Is Free-Agent Hurler Ervin Santana Deserving of a $100 Million Contract?

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Is Free-Agent Hurler Ervin Santana Deserving of a $100 Million Contract?
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A year ago, Ervin Santana was a reclamation project who was basically up for grabs. Taking him on meant fixing a pitcher who had allowed 39 homers while pitching to a 5.16 ERA in 2012.

Because funny things have a way of happening in baseball, Santana now finds himself looking for a $100 million contract.

That's what Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported late last week, noting that Santana is looking for at least that much money spread out over five years. He had been projected as a $15 million-per-year pitcher by both MLBTradeRumors.com and CBSSports.com, but he's looking for at least $20 million per year after turning his career around with a 3.24 ERA in a 211-inning campaign for the Kansas City Royals.

One reads into this as Santana and his people aiming high. That's what players and their people do in free agency, after all, as it doesn't hurt to do so. Either somebody will pay what's being demanded, or somebody will come close enough.

Here's hoping whichever club signs Santana gets him because it did the latter. He's a good pitcher, but he's not worth $20 million per year now, and it's highly unlikely he will be later.

It's to the first part of that statement that we shall go, um, first. We know that Santana's not worth $20 million per year now because the numbers say so, darn it.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

As far as FanGraphs' WAR-based value system is concerned, Santana was worth only $14.9 million in 2013. He's been worth $20 million only once before: back in his excellent 2008 season, in which he posted a 3.49 ERA and compiled a 6.0 fWAR.

He's being shopped as a pitcher worth that much now because his agents are crafty fellows. Via Ken Rosenthal, here are a few highlights of the plan they've put together for how to sell Santana:

  • Santana's last three seasons compare favorably to Zack Greinke's last three seasons before free agency.
  • By Game Score, Santana had as many "strong or dominant starts" in 2013 as Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish and Jordan Zimmermann. Both Scherzer and Darvish had him beat in 60-plus Game Score starts in 2013, but whatever. It's cool.
  • Over the last three years, Santana has rated well in terms of his ability to keep runners off the bases, his durability and in pitching deep into games.
  • His 2012 season, in which he gave up 39 home runs, is an anomaly. He's homer-prone but not that homer-prone.
  • His arm and shoulder are just fine, thank you very much.

That's pretty much it. Santana's agents are basically trying to sell him as a top-of-the-rotation guy who's good for both innings and dominance, which tells us that his agents get what agents are supposed to do.

But even if Santana's agents do have their stuff in order, the really smart teams out there will ignore all of it and ask themselves what they would stand to get from Santana over the life of a multi-year deal, as well as whether they're willing to pay $100 million for whatever that may be.

As there is with just about every pitcher, there are good things and bad things about Santana. What's troubling about him, however, is that the bad things are more discouraging than the good things are encouraging.

But let's start with the good things Santana has to offer, namely control and an elite innings-eating ability.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Santana's BB% in 2013 put him in the same company as Mark Buehrle. A good place to be, that.

Santana's never been one to hurt himself with walks, but he was particularly good about not doing so in 2013. Per FanGraphs, his 5.9 BB% was his lowest mark since 2008, and it put him in the top 30 among qualified starting pitchers.

He earned it. Santana threw about as many pitches in the strike zone in 2013 as he had in 2012 and 2011, but only four starters threw first-pitch strikes more often, and he improved on his career strike percentage of 63 by throwing 65 percent of his pitches for strikes.

Put simply: Santana was one of the top control artists in MLB in 2013. That's something worth being optimistic about. Pitchers who can throw strikes tend to do better than pitchers who can't, after all, and good control is something that age has a hard time hurting.

Santana's innings-eating ability needs less of an introduction. He's topped 200 innings five times in his nine years, and is 11th among starters in innings pitched both since 2005 and since 2010.

But while an ability to eat innings is indeed one of Santana's primary selling points, it's also an area where the cracks in the notion of paying him $100 million begin to show.

A five-year deal would cover Santana's age 31-35 seasons. By the time he gets to the end of it, it's doubtful that he's still going to be a 200-inning pitcher. In the last 10 years, only 11 34-year-olds have logged 200 innings in a season. Only 10 35-year-olds have done it.

For Santana, simple age could be what does him in. But based on what's going on with his strikeout habit, there's also a very real chance that he'll cease to be a top innings-eater because opponents will begin knocking him out earlier in games more frequently.

While Santana's 2013 season was a turnaround campaign in many respects, it wasn't as far as his ability to strike batters out is concerned. He posted a K% of 18.7, which is right there with his career K% of 18.6 and the starter average of 18.9 percent, according to FanGraphs.

