Johan Santana is, in my way of seeing things, the best pitcher born in Venezuela. As an example, we have the 5-year period that he had in the big leagues between the 2004 and 2008 seasons, including both, in which he accumulated the following numbers:
During that period he was the leader in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) among all pitchers in the Major Leagues, which he had already done in the five years from 2003 to 2007:
From 2003 to 2008 there was no better pitcher in the big leagues than Santana, who with 33.5 WAR also led that span; even more, extending the period to the one between the 2003 and 2009 season (7 years), only the great Roy “Doc” Halladay could surpass him, 37.2 to 37.0, both firmly leading C.C. Sabathia with 34.5. These numbers lead many experts to consider Santana one of the best pitchers of the 2000s.
Unfortunately, the years following 2010 were of constant injuries that greatly reduced the conditions and participation of the Venezuelan left-hander, first losing all of 2011, then threwing only 117 innings in 2012, and not participating in a regular game in MLB since then. His final numbers were:
To put it in perspective, Santana had better WAR in his career than Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm, Dizzy Dean, and Lefty Gomez; his Adjusted ERA (ERA +), a statistic that adjusts the Traditional ERA according to the effects of the parks and the league at the time the pitcher played, is better than those of the Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, Whitey Ford, Greg Maddux, Dizzy Dean, Roy Halladay, and Sandy Koufax, among others; his Win-Loss percentage (W-L%) is better than Hall of Famers Mike Mussina, Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, Bob Feller, and many others; his earned runs average (ERA) was better than that of Steve Carlton, Bob Lemon, Feller himself and others awarded with the highest distinction of the best baseball in the world.
But Johan will not be part of this select group, at least not by way of traditional voting, because in his first year of eligibility, 2018, he did not even manage to obtain 5% of the total votes which would allow him to continue appearing in the following year’s ballot. It is a tremendous injustice that, although his membership in the HoF may be debatable, the Venezuelan has not had more chances to try his possibilities in subsequent years.
Why didn’t someone with Santana’s record have a greater impact on voters in 2018?
Because of 5 insignificant Wins.
Johan won 2 Cy Young Awards as the best pitcher in the American league in 2004 and 2006, but it would have been 3 in a row if in 2005 the corresponding voters had not decided to give it to Bartolo Colón. And the main reason can be found in the record of victories and defeats: Colón had 21 wins and 8 defeats while Santana “only” won 16 and lost 7. For the rest of stats, this is the comparison of their numbers that year:
There is no “traditional” stat that shows Bartolo having a better performance, only the more wins. But if we wanted to see more specialized statistics, the story is even worse:
According to the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) from the specialized site www.fangraphs.com, Santana’s campaign was almost twice as good as Colón’s, a truly abysmal difference. But Santana was the victim of a moment in which those sacred totems that are (were?) certain round figures (20 wins, .300 batting average, 100 RBIs) and largely imposed the narrative and even unfairly influenced the awards.
The statement “Wins do not matter” is of course an exaggeration, since the ultimate goal of all competition is to win; however, in the case of pitchers in baseball, the problem with the W is that they put in the pitcher’s record statistics that don’t depend only on him because it is useless for the pitcher to throw wonderfully, limiting the opponent, if his team does not produce enough runs to support him and yet, despite this, great importance is given to them when evaluating his performance.
For example, in Santana’s case, the Minnesota Twins during that 2005 season backed him up with 4.71 runs for every 9 innings he pitched; Colón, on the other hand, received 6.04 of support from the Angels. And if we’re more specific, they both pitched in 24 games in which they allowed 3 or fewer runs to their opponent but Bartolo was victorious in 18 of those chances, thanks to a 113 run support in those starts while Johan won in just 14 of 24 games to a great extent because his team only produced 86 support runs; worse still, during those games, Santana allowed only 34 runs in 178.1 IP compared to Colón’s 37 in 171.1 innings pitched.
With that little example, we can see that even though Santana was mostly more effective at pitching, allowing fewer runs in more innings, unfortunately, his team didn’t hit enough and stopped winning games that Colón could take advantage of in his case. In both cases, it was not a consequence of what was done by either of them but only Santana was penalized for it, being denied something as important as a Cy Young award and, what is worse, due to this result it is very likely that it led to such an ephemeral permanence on the Cooperstown entrance ballots.
What makes me affirm that? The following table is part of the answer:
On this stellar and exclusive list, there are pitchers who have won at least 3 Cy Young Awards for best pitcher in their league. All, with the obvious exceptions of Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer for still being active and Roger Clemens for extra-merit reasons, are in the Hall of Fame. Everyone.
By this I do not mean that it would be the automatic justification for Santana to get in the HoF, it would be very daring to say that. However, I’m sure voters seeing his name on the ballot would think more deeply before leaving him out when recalling his 3 consecutive Cy Youngs (aside from his extraordinary numbers), which would allow him to still appear on the ballot and get more than the minimum necessary for it. And that would help him a lot should he ever be considered by some special admissions committee. That would have been a more appropriate treatment for a star pitcher like the great Johan Santana.
All data was pulled from https://stathead.com/baseball/, https://www.fangraphs.com/, https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/, and/or https://www.baseball-reference.com/, unless stated differently. pCRA data was taken from this Tableau, maintained by its creator, Connor Kurcon.
EE, Data geek, Baseball fan. Twitter: @camarcano