Why Are MLB Teams so Wary of Top Free-Agent Pitcher Ervin Santana?

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Why Are MLB Teams so Wary of Top Free-Agent Pitcher Ervin Santana?
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Ervin Santana's situation isn't unique. He's a big-name free agent who's still looking for work, but he's not the only one. Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales are in the same boat.

Santana's situation is, however, more puzzling. The right-hander is an innings-eater who's coming off a career-best 3.24 ERA, and he's floating on a market that has been very kind to pitchers.

We've been asking the question here and there for a while now, but in the interests of timing and what-the-heckery, today's the day we really ask it:

Seriously, what's the deal? What are teams so afraid of?

There are a variety of answers to that question, and we'll be getting to those shortly. But first, we should discuss the one thing that's not holding Santana back. 

Remember when Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported in November that Santana was hoping for a $100 million contract? He must have gotten a quick reality check, as Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported in January that Santana's asking price had fallen to four years and $60 million.

It's since fallen even further. As Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported last week, Santana's asking price is now something in the four-year, $50 million neighborhood. This, as Heyman pointed out, is close to what Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco signed for.

Since these are easily the three most relevant comparisons this winter's market had for Santana, he would appear to have his eyes set on an appropriate target. If we look at the situation through uber-simple lenses, that he hasn't gotten such a contract yet suggests something is standing in his way.

No. Not something. Some things.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

First, there's the obvious: Yes, Santana is tied to draft-pick compensation after rejecting a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Kansas City Royals in November. That's a big deal.

You've probably heard all about that, so we'll run through it quickly. When teams give up picks, they also have to give up the signing bonus allotment that goes with that pick. Then there's the reality that, thanks in part to the death of free agency, as Jonah Keri of Grantland eloquently summed up last April, there's suddenly more of an emphasis on teams growing their own stars. Giving up draft picks would be a big deal even if bonus money wasn't an issue.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Now, sure, Jimenez was also tied to draft-pick compensation. Since he was still able to get a four-year, $50 million from the Baltimore Orioles, why shouldn't Santana get his own four-year, $50 million deal?

We can start with the most basic difference between the two pitchers: Santana's a year older than Jimenez. He's through his age-30 season and is now 31, whereas Jimenez is 30 and only through his age-29 season. Since a four-year deal would cover Santana's age 31-34 seasons instead of his 30-33 seasons, there would be more danger of paying good money for decline years.

You can take this same logic and apply it to Garza, as he too is only 30, but what about Nolasco? He's the same age as Santana (31), yet he still got a four-year deal. Why should he be an exception?

Looking at it from clubs' perspective, one thing that could be significant is that it's been a while since Nolasco had a serious injury scare.

Nolasco had some issues with his right knee in 2010, but his last arm problem was a bout with elbow inflammation in 2007 (per Baseball Prospectus). Santana, meanwhile, was sidelined for 89 days in 2009 with a combination of a UCL sprain in his elbow and soreness in his triceps.

If Santana has a gripe, it's that his 2013 performance ought to convince teams that it's worth it to look past his age and his 2009 arm trouble. He topped Garza, Jimenez and Nolasco in innings, and his 3.24 ERA was also the best of the four.

Santana has a legit gripe as far as the innings go. But concerning the ERA, his problem is that front offices are now too smart to fall for that.

Though it's still a go-to statistic for fans and analysts (I haven't given up on it yet), Dave Cameron of FanGraphs proposed when Tim Lincecum got a $35 million contract from the San Francisco Giants that ERA appears to be falling out of favor with executives:

The entrenched hold that ERA has had on pitcher valuations appears to be dwindling. It’s time we stop expecting pitchers like this to sign for peanuts simply because of their ERA. That’s not how major league teams are evaluating pitching anymore.

The stats teams prefer to evaluate pitchers with presumably varies from front office to front office. But there are several well-known ones that you and I can turn to, and none say that Santana was the best of the relevant foursome in 2013.