That there's a trend:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Note: That's the MLB average for starters, not all pitchers.

In 2008, Santana was a much better strikeout artist than the average starting pitcher. In the years since, his strikeout habit has been more or less on par with that of the average starting pitcher. 

As for Santana's chances of reversing this trend, well, they're not very good.

It's not as if Santana is lacking in stuff now. His stuff is already more overpowering and more capable of missing bats than the average starter's stuff. If we just keep it simple and compare his fastball velocity and swinging-strike percentage in 2013 to the league average:

Ervin Santana's Hittability vs. MLB's Hittability in 2013
Split FB Velo SwStr%
MLB Starters 91.3 8.7
Santana 92.4 10.0

FanGraphs

Santana already throws harder than the average starter, and he got more whiffs than the average starter in 2013. Despite this, he couldn't find a way to rack up more strikeouts than the average starter.

This is distressing because it's not like Santana is going to throw harder or get better at missing bats as he ages. His velocity peaked when he was 25 in 2008. He'll be 31 years old in a few weeks, and research done by Bill Petti of FanGraphs shows that a starter's velocity becomes more and more in danger of going "pluh" once he gets into his 30s.

Not so coincidentally, swinging-strike and strikeout percentages have a tendency to decrease as well. There's more than a fair chance that Santana will live up to the pattern as his stuff becomes less overpowering.

If Santana is to have any hope of aging well, he's going to have to become a more complex pitcher, one with a deep arsenal of pitches that he can use to finesse hitters to death. And from where he's standing now, it's totally up in the air whether he's going to be able to make that kind of transformation.

What we need is a comparison. I figure we can go ahead and make like Santana's agents and compare him to Zack Greinke on the eve of his free agency. Considering data from Brooks Baseball, there's no ignoring the fact that the Santana of 2013 is a fundamentally different pitcher than the Greinke of 2012:

Santana vs. Greinke Pitch Usage
Pitch Greinke of 2012 Santana of 2013
Four-Seamer 28.73 34.39
Sinker 23.93 21.06
Changeup 6.46 6.89
Slider 12.17 37.66
Curveball 16.59 None
Cutter 12.11 None

Brooks Baseball

Santana worked in a sinker more often this past season, which helped him post a career-high 46.2 ground-ball percentage. It's not a fluke that he was able to get over his bad case of gopheritis from 2012, and that sinker should prove useful at keeping another bad bout at bat as he gets older.

But because a sinker is just another fastball, Santana really didn't alter his pitching style in 2013 all that much. With his hard stuff and slider still accounting for over 90 percent of his pitches, Santana carried on as one of the league's preeminent fastball-slider pitchers.

That's not how Greinke was making his living in his final season before free agency. He threw five of his pitches more than 10 percent of the time, making him the rare five-pitch pitcher. And in 2013, the only change he made was using his changeup more than 10 percent of the time rather than his cutter. He used it to hold lefty batters to a .226 average and an .095 ISO.

Now, Santana did use his changeup more often against lefty batters in 2013...but barely, and not very effectively at that.

Santana's changeup accounted for over 12 percent of his pitches to lefty batters in 2013, but they hit .289 against it with a .154 ISO. He deserves props for experimenting with it, but the fact is it's not ready to be a go-to pitch against lefty batters.

That's a red flag for potential business partners. If Santana can't develop a good changeup, then clubs are looking at a righty pitcher with bad platoon splits—lefty batters have hit him to the tune of a .773 OPS throughout his career, compared to .695 for righty batters—that could only get worse if age does a number on his fastball and slider. Indeed, righty batters will also be more capable of hitting these two pitches if they become flatter with age.

Would you give Ervin Santana a $100 million contract?

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To be sure, Santana doesn't necessarily need a deep arsenal of pitches in order to be a productive pitcher over the life of a five-year contract. If he can maintain his good command and at least a respectable ability to eat innings, he'll have enough to be productive.

A merely "productive" pitcher, however, is not the same as a $20 million-per-year pitcher.

Look at it this way: As good as Santana was in 2013, he wasn't good enough to be worth $20 million. And if he can't be that good now while he still has good stuff, command and an ability to eat innings, he's certainly not going to be that good when the good stuff is gone and he only has command and (maybe) an ability to eat innings. Rising salaries will lower standards for big contracts, sure, but there's a limit to how low these standards can go.

Santana is being shopped as a $100 million pitcher based on his track record. I'm not convinced his track record truly deems him to be a $100 million pitcher. I am pretty well convinced that he's highly unlikely to be a $100 million pitcher in the future.

In other words, my wagging finger is ready for the event of a $100 million contract for Ervin Ramon Santana.

 

Note: Stats (and middle names) courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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