One of the great dangers Major League Baseball teams face when bidding on a player in free agency is what I like to call "The Contract-Year Star."
It takes talent to succeed at the highest level of baseball, sure, but sometimes a player will put in more focus and attention when he knows that a big contract is waiting on the open market. Teams are then forced to decide how much of this increased production is going to stick.
There is no greater test case for this theory than right-handed pitcher Ervin Santana. The 31-year-old reignited his career with the Kansas City Royals in 2013.
Take a look at the numbers he put up last season and how they compare to the rest of his career.
The fact that we can even talk about Santana getting a multi-year deal is a small miracle. He was cast off by the Los Angeles Angels—who desperately needed starting pitching in 2013—last winter and traded to the Royals for minor league reliever Brandon Sisk.
Santana has evolved as a pitcher, especially last year, which would seem to help increase his value on the open market. Take a look at the way he used his sinker in 2013, compared to how it was used in the past.
It comes as no surprise that Santana's increased use of the sinker led to a steep drop in his home run rate from 2012 (2.0 to 1.1). He was also the beneficiary of luck in 2013, setting a career high with a 76.9 percent strand rate that was 4.3 percent better than his career average.
How many years should Ervin Santana get?
Santana went from playing primarily in Los Angeles' pitcher-friendly environment—which made the 39 homers he gave up in 2012 all the more alarming—to a better hitting park in Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium. He's always given up a lot of home runs (at least 26 every season since 2010), but his 2013 total (26) is something to be happy about given the change in parks.
These numbers paint a good story, but since we want to look at what teams will and should pay for, it is also important to compare Santana's long- and short-term performances to that of other pitchers.
As luck would have it, Santana compares favorably to two pitchers who also hit free agency after the 2013 season: Ricky Nolasco and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Nolasco has already found a home, signing a four-year, $48 million deal with Minnesota.
If you like to use WAR, as I do, it should also be noted that Santana (19.6) and Nolasco (20.0) have basically provided the same WAR totals in their careers, even though Santana debuted in Los Angeles one year before Nolasco debuted in Florida. They were born one day apart in 1982.
By these standards, Santana should be looking at a deal close to what Nolasco got from the Twins. That's a far cry from the $100 million he was reportedly looking to get when free agency started.
Going back a little further, since one-year sample sizes tend to be problematic when evaluating a free agent, Santana fares much worse. Take a look at this blind resume of two pitchers from 2010-13.
Player B is Santana. His numbers took a beating in 2012, posting a negative FanGraphs' WAR total, 5.16 ERA and 1.97 homers per nine innings. Even working around that season, however, it hasn't been lights out for the right-hander.
Player A was Santana's teammate, Jeremy Guthrie, last season. The 34-year-old also pitched more than 200 innings with a respectable 4.04 ERA in 2013, despite giving up a league-leading 236 hits and pedestrian 111-59 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Over the last four years, Santana and Guthrie have been worth roughly the same amount of value. Even though Santana will be superior to Guthrie moving forward, it is alarming how close the two have been recently.
As Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors noted in his free-agent profile on Santana, another problem that limits his upside is lack of strikeouts.
For a player who is positioned as one of the top pitchers on the free-agent market, Santana doesn't strike hitters out at an elite rate. His 6.9 K/9 in 2013 was below the league average of 7.2 for starting pitchers, and he hasn't averaged more than 7.0 punchouts per nine innings since 2008.
There are three things a pitcher has direct control over: home runs, strikeouts and walks.
Santana has always been an excellent strike thrower, averaging 2.8 walks per nine innings throughout his career.
It's the other two areas where Santana is lacking. He hasn't averaged more than seven strikeouts per nine innings since 2008, meaning any team that signs him will need to have a great defense behind Santana to get the most bang for their buck.
At his best, Santana is a very good mid-rotation starter who will eat a lot of innings and, occasionally, provide league-average or better ERA totals. When you factor in the draft compensation attached, it's no wonder why his market has been slow to develop.
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