Hidden Greatness

May 4, 2016

 

In Clayton Kershaw, we are seeing perhaps the best left-hander in history. Itís still pretty early in his career and heís got a long way to go to catch up to Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax but heís definitely off to a stronger start than either of them had. Johnson didnít really get on tracked until he was 29 years old. Kershaw still has a year to go to reach that age, already has won three Cy Young awards and very well could have had a couple more. Like Johnson, Koufax struggled with control for the first six years of his career until he found the magic at age 25. By that age, Kershaw had well established himself as the best starter in baseball.

 

But this article isnít about Kershaw. No, the pitcher I have in mind belongs among the greats but isnít getting nearly the appreciation he deserves. But let me lay down some foundation so that I might prove my point.

 

From 1962-1966, Sandy Koufax produced what many consider as the greatest five-year span of any pitcher in history. Itís why he was a first ballot Hall of Famer and until Randy Johnson came along, was considered by many as one of, if not the best left-handed pitcher in history, with apologies to Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton and Warren Spahn. Over that five year span, he won a total of 111 games with a .766 winning percentage. Of course, those results are heavily team dependent; those Dodger teams won at least 95 games in four of the five seasons. What isnít team dependent is the fact that he averaged 8.2 wins above replacement, won five ERA titles and three Cy Young awards (with another top five finish thrown in), struck out more than 200 batters five times and led the league in strikeouts in three of those seasons. His strikeouts per nine innings was 9.4 with a K/BB ratio of 4.57. All that was good for an ERA+ of 167 (67% better than the average pitcher), finishing with a career mark of 131. Of the 53.2 WAR he accumulated over the course of his career, 40.9 came here.

 

But our mystery guest had a pretty good five year run as well. He went 89-39 (.688 winning percentage) on a team that won 95+ games only once during the span. But thatís not the interesting part. This isÖ He averaged 7.1 wins above replacement, won three ERA titles and two Cy Youngs (and should have won a third but the writers still thought wins were the most important category for a pitcher), struck out more than 200 batters five times with three times leading the league. Even more interesting is that despite Koufaxí great run he only led the league in WAR twice; this pitcher did it three times and did so consecutively. Thatís no small feat, which Iíll get to in a moment. In all five of his seasons he was in the top five in votes for the Cy Young award; Koufax only did it in four. His strikeout rate was 9.3 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio was 4.56. All of it added up to an ERA+ of 157, with a career mark of 136, which is good for top 20 all-time.Of the 50.7 WAR he accumulated in his career, 35.4 came here, which means he wasnít quite as good at his peak as Koufax but conversely he wasnít nearly as bad in the other years.

 

So while he wasnít quite as amazing as Koufax, he was pretty close. And we are comparing him to the best five-year run in history. Oh and about that leading the league in WAR three consecutive seasonsÖ in the last 30 years only our guy, Kershaw, Johnson and Roger Clemens have done it.

 

Whatís remarkable is that if you ask most people if this guy was a Hall of Famer, most would reply that he was really good, but not an all-time great. That five year comparison to a first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer suggests otherwise.

 

So who is this mystery pitcher?

 

Johan Santana.

 

There are a couple of factors that probably mute peopleís enthusiasm. The first is that he has only pitched for 12 years which means his counting numbers (wins, total Ks, etc) arenít that impressive. But then Koufax only pitched for 12 years so that shouldnít be a deal-breaker. What should also be factored in that brevity is the fact that his manager kept him as a long reliever/swingman in the bullpen for two years despite the fact that he was clearly the best pitcher on the staff. He was so good that in his second year in that role he finished 7th in the Cy Young voting. How many longmen out of the bullpen get award consideration? Unless they also happen to be the closer, it almost never happens. The last reliever who threw in at least 45 games yet got more than 10 starts and any Cy Young votes was Mario Soto in 1980. In 1970, Luke Walker came close, pitching in 42 games, 19 as a starter. You have to go back more than 50 years when swingmen threw 200+ innings to find others: Ernie Broglio (1960), Sam Jones (1959) and Bob Shaw (1959). And thatís the list. And none of the others became the best pitcher in the majors.

 

The other problem is one of perception: his career began in the twilight of an era of truly dominated by four pitchers: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddox and Roger Clemens. Itís like being the best base stealer in the years right after Rickey Henderson retiredÖ Yeah, he good but heís not Henderson. Sure, but then, who is? This is the same situation. No, Johan Santana is not in the same category as those guys but heís still pretty awesome.

 

How awesome? Iím glad you asked.

 

Roy Halladay was a contemporary of Santanaís and is often viewed as the best starter of that decade. However, his best five year period yielded a 6.8 WAR per season, only four 200 K seasons and no ERA titles. Another contemporary, Mike Mussina, was a great pitcher over an 18-year career and is a very popular name among many Hall of Fame voters, but never finished first in WAR, only had 4 seasons in which he produced better than a 6 in that statistic and struck out 200 batters only four times. He also never won an ERA title. Both of these pitchers merit strong consideration for the Hall: Mussina has a career WAR of 82.7 (which puts him between Fergie Jenkins and Bob Gibson), and Halladay (no WAR-slouch himself with 65.6) is one of a handful of pitchers to produce three 8+ WAR seasons in the expansion era (1962-present).The others are Gibson, Koufax, Clemens, Martinez and Johnson. But at his peak, Santana was better.

 

From the time he became a fulltime starter in 2004 until 2010, no one had more double digit strikeout games (46) than him. Jake Peavy was second with 28. For the decade (2000-2010), only Pedro and Unit had more than his 49.

 

Since league-wide adoption of the 5-man rotation in 1988, only Greg Maddux (5), Randy Johnson (7), Pedro Martinez (5) and Roger Clemens (7) have posted more 7+ WAR seasons than Santana. During that span he has as many 200+ K seasons as John Smoltz and Justin Verlander. Only Kershaw, King Felix, and the aforementioned holy trinity (Martinez, Johnson and Clemens) have more.

 

From 1990 to the present his ERA+ is 8th best, behind four hall of famers (Martinez, Johnson, Maddux and Clemens), one sure fire hall of famer (Kershaw) and two guys whose careers were cut short by injury (Brandon Webb and Jose Rijo) but were never as good as Santana for as long as he was.

 

He was also author to one of the greatest half seasons ever. In the second half of 2004, more specifically from June 9 until the end of the season, he went 18-2 with a 1.36 ERA over 159.1 innings, striking out 204 batters and allowing only 111 base runners. Batters combined for a .443 OPS during the stretch (.203 on base, .240 slugging). To put that in perspective, batters produced a combined .410 OPS against Jake Arrieta during his historic second half run last year, but he pitched 12 fewer innings and struck out 57 fewer batters.

 

The reason I bring all this up is because Santana is still trying to make it back to the majors after two more shoulder surgeries put his career on hold in 2012. I understand any playerís desire to play, especially one as driven to greatness as Santana. But the fact of the matter is that heís already done enough to merit Hall of Fame induction. Itís just a matter of more people recognizing that fact.†††††