Reevaluating Johan Santana: part 1 of 2

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

By now it is nearly impossible to discuss the Yankees’ search for starting pitching without saying something like, “It’s no secret that the Yankees need starting pitching help”. It’s all been said. Even if Andy Pettitte postpones his date with retirement another year and returns for the 2011 campaign it’s likely that the team could still be looking for help on the trade market this summer. Ivan Nova is a fine fifth starter option, but it would really be nice if he was the sixth starter, an option in case of injury or a terrible outbreak of Bad A.J. The problem is that the trade market is a bit weak. There’s no Cliff Lee on the market this summer. Wandy Rodriguez looked like a decent target, but the Astros just extended him for three years. Gavin Floyd and Chris Carpenter could be very good options, but a lot needs to happen for these teams to put the players on the market. Plan B might be patience, but there’s a fair amount of contingency contained therein.

One trade option is Johan Santana. Mike addressed the possibility of acquiring Santana in this mailbag piece several weeks ago, outlining all the reasons why the Yankees shouldn’t attempt to acquire Santana: he’s coming off major shoulder surgery, his performance is in decline, and he’s expensive. All of these things are true, and yet I’m going to attempt a possibly quixotic reexamination of his desirability. This will be a two part piece. Today we will examine the nature of his injury and his perceived decline over the past 3 years and tomorrow we’ll look at his contract status and try to evaluate whether he makes sense for the Yankees as a trade target.  It sounds crazy, and it’s going to take a decent amount of time to make the case. All good things take time though, unless we’re talking about a Chipotle burrito, so try to stick it out with me. It’s not like there’s anything better to do on a freezing weekend in January. What, you gonna watch curling?

Injury

When Johan Santana was injured late last summer it was initially reported that he had a strained pectoral. This was slightly deceiving, in that the location of the injury is not where one would expect. When you hear “strained pec”, you think about how sore you feel if you do too many bench press sets. As Will Carroll noted, the strain happened right where the muscle inserts into the humerus, just below the shoulder. You can see the picture here. Despite initial good news out the Mets camp, which cruelly raised the hopes of Mets fans, it turned out that Santana’s injury was far more serious. Santana had torn the anterior capsule in his left shoulder and required surgery to repair it. The injury is more rare than a Tommy John surgery, and Carroll went to sources to get more information about the actual nature of the injury:

The anterior capsule is the front lining of the shoulder joint which then attaches to the labrum and then to the bone. The capsule is torn with the labrum often with an acute traumatic shoulder dislocation. However, in baseball with repetitive throwing the anterior capsule can just gradually stretch out and eventually give a thrower pain and a feeling of weakness and a velocity loss. This repetitive microscopic tearing and stretching injury ultimately is what the thrower may describe as a “dead arm” The type of surgery performed is very similar to the open surgery pioneered by Dr. Frank Jobe that was performed on Orel Hersheiser in the ’80s, but now with advances the same surgery can be done arthroscopically. However, the healing concepts are the same and therefore the rehabilitation can be very long to get back to high level throwing. Certainly 6-9 months is not unreasonable.

In order to repair this injury, the surgeon usually attempts to repair the ligaments arthoscopically. This was Dr. David Altchek’s goal with Santana, but he found that the tear was difficult to reach with an arthoscope and had to make an incision in the shoulder in order to repair it. This is obviously a less desirable method because it causes scar tissue, which can affect range of motion and lengthen the time of rehabilitation. As such, Santana may not return to the majors until the All-Star Break in 2011.  The final word from Carroll:

Santana will immediately begin rehab which is normally tagged at 20-28 weeks with an overlap of a throwing program towards the end. There’s no new info on whether there was anything found during the procedure that would change the outlook or prognosis. The first real sign we’ll get is likely to be when pitchers and catchers report to Port St. Lucie in February.

There is some speculation that Santana would not be fully recovered until well after he actually returns to the majors. Dr. Craig Levitz speculated that it would actually take 3 months, or 70-80 innings, after Santana’s return for him to regain his top form. He also noted that pitchers with this type of injury often return stronger than before, and that there is little risk of recurrence. As Levitz said, “Over all there is not a lot of damage to the shoulder with this injury…Once they close the hole in the soft tissue, it should never be a problem again.”

