badly as Santana was struggling for much of the 2012 season, there's usually some sort of mechanical flaw that needs fixing.
Eventually, the Angels figured that out. Shortly after Santana was rocked for six earned runs on eight hits in 1.2 innings on July 21 against the Texas Rangers, the Angels announced that he was going to have a start skipped so he could get his mechanics in order.
In the words of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, Santana was getting "too far on top" with his arm slot. When he does that, Santana "telegraphs pitches."
Whatever adjustments Santana made after he was rocked by the Rangers in that fateful start, they made a difference. Santana faced the Rangers again on July 30 and held them to three earned runs on four hits in five innings. Not great, but certainly a lot better than his previous outing against them.
Thanks to BrooksBaseball.net, we know that there were some subtle differences in Santana's arm slot between the two starts. If you check out the graph of his release point on July 21 and that of his release point on July 30, you'll see that there was a very subtle difference.
With his release point squared away, Santana finished the season on a positive note. In 10 starts between August and September, he went six innings in all but one of them and allowed two earned runs or less seven times.
Home runs were still a problem for Santana in those final 10 starts, but the homers he was giving up weren't back-breakers. Most of them were solo homers, and those aren't so bad.
If Santana can maintain a consistent release point like the one he had down the stretch in 2012, the odds are good that he'll be able to duplicate the results.
Of course, there are other things Santana can do to help himself.
Four-Seam Fastball Alone Isn't Going to Cut It
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When Santana had his breakout year in 2008, he had a live wire of a fastball. Per FanGraphs, it came in at an average velocity of 94.8 miles per hour, and it proved to be very effective in setting hitters up for his killer slider.
Santana's fastball is no longer a live wire. His velocity dropped to an average of 91.7 miles per hour in 2012, and it was hit at a .288 clip by opposing hitters. His slider lost some effectiveness, too, as opponents ended up hitting 15 of them out of the yard throughout the course of the season.
Santana was able to get away with being a strictly fastball-slider pitcher when he was throwing in the mid-90s. With his velocity on the decline, however, Santana is going to need more pitches he can use to keep hitters guessing.
Santana does feature a two-seamer, but it's not a pitch he features very often. He didn't throw it at all in 2010 or 2011, and FanGraphs claims he only threw it 27 times in 2012.
If Santana can develop his two-seamer to the point where he's more confident in it, he'll be thankful he did. A good two-seamer from a right-handed pitcher on the inside corner can freeze lefties, and it can also be used in on the hands of right-handed hitters to get a few broken bats.
If Santana wants to push the envelope even further, he can bust out the cutter that he stopped throwing a couple years ago. The cut fastball isn't for everyone, but it's a good pitch for pitchers with declining velocity to have in their repertoires. Josh Beckett and Dan Haren are just a couple pitchers who can vouch.
Developing a new go-to pitch obviously isn't as simple as pushing a button. Developing two go-to pitches is even more complicated. And the more Santana tinkers with his stuff, the more he could mess himself up.
But since he needs to use the 2013 season to prove that he's worthy of a multi-year deal, there's no time like the present for Santana to experiment. To boot, he shouldn't just be experimenting with his hard stuff.
Changeup Needs More Work
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Santana had problems with his fastball and slider in 2012, but one of the bright sides of his season was that he did have some success with his changeup.
Santana barely used his changeup in 2011, throwing it only about three percent of the time. When he did, opponents hit .429 off of it, according to FanGraphs. Back in 2009, opponents hit a staggering .575 against Santana's changeup.
In 2012, Santana took to throwing his changeup around seven percent of the time, and opponents hit just .214 off of it.
If Santana can continue to make strides with his changeup, he can use it as another pitch to expand the zone. The only pitch he can use to do that right now is his slider, and every hitter worth his salt knows to look for it when Santana gets ahead in the count. Having an extra pitch for hitters to think about with two strikes is in Santana's interest.
Plus, a good changeup can be useful in getting ground balls in a pinch. That's a notion that should appeal to Santana seeing as how he only induced only eight double plays all year in 2012.
If Santana can improve his changeup and add a decent two-seam fastball to his repertoire, he'll go from being essentially a mere two-pitch pitcher to being a guy with four viable pitches. That will make it harder for opponents to sit on his fastball, and for now that will do for a step in the right direction.
Good stuff can do wonders for a pitcher, but none of it works without confidence. As for how Santana can make sure he has that...
Get off to a Good Start
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Some pitchers just don't start strong, and Santana is one of them. Starting slow has become a habit that he can't shake.
Through his first five starts in 2010, Santana was 1-2 with a 4.59 ERA. Through his first six starts in 2011, he was 1-3 with a 4.89 ERA. Through his first five starts of 2012, Santana hit bottom by going 0-5 with a 6.16 ERA. He gave up 10 home runs in his first 23.2 innings.
When Santana had his breakout year in 2008, he was money right out of the gate. He had a perfect 5-0 record through six starts with a 2.48 ERA, and he was holding opposing hitters to a .579 OPS.
Whatever Santana was doing early in the 2008 season—beyond throwing his fastball in the mid-90s, of course—it worked. He got himself into a rhythm, and it resulted in a season that saw him finish sixth in the AL Cy Young voting.
If Santana does what he needs to do by expanding his repertoire during spring training, he's going to have a lot going on upstairs by the time he makes his first start for the Royals next season. It doesn't help that he'll be trying to impress his new employers, and he'll also have what he stands to lose with another poor season at the back of his mind.
He can't let it faze him. He'll just have to trust his stuff and roll with it.
A good start could, in turn, get him rolling. Another bad start, on the other hand, could only serve to return Santana to the drawing board, and soon after the Royals will surely have another Jonathan Sanchez on their hands.
And that just wouldn't be good for anyone, would it?
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