Via FanGraphs:

Garza, Jimenez, Nolasco and Santana in 2013
Name FIP xFIP FIP- xFIP- SIERA
Ricky Nolasco 3.34 3.58 90 95 3.65
Ubaldo Jimenez 3.43 3.62 90 91 3.67
Matt Garza 3.88 3.73 95 96 3.72
Ervin Santana 3.93 3.69 97 93 3.77

FanGraphs

FIP and xFIP focus on strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit-by-pitches, with xFIP trying to up the fairness by normalizing a pitcher's home run rate. SIERA is a bit more complicated, as it tries to make something of balls put in play. As for FIP- and xFIP-, those are versions of the two stats adjusted for a pitcher's park and league and scaled to average (100, with below 100 constituting "above" average).

That none of these stats favor Santana's performance as the best of 2013 is not surprising. He may have had one of the better walk rates of the four, but he had the lowest strikeout rate and pitched half his games at a very pitcher-friendly ballpark in Kauffman Stadium.

While we're at it, we can add in the fact that the Royals were eighth in defensive efficiency, according to Baseball Prospectus. None of the other three got to pitch in front of defenses quite as good.

So based on what actually happened in 2013, Santana doesn't look all that great. And if we look further back over the last three seasons, the picture doesn't change:

Garza, Jimenez, Nolasco and Santana in 2011-2013
Name FIP xFIP FIP- xFIP- SIERA
Matt Garza 3.54 3.46 88 89 3.53
Ricky Nolasco 3.58 3.76 93 98 3.91
Ubaldo Jimenez 4.04 4.09 101 102 4.10
Ervin Santana 4.45 4.00 112 99 4.03

FanGraphs

This is especially relevant when it comes to comparing Santana to Nolasco. In addition to being further removed from serious arm trouble, Nolasco was the better pitcher in 2013 and has been the better pitcher over the last couple seasons.

But Nolasco's advantages don't even stop there. Another thing he's done that Santana hasn't yet is prove that he can pitch with below-average velocity.

According to FanGraphs, Nolasco's average fastball has never been better than 91.5 miles per hour. Over the last three seasons, it's topped out at 90.5 miles per hour, which is about half a mile per hour slower than the average starter's fastball these days.

As for Santana, the lowest his fastball velocity has ever gotten was 91.7 in 2012. And if we look at how his fastball velocities correlate with his fastball runs above average (wFB), we see that the year in which his heat was at its slowest is also the year it was most useless:

Ervin Santana's Fastball
Year FB Velo wFB
2005 93.4 -5.1
2006 93.1 14.1
2007 92.2 -13.2
2008 94.4 1.6
2009 92.2 -19.4
2010 92.5 -18.8
2011 92.8 -10.7
2012 91.7 -28.8
2013 92.4 -3.0

FanGraphs

My personal opinion is that this doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. According to Brooks Baseball, Santana greatly increased the use of his sinker in 2013, helping to result in a career-best ground-ball rate (46.2). Provided he’s smart, he’ll continue this and stave off a velocity-related decline.

But still, it's not a good look that Santana's heat was so hittable in a year in which his velocity strayed so close to league average. If there are teams out there that are worried about how effective he's going to be once subpar velocity becomes more permanent, well, they have a legit complaint.

Santana's is a complicated situation, but these are the simple things standing in the way of him getting the contract he wants. He's tied to draft-pick compensation, he's not as young as teams would prefer, his medical track record is more iffy than teams would prefer, his recent production is lacking and there are doubts over how he's going to get by once his velocity starts to go.

These things alone could force Santana to settle for something more like $10-11 million per year rather than $12-14 million per year, not to mention three years and an option instead of four guaranteed years. That he only has so much leverage at this point is just icing on the cake.

Maybe he'll get lucky in the end, but it's more likely that Santana isn't going to be thrilled with the contract he signs.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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