Retelling Johan Santana's MLB Journey from Untouchable to Unfixable
Have we seen the last of Johan Santana?
It looks that way. The New York Mets revealed on Thursday that their star lefty has suffered a major shoulder injury for the second time in three years. The former ace will undergo surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his throwing arm on Tuesday, thus ending his season before it even got started.
This surely signifies a disappointing conclusion to Santana's career with the Mets. The 34-year-old's contract only runs through 2013, and it's hard to imagine the club picking up his 2014 option.
Beyond that, one doesn't need to be Inspector Sherlock Gadget to deduce that there's a strong likelihood Santana has thrown his last major league pitch. Coming back from his first shoulder surgery proved to be difficult enough. Coming back from this second one may prove impossible.
If so, we're looking at the end of a remarkable career. If you'll follow me this way to the way-back machine, we can go back and take a look at it together.
1995-2003: The Rise to Relevancy
Once upon a time, Santana was a talented young outfielder.
Yup. That's the story according to the Johan Santana Foundation. He didn't take to pitching until after he attended a baseball academy in Guacara, Venezuela, in 1995—the year he was signed by the Houston Astros as an amateur free agent.
Santana made his minor league debut in 1997, compiling a 7.36 ERA in 10 appearances (six starts) between rookie ball and Low-A. His numbers improved only marginally the next season, and in 1999, Santana found himself in the Florida Marlins organization by way of the Rule 5 draft. He was subsequently dealt to the Minnesota Twins.
Though he had only posted a 4.66 ERA in Single-A ball in 1999, Santana made his major league debut with the Twins in 2000. He didn't make much of an impression, posting a 6.49 ERA in 30 appearances, five of which were starts. He then spent much of the 2001 season battling an elbow injury.
But every heroic story has a turning point: King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, Peter Parker getting bit by the spider, what have you. In the heroic tale of Johan Santana, the turning point happened in 2002 when he came upon a magic weapon: his changeup.
Santana spent a portion of the 2002 season at Triple-A, where he compiled a 3.14 ERA over 11 appearances, including nine starts. That's not bad for a guy with mediocre career minor league and major league numbers, and Santana had his changeup to thank for the turnaround.
Jack Curry told the story for The New York Times in 2008:
Santana fiddled with a changeup before 2002, but that was when the pitch blossomed. After Minnesota sent Santana to Class AAA Edmonton to convert him from a reliever to a starter, Bobby Cuellar, the pitching coach there, preached about the significance of trusting his changeup in any situation.
During bullpen sessions, Cuellar would tell Santana to imagine the count was 2-0 or 3-0 and would instruct him to throw a changeup. During games, Cuellar sometimes had Santana toss seven straight changeups. Although Santana said it took months to be that bold, Cuellar said he saw "a little glow in Johan’s eye" as the pitch developed.
Back up in the major leagues, Santana put together a 2.99 ERA with an 11.4 K/9 in 27 appearances. Fourteen of those were starts, and they saw Santana go 7-4 with a 3.24 ERA. Though he finished the season in the bullpen, the numbers made it clear enough that he had turned a corner.
Santana was in the Twins' bullpen for the start of the 2003 season, but he found his way into their starting rotation by the time the stretch run rolled around. After a bumpy start, he proceeded to post a 2.51 ERA in his final 11 starts, with 70 strikeouts in 68 innings to boot.
The Twins felt confident enough in Santana's abilities to start him in Game 1 of their American League Division Series matchup against the New York Yankees. The following spring, they felt confident enough in him to make him their No. 2 starter behind veteran right-hander Brad Radke.
The rest, as they say, is a cool story, bro.
2004-2007: The Rise to Superstardom
We all remember the 2004 season. It was Santana's very own Sgt. Pepper's—his 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What we might not all remember is that Santana's 2004 campaign actually got off to a pretty rocky start. Through his first 12 outings, he had an ERA of 5.50 and had given up 12 homers in 68.2 innings.