Performance

Things have been different for Johan Santana since he left the American League for the National League Mets. From 2002 to 2007 he had an ERA of 2.92, striking out almost 10 batters per nine innings and walking 2.2 per nine innings. His strikeout to walk ratio was a Lee-esque 4.38. Due to a very low hit rate, Santana’s WHIP hovered around 1.00. For good reason he was considered one of the preeminent pitchers in all of baseball. Contrary to expectations, Santana’s strikeout rate has dipped about two batters per nine innings since joining the Mets, and his walk rate has increased ever-so-slightly to close to 2.5. As such, he’s posted FIPs in the mid 3.50s since coming to New York, certainly respectable but not exactly the commensurate with the highest expectations fans might have had for the well-paid ace. This chart shows his performance as a Met compared to his career numbers:

santana

Peripherals-wise, 2010 was Santana’s worst year. This is to be expected, given that he was coming off minor elbow surgery from the offseason prior and had his season cut short by the shoulder injury in September. One thing we don’t know is to what extent Santana pitched through discomfort or pain in 2010 before acknowledging his injury. We also don’t know if the gradual destruction of his shoulder ligaments was responsible for the decline in performance. The quote from Carroll’s source above seems to confirm that the pitcher will likely experience discomfort, weakness and a loss of velocity before actually needing surgery to repair the injury. It would be logical to expect a bounceback in velocity and strikeout stuff, but within any injury there is a large amount of risk and variance. It all hinges on how well Santana heals.

Despite the decline in performance, Santana was still a very valuable pitcher for the Mets in 2010. As a quick and easy comparison, his 3.5 fWAR in 199 innings in 2010 ranks similar to Shaun Marcum and Wandy Rodriguez’s performance. Over the past three years, despite an injury-shortened 2009, he’s accumulated 11.0 fWAR. This is more than Andy Pettitte, James Shields, John Lackey or Ted Lilly. If he had thrown 200 innings in 2009 it’s likely that he would register more fWAR in the past 3 years than Matt Cain, Roy Oswalt or Javier Vazquez. Of course, he didn’t throw 200 innings in 2009, so the point is moot. Regardless, Santana is still a valuable pitcher. Compare his performance data above with this data for CC Sabathia:

Sabathia and Santana both have fairly similar FIPs and ERAs, but Santana seems consistently able to outperform his FIP. They also have similar strikeout rates. Sabathia’s walk rates are slightly worse than Santana but CC generates far more groundballs than Santana, a clear boon in Yankee Stadium. Santana’s flyball tendencies play well in Citi Field but would likely be less advantageous in another venue. Sabathia’s numbers are also more impressive in the AL East. All things considered, Sabathia is a more desirable starter, but simply because Santana isn’t replicating his same level of dominance from years past doesn’t mean that he’s no longer valuable. Mid-3 FIP pitchers with good control and strikeout stuff don’t grow on trees.

Johan Santana isn’t what he once was, and he’s coming off a major injury with a long rehabilitation timeframe. There are good reasons for optimism though, reasons that don’t solely consist of fluff and happy thoughts. If Santana can pitch again like he has as a Met, he’ll have good value for his team. Of course, there’s the whole question of the contract, a question which I’ll address tomorrow morning before trying to ascertain how the trade market could firm up. See you then.

The Ultimate Scapegoat

*Mike summed up some of his own frustrations about the response to the Yankees’ offseason last week. I thought I’d be more specific.

"The snow is my fault too, guys." (AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel)

It’s been a pretty lame offseason for the Yankees so far. We’ve missed the guys we want. We ended up signing some players that may or may be good choices for the team. Our minor league signings are taking heat. Our pitching rotation is questionable. Our sluggers are aging. Our GM is raising money for prostate cancer.

Wait, what?

I can’t remember the last time I heard Brian Cashman take this much heat (2008?). Every single thing that Cashman has done this winter has been criticized by someone somewhere. I would not be surprised if John Q. Obnoxious Fan woke up yesterday and said, “God, what nerve does Cashman have, making coffee for himself?” At times, it seems the man can do nothing right. If I was Brian Cashman, I’d be more than frustrated with that part of the Yankees fanbase. I think it was perfectly legitimate for him to air some of those grievances to Ken Rosenthal: “Why are people bitching so much? That’s my question. That’s my frustration.” Rest assured, Cash, I would have had much stronger words with a fanbase like this one if I was you.

It’s not that Cashman hasn’t made bad moves in the past. He has. He is not perfect. What gets my goat, though, is how much stuff  he gets blamed for that is absolutely out of his control, or the things that are totally irrelevant.

For example, this whole Cliff Lee business. During the negotiations, and even slightly after, it was hard to pin the tail on exactly who’s fault it was, which obviously meant it was Cashman’s fault. Never mind that same group hating on him would have most likely also lambasted the man for offering a 32-year-old starter (with an injury history!) a seven- or eight-year contract. Never mind that Lee made it obvious afterwards that he wanted to sign with the Phillies. Never mind the Yankees offered him more money. It is obviously Cashman’s responsibility to whip out his mind control device and convince players who aren’t interested to sign with the team. Duh. We all know the Yankees have a mind control device Cashman just wasn’t interested in using because Gene Michael used it to convince Greg Maddux to sign in 1992. Wait, no he didn’t.

