Know Your Really, Really Available Players Under Contract: What are You Getting in Johan Santana?
The Minnesota Twins have made it well known that for the right price, their superstar left-hander Johan Santana can be had. Santana, in possession of a no-trade clause, has made it known that he will not be going anywhere without a handsome extension in place, probably in the range of five or six seasons at $25 million annually or so.
Whether Santana is a good investment or not at that price depends on the team and situation. How deep are your pockets? Are you willing to commit that much money for that many years to a pitcher? Do you want to part with top-flight prospects for the mere opportunity to negotiate one of the largest deals for any pitcher in history?
Don't get me wrong, if any pitcher is worth it, it is Santana. From 2004 through 2007, Santana boasted the 2nd, 6th, 10th and 39th best single-seasons (minimum 200 IP) over that four year stretch in terms of ERA+. He threw about 1,370 innings over that time. Since his high and low innings pitched totals during said time frame constitute a pretty narrow band (233.7 in 2006, 219.0 in 2007), you can average the seasons with a reasonable measure of accuracy and come out with a figure of 158 ERA+. Since 2004, Johan Santana has been a 158 ERA+ pitcher, all the while pitching an average of 228 innings per season.
The bulk of the work analyzing Santana's future prospects point to his uncharacteristic bout with gopheritis in 2007. While his other figures fall right in line with his previous numbers, he gave up 33 round trippers last season, nine more than he had in any other. This figure is bound to revert back to career norms, and Santana figures to become one of the very best again, and not a mere top-10 or 15 starter. But things happen as you start to try and project further out and when it comes to pitchers, sometimes really weird things happen.
Santana will be 29 for the 2008 season, his ninth in the Bigs. Over the last fifty years, here is what the list of players who averaged 200 innings per year and posted at least a 158 ERA+ over their 29-34 seasons looks like:
Since 1957, 29-34 Seasons, 1,200 Innings with a 158 or better ERA+
Greg Maddux ('95-'00) 1,407 169
Let's take it a step further. In 2007 Santana posted a career worst ERA+ of 130. Let's generate the same list of pitchers, only we will ratchet the ERA+ figure down from Santana's average of 158 over the last four seasons to his worst total of 130 in 2007. So here it is; 200 innings per season and a 130 ERA+ (Santana's worst as a starter) from 29 to 34.
Since 1957, 29-34 Seasons, 1,200 Innings with a 130 or better ERA+
Greg Maddux ('95-'00) 1,407 169
Roger Clemens ('92-'97) 1,255 150
Bob Gibson ('65-'70) 1,667 146
Kevin Brown ('94-'99) 1,322 145
Curt Schilling ('96-'01) 1,353 138
Tom Glavine ('95-'00) 1,378 137
Jim Palmer ('75-'80) 1,632 131
Gaylord Perry ('68-'73) 1,911 131
All of this is to say that a team that is prepared to part with top-tier prospects for the rights to guarantee Santana $150 miilion better know what they are getting. If Santana pitches over the life of the deal the way he did in 2007, his worst campaign yet, would that be acceptable? Because just to do that he would have to have one of the best 29-34 stretches of the last fifty years.
Expectation management is a good thing. Santana's new team will be getting a damn good pitcher, probably the very best one in fact. But they are also getting someone who is more or less guaranteed not to replicate the lofty standard he has set over the last four seasons.