After a loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on June 3, Santana was just 2-4, and the Twins were a modest 28-25.
"I'm just trying to go out there and do the best I can," said Santana, via the AP. "I'm not frustrated. ... We're going through a tough time. This game is very tricky."
Indeed, the tables can and will turn in baseball. The rest of Santana's 2004 season is the proof.
In his last seven starts before the All-Star break, Santana compiled a 1.64 ERA with 75 strikeouts over 55 innings. With those starts in the books, he looked poised for a strong second half.
Nah. "Strong" is too weak a word here. A better word would be something along the lines of "absurd" or "unreal."
In 15 starts after the break, Santana posted a 1.21 ERA and struck out 129 in 104.1 innings, walking only 23 and limiting opponents to a .443 OPS. He also continued a stretch he had started before the break in which he allowed no more than four hits and two earned runs in 10 straight starts.
How did he do it?
Improved control helped, but Santana's primary weapon was his changeup. It had the destructive power of the "Holy Hand Grenade" and the "Falcon Punch" put together.
"He's the only guy I know who at times has a 20-mile-per-hour differential between his fastball and his changeup," said Seattle Mariners second baseman Bret Boone to Sports Illustrated. "Usually guys have a 10-mile-per-hour difference."
Boone wasn't kidding. According to FanGraphs, Santana's changeup averaged 78.3 miles per hour, about 15 miles per hour slower than his 92.4 mph heater. He saved 4.37 runs with it for every 100 times he used it—an astonishing rate.
Santana's changeup-fueled hot stretch in the second half of 2004 put him in rarefied air. He led the American League in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts and hits per nine innings pitched. He was ultimately named the AL Cy Young award winner over Curt Schilling.
For an encore in 2005, Santana did it all over again. He posted a 2.87 ERA and led the American League in ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts and hits per nine innings pitched. He brought more of the same in 2006, posting a league-best 2.77 ERA and leading the AL in all the usual categories once again.
In all, the numbers Santana compiled between 2004 and 2006 are epic:
A three-year period is a petty sample size in the grand scheme of baseball history, but it's not all that often that there's one guy who's the unquestioned ace of baseball. That's what Santana was between 2004 and 2006. The Twins had themselves the ace of all aces.
They also had themselves the asset of all assets.
2007-2008: A Return to Earth and Howling Trade Winds
The 2006 season was a good one for both Santana and the Twins. Santana won his second Cy Young, Justin Morneau won the AL MVP, and the Twins won 96 games—their highest win total since their World Series season in 1991.
Santana picked up right where he left off in '07, racking up a 2.60 ERA and striking out 133 in 128 innings through his first 19 starts. The Twins, though, struggled to keep pace in the AL Central. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, they were in third place.
That's when they made the fateful decision to trade second baseman Luis Castillo to the Mets for a pair of prospects.
"No, we're not giving up at all," said Twins general manager Terry Ryan, via the AP. "We're six-and-a-half games back, and we're better than we were last week. If we didn't think we could absorb this, we certainly wouldn't have done it."
Santana saw things differently. He didn't like the club's activity around the trade deadline, and he didn't bother to keep quiet about it.
"I'm not surprised. That's exactly how they are. That's why we're never going to go beyond where we've gone," said Santana to Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune.
He went on: "It's not just about hope. In a realistic world, you have to really make it happen and go for it."
And on: "You always talk about future, future. ... But if you only worry about the future, then I guess a lot of us won't be part of it."
The significance of these comments? ESPN's Buster Olney hit the nail on the head:
There are executives in the offices of the Mets and Angels and Mariners and Yankees and Cubs and Tigers and White Sox and Dodgers, and other teams, who will today read that quote and all that it implies -- discontent with the Twins' ability to compete -- and think: We have a shot to get that guy.
That set the stage for what promised to be an interesting offseason. Santana had triggered a full no-trade clause by winning the Cy Young in 2006, but it appeared he would be a goner once the season was over.
