The Unknown All-Star
June 18, 2003

The All-Star Game is less than a month away, and while there are always deserving players left off the teams, this year might be especially disappointing because arguably the best pitcher in the American League won't be there.  And it won't be because he's injured; it's because most people don't know how good Johan Santana is, major league managers included.

Currently, the Twins are using Santana out of the bullpen, allowing him to start when one of their other starters goes down with injury.  Over the last 2 years, there have been enough of these sporadic opportunities to give us a pretty good idea of the kind of talent he has, which I'll get to in a moment.  But regardless how well Santana has pitched, he's always drawn the short stick back to the bullpen.  Now, moving a young pitcher into the bullpen isn't a new idea.  Nor is giving the nod to veteran pitchers over younger pitchers.  But rarely has a team had as many struggling starters as the Twins have had this season, yet insisted on keeping its best starter in the bullpen.  

Skipper Rod Gardenhire claims that putting Santana in the bullpen allows him to use him "4 or 5 times a week as opposed to just once" if he put him in the rotation.  The fact of the matter is that the Twins' manager has used Santana four times in the span of 7 days just once over the last two seasons, and three times in a week only one other time.   Essentially, he's been used as any reliever would be - once or twice a week for an inning or two - and not as the Twins super-reliever secret weapon.  What's more, Santana has rarely been used in critical situations.  Most of the games he's come in, the Twins are either way ahead or way behind.  Point in fact: in 12 of the 18 games he's pitched in relief this season, the difference in the score has been at least 3 runs.  So Gardenhire is neither using him often nor in critical situations.

There's another argument that Santana pitches better out of the bullpen than he does in the rotation.  This doesn't ring true either.  In 16 starts in 2002 and 2003, Santana has an ERA of 2.71 and has allowed 1.165 baserunners per inning.  As a reliever over the same span, he has a 2.86 ERA and has allowed 1.227 baserunners per inning.

So are the Twins better with Santana in the bullpen?  Even as well as Kyle Lohse has been pitching this year, since the beginning of 2002 no Twins' starter has an ERA within one run of Santana's.  Lohse is the closest at 3.73.  Rick Reed is next with a 3.94.  Santana has averaged 90.5 pitches per start as a starter (82 per start this year), yet has averaged almost the same number of innings per start (5.79) as anyone else in the rotation - Reed (5.87), Lohse (6.14), Brad Radke (5.79), Kenny Rogers (6.07), Joe Mays (5.67).  Lohse has been much better this year (6.90) but has also thrown 14 more pitches per start.   If Santana were allowed to throw as many pitches as the other starters, there is little doubt he would lead the team in innings per start, thus relieving some of the "need" to have a Santana in the bullpen.

Earlier, I suggested that Santana is arguably the best pitcher in the league.  That may seem far fetched but the claim has some statistical merit.  He has been given 16 starts and has compiled a record of 10-4 with a 2.71 ERA, 1.165 WHIP and struck out better than a batter per inning (1.144 per inning).  Here's how he compares to the elite in the AL over their last 16 starts (as of June 17):






Johan Santana





Barry Zito





Pedro Martinez





Roy Halladay





Bartolo Colon





Mark Mulder





Mike Mussina





Esteban Loaiza





Only Mike Mussina has a clear performance edge on Santana, and no AL starter has struck out batters at a better rate.  The fact that he's done this well despite also coming out of the bullpen makes him fairly unique.

Here's more food for thought.  Last year, Santana joined some pretty select company.  In the history of the game, only 13 pitchers have had a season in which they averaged striking out at least 10 batters per nine innings, threw at least 100 innings, had at least 10 starts and posted an ERA under 3.00.  Randy Johnson has done it 6 times.  Nolan Ryan (5), Pedro Martinez (5), Curt Schilling (2), Sandy Koufax (2) and Sam McDowell (2) are the only other pitchers to do it multiple times.  The others on the list: Mike Scott, Hideo Nomo, Tom Hall, Dwight Gooden, David Cone and Roger Clemens.  Santana became the latest to join that list of pitchers who've won 17 of the last 36 Cy Young awards (20 overall) and includes two Hall of Famers and three guys who are practically guaranteed entry into the Hall of Fame.  Select company indeed.

But the Twins want him in the bullpen.  Joe Mays is actually the perfect candidate to be moved to the pen.  For his first 45 pitches each start this season, Mays holds batters to a respectable .266 average and .406 slugging.  After 45 pitches, batters have been hovering all season around .300 and slugging .500 against him.  His strikeout rate goes down and his walk rate jumps after this point as well.  Forty-five pitches averages out to around three innings of work.  While that's not bad for a reliever, it's not nearly sufficient to be a starter.     

I spoke with a close observer of the Twins and he said the whole reason Santana is in the pen is, a) Gardenhire is extremely loyal to his veterans, and b) they don't want to put a guy making $5 million in the bullpen (Mays) in favor of a guy making $500K.  Generally speaking I don't mind a manager giving the benefit of the doubt to his veteran players.  It builds confidence that they don't have to look over their shoulders if they have a couple of bad games.  But it's the middle of June now and the Twins have 4 starting pitchers with ERAs near or above 5.00 and the Royals have closed to within a game of Minnesota in the standings.  This is well past a couple of bad games.  So does veteran leadership always take precedent over talent?  I guess we'll soon see if Gardenhire really thinks it does.  If he does, then it's very likely that one of the best pitchers in baseball will be sitting at home for the All-Star game and the Twins will find themselves needlessly in a dogfight for the Central Division.