Another thing-  do people expect Cashman to open his closet and have a fifth starter who passes the Better Than Mitre test just fall out? He knows the rotation is a problem. I’m sure he has looked at all the different options for that problematic spot. But at this point, there’s nothing he can do. Sure, he could sign Millwood or Garcia or Duchscherer to an unreasonable contract, but he’d certainly get criticized for that. Sure, he could trade our well-grown farm system, but he’d certainly get criticized at for that too. And the fact is, those moves aren’t smart ones. Why would he do them? Why would a fan of the team, a person who wants the team to improve, suggest that we make a stupid move just for the sake of making a move? The Yankees are not the Angels. We do not need a Vernon Wells-type thing going on here.

What grinds my gears the most is how I’ve seen and heard people get down on Cashman for doing charity events. Charity Events! People are yelling at him because he is raising money to fight prostate cancer. Baseball is a game. It’s a game we really love, but it’s a game. Cancer will kill you. Between winning baseball games and fighting cancer, fighting cancer is the way to go. Plus, it seems unreasonable that being a GM would take up every waking moment of his life; finding a single night to help fight cancer doesn’t seem unreasonable. I don’t think Cashman is the kind of guy who needs to be sitting at home staring at the phone waiting for Andy Pettitte or Kevin Millwood to call him. He has people to do that for him. Instead, he takes his “celebrity status” and uses it to raise money to fight cancer. That sounds like a class act to me. That certainly sounds like something I’d want my GM doing in his spare time. How in anyone’s right mind could you blast a guy for raising money to fight cancer? It boggles me.

I’m not even going to start with the “checkbook GM” thing.

This is what I do. Whenever I’m angry about Brian Cashman (rarely), I try to think about all the GMs he is not. He is not Tony Reagins, who is now the laughing-stock of the baseball community. He is not Dayton Moore, who signed Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera. He is not Sandy Alderson, tasked with fixing the mess that is the Mets.

I am expecting someone to blame Cashman for the Astros extending Wandy Rodriguez. I am also expecting someone to blame Cashman for waking up in the morning and putting on his slippers. I mean, he’s only won what, four World Series rings as GM? Taken us to the postseason every year except 2008? What a crappy performance the guy has put on. Fire Cashman. Punish him by making him manage the Pirates. Wait, that might be what he wants, according to some fans and media-types. I guess we’ll just have to force him to stick around here for a few more years. Damn. What a drag.

Open Thread: Spring can’t come soon enough

(Photo Credit: Yankees PR Dept. on Twitter)

That picture of a snow-covered Yankee Stadium is both beautiful and depressing at the same time. Pitchers and catchers are just 17 days away from reporting, but nothing really happens that day. For us fans, the fun will really start four weeks from tomorrow, when the first Spring Training game will take place, a game the YES Network will air. You marked your calendar, right?

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft is on Versus at 8pm ET, plus the Nets are visiting the Pacers. Talk about whatever your heart desires, go nuts.

KLaw’s Top Sleeper Prospects For 2011

Now that his organizational rankings and top 100 prospects list is out, Keith Law is closing out his week of prospect coverage with an Insider-only piece looking at sleeper prospects for the upcoming season. He listed one player for every team, and went with 2010 fourth round pick Mason Williams for the Yankees. “[He] was one of the best athletes in the 2010 draft, with plus speed and a plus arm,” said KLaw. “He has good instincts for a multi-sport guy, especially in center field and he makes his raw speed play up on the bases. He’s got surprising pop for his size but will have to prove he can maintain his approach against decent pitching.”

Williams signed for $1.45M not long before the deadline, the largest signing bonus the Yankees gave out this year. Here the prospect profile I put together for him back in November.

The RAB Radio Show: January 28, 2011

Brian Cashman has made headlines lately, and a contingency of the fan base has taken it the wrong way. Is Cashman trying to get himself fired? Is he planning for life after the Yankees? That doesn’t sound likely. Mike and I examine the case.

Towards the end we talk about the possibility of televised baseball in a week or two. Can’t wait.

Podcast run time 20:45

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
  • Listen in your browser by left clicking the above link or using the embedded player below.
  • Subscribe in iTunes. If you want to rate us that would be great. If you leave a nice review I’ll buy you a beer at a meet-up.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license