Santana ended up posting a modest 4.35 ERA over his final 14 starts, but that didn't hurt his trade value. When the season ended, the trade winds started howling. The Santana trade sweepstakes became one of the stories of the 2007-2008 offseason.
All the Twins had to do was find a club with the right mix of young players to offer. This club also had to appeal to Santana enough to convince him to waive his no-trade clause, and it also had to have enough cash to afford an extension that would keep him from hitting free agency after 2008.
Checklist items such as these have a way of narrowing a list of potential trade partners down to a select few teams, with the biggest, baddest and richest directly at the top. That's what happened with Santana.
Go back far enough in MLB Trade Rumors' database, and you'll find enough Santana trade rumors to fill a 10-foot-tall Trapper Keeper. For a while there, the most notable suitors of the bunch were the powers that be in the AL East: Boston and New York.
This was back when Hank Steinbrenner was still relevant in the land of the Yankees, and he did baseball rumormongers a kindness by keeping a running commentary on the club's pursuit of Santana.
"I don't want to get into that at this point, as far as what they want, what we're willing to give and all that," he said when the club first started talks with the Twins in November of 2007, via the AP. "It's preliminary right now."
Not long after, it seemed the Yankees were out because, well, Hank had set a deadline, and the Twins hadn't met it.
“The deadline is the deadline,” he told The New York Times. “I extended it a few hours more, and that was it. So it’s done.”
Meanwhile, there were the Red Sox. ESPN's Jayson Stark had them pegged as the favorites to land Santana at the winter meetings in early December, with guys like left-hander Jon Lester and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury singled out as being the two most desirable trade chips for Minnesota.
But nothing happened in December, and the calendar turned to January. For much of the month, there was still nothing but talk, most of which was centered on the Yanks and the Sox (such was life in those days).
Then, somewhat suddenly, the Mets emerged.
The Mets had been listed as a strong suitor for Santana by Olney and were linked to him early in the 2007-2008 offseason, but they didn't really pull out ahead in the chase for the lefty until late January of 2008. That's when Olney reported that the Mets had the "best offer on the table" for Santana: center fielder Carlos Gomez, right-hander Phil Humber and two minor leaguers.
Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the deal was done: Santana would be a Met. Not long after that, Santana and the Mets agreed on how much his services were worth.
Six years and $137.5 million. Like that, baseball's best pitcher became baseball's richest pitcher.
The club introduced Santana as a Met the day after the New York Giants celebrated their Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. Then-Mets general manager Omar Minaya made sure that New York fans knew it was time to turn the page to baseball.
Via the New York Daily News, Minaya said:
Football season is over and now we get to the city game. Baseball is the city game. New York City and the New York Mets welcome Johan Santana and look forward to a great era of Mets baseball on this historic day.
And the man of the hour?
"It's a new chapter in my career and I'm going to try to make my time here very special," Santana said. “I look forward to having a good time here in New York...and I look forward to winning championships with the Mets."
A big acquisition? The Mets? Championship hopes?
Yeah, this deal was doomed all along.
2008-2012: Big Waste One Minute, Worth Every Penny the Next
The partnership between Santana and the Mets started about as well as either side could have hoped. He fired seven innings of two-run ball in his 2008 debut against the Florida Marlins, striking out eight and allowing only three hits.
Santana's entire first season with the Mets, for that matter, was largely positive. He had a 2.84 ERA through the first half of the season and then did his hot finish thing once again to finish with an NL-best 2.53 ERA and 234.1 innings pitched. The Mets didn't make the playoffs, but that was hardly Santana's fault.
Santana, however, didn't have the strikeout pitch working like he had in his glory days with Minnesota. He struck out only 7.9 batters per nine innings and finished with only 206 strikeouts. He also had to work a lot harder in 2008 than he had ever had to before, facing a career-high 964 batters and throwing just short of 3,600 pitches. His previous career-high for a season was 3,450.
Things that make you go "Hmmm..."
After logging a heavy workload in 2008, Santana wasn't his usual self in 2009. His strikeouts didn't go back up, and the hits started coming at a more rapid pace. Toward the end of August, he sat on an un-Santana-like 1.21 WHIP and had given up 20 homers in 166.2 innings.
Santana also dealt with a bad arm. He made his final start of the season on August 20 and then went in for surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow. He missed the rest of the season.
"It's not the worst," said Santana, who had gone in for the same surgery after the 2003 season, via the AP. "Believe me, I'm going to be ready."
Minaya said the team basically decided to be safe rather than sorry, which was the proper course of action seeing as how the Mets were stuck in fourth place in the NL East with time slipping away.
"It's mostly soreness," said Minaya. "We all want to see Johan Santana pitching in September. But this is a smart move because we want to see him pitching for the long haul."
As expected, Santana was ready for the start of the 2010 season. It was still apparent, however, that he just wasn't the same pitcher he used to be.
Throughout the 2010 season, Santana's strikeout rate dipped to 6.5 per nine innings, and FanGraphs shows that his average fastball velocity dipped below 90 miles per hour for the first time. Where there was once a 15 mph difference between his fastball and changeup, now there was only a 10 mph difference—nothing that remarkable.
Santana pitched pretty well given the circumstances, compiling a 3.02 ERA through his first 28 starts. But the Mets, alas, were mediocre again, and Santana's health ended up betraying him once again. He left a start in early September after throwing 65 pitches in five innings, and the bad news came out a few days later.
Shoulder surgery. Done for the year.
According to The Sporting News, the Mets expected Santana to be ready for spring training. Santana himself made no promises.
"Whether it's April, May, July, October, who knows? Time will tell," he said.
If ever there was a word of warning...
When spring rolled around, the bad vibes started to build in early March. Steve Popper and Bob Klapisch of The Record reported that Santana had a hard time even with light throwing, and that the Mets figured they'd be "lucky" if their ace pitched at all in 2011.
The season began, and time passed. Then more time passed. And more.
It was around July that Santana was ready...to begin his own spring training. At the All-Star break, general manager Sandy Alderson said the team was already looking forward to 2012.
"Right now, we look at the importance of Johan pitching this season as it relates to next year. I don't think we could expect him to play any sort of meaningful role in a pennant race," said Alderson, via the New York Post.
He added: "We're more concerned about him pitching this season so we get past that question going into spring training next year."
When spring training rolled around in 2012, there was Santana in a major league uniform for the first time in a long time. He did pretty well, too, posting a 3.44 ERA in five spring starts (see MLB.com). There was some skepticism along the way, but Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger reported in late March that the Mets planned on having Santana start on Opening Day.
On April 5, there he was on the mound at Citi Field against the Atlanta Braves. He went on to pitch five scoreless innings, striking out five and giving up only two hits and two walks. The Mets won 1-0.
"Looks like the same dude to me," said Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, via the AP. "The only difference I can see is like, he's not throwing quite as hard. But it didn't seem to matter."
The comeback tour continued on a strong path. Santana had a 2.25 ERA at the end of April, and he wrapped up May with a complete-game shutout against the San Diego Padres—his first since August of 2010.
Via Newsday, Santana said:
It's a great feeling for me, just to put my uniform on and be part of my team. It's amazing. Now, being able to help and being able to go out there every five games, it's definitely something that I was waiting for. I'm very happy for it. I'm just going to continue doing it.
He had no idea...
Santana's next start was against the St. Louis Cardinals, the highest-scoring team in the league, on June 1. Before the game, all the hype centered on Carlos Beltran making his return to Citi Field for the first time since being traded to the San Francisco Giants the previous summer. That storyline quickly became a moot point.
At the start of the game, there had never been a no-hitter in the more than 8,000-game history of the Mets. Piece by piece, Santana started putting one together. You got the sense that, yeah, there was something special going on when he caught a break on a blown call by third-base umpire Adrian Johnson. Johnson, in the sixth inning, ruled what should have been a fair ball down the third-base line off the bat of Beltran to be a foul ball.
Like seemingly every other no-no effort, Santana's also featured a clutch catch. His came courtesy of Mike Baxter in the seventh inning on a line drive to the warning track off the bat of Yadier Molina.
When he got through the eighth inning, Santana was three outs away from Mets history. He was also just three pitches shy of his career high for a single game, which weighed on an awful lot of minds. Was the no-hitter worth risking Santana's surgically repaired shoulder?
Mets manager Terry Collins decided that the answer was yes, and Santana proceeded to get the Cardinals in order in the ninth. The final out came on his 134th pitch, and it was a swinging strikeout of 2011 World Series MVP David Freese.
Whoever ran the club's Twitter account that night made sure to use enough exclamation marks:
Former Mets great Dwight Gooden appreciated it too:
Congrats to Johan Santana for throwing the first no hitter in #Mets history! Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, very happy for Mets fans— Dwight Gooden (@DocGooden16) June 2, 2012
The man himself got both the shaving cream and the champagne treatment. The fans went nuts. The scoreboard read, "No-Han." I'm sure that, somewhere out there, there were dancing Ewoks.
For as much as every no-hitter is a big deal, Santana's no-no was a huge deal. It wasn't just a no-hitter. It was a Mets no-hitter.
I knew that the Mets have never had a no-hitter. I never had one. To be able to accomplish this, it’s an honor. I know how much it means to New York and the New York Mets. I’m very proud of it and very happy to be a part of it.
As for Collins' decision to leave Santana in despite the escalating pitch count, he told The New York Times that he just couldn't bring himself to interfere with history.
“I just couldn’t take him out, just couldn’t do it," he said.
Maybe somebody else could have stepped in for Santana and finished the job for him, thus delivering the Mets their first no-hitter. But there are some baseball moments that simply must not be messed with, and Santana's no-no felt like one of them from the moment the buzz in the building started to escalate.
No, the floor had to be his and his alone. He was the one who had to deliver.
And he did.
2012-2013: The End of the Line?
Can we cut the narrative off there and give this story a happy ending?
That would be nice, but you and I both know that we can't do that.
What happened after the no-no wasn't pretty. Santana was torched for six earned runs in his next start and went on to compile an 8.27 ERA in his next 10 altogether. After giving up six earned runs in five innings against the Washington Nationals on August 17, Santana found his way onto the disabled list and didn't pitch again for the rest of the year.
As promising as it looked for a while there, thus, 2012 ended the same way 2009 and 2010 ended.
Santana looked to make his way back this spring, but there was a disagreement over how quickly he should have been progressing. According to Mike Puma of the New York Post, Santana angered the Mets by throwing off a mound ahead of schedule in early March, and then came word that the anger was mutual.
In Lakeland w/Mets, was told Santana remains bitter toward ballclub re: his readiness to pitch. Barely communicating with club officials.— John Harper (@NYDNHarper) March 11, 2013
Now, here's Santana dealing with another shoulder injury, leaving us all to wonder whether or not that bullpen session ruined him. It's just like when we were left wondering during the season whether or not his effort in the no-hitter had ruined him.
Not that it really matters. What matters is that it will be a miracle if Santana pitches this year and that fans from all corners should consider themselves lucky if they ever see him pitch again at all. Officially, this isn't the end, but I'll be damned if it doesn't feel like it is.
If Santana never pitches again, I doubt he'll ever be a serious candidate for the Hall of Fame. As things stand, his legacy is not that of an all-time great. He has only two claims to fame: He was the best pitcher on on the planet for a few years, and he was the guy who finally gave the Mets a no-hitter.
Not many men can claim the former, and only he can claim the latter. That'll do just fine for a legacy.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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