First-Half and Second-Half Santana: Myth or Reality?

An article by posted on June 22, 2010

I’m sure like most of you, I was tickled orange-and-blue when Johan Santana was traded to the New York Mets in the offseason leading to the 2008 season.  I have a few friends who were from Minnesota who did warn me, however, that Santana takes a while to “warm up” during the season.  Expect a not-so-dominant first half, but he finishes strong second-half.

I thought – pshaw!  That would all change.  I mean, wasn’t the reason Santana wanted to come to the National League was to be strong and dominant all year round?

Judging by his first few months in 2008, even I said at one point that I wasn’t impressed yet.  By the end, I had forgotten about how slow-ish start, remembered his strong finish and wondered what could have been done differently so he could have won the Cy Young in 2008.  I finally came around to my Minny friends thinking: Johan Santana has great numbers by season’s end, but we must exhaust patience watching him pitch over the year.

It’s hard to do that this year though.  In three games where he’s had bases loaded situations in this season alone, he’s given up three grand slams in incredibly visible games/losses.  Some might argue that the offense is letting Santana down this season, and to an extent that is true.  However, no one is exactly telling Johan to give up grand slams like cookies at a blood donation stand either.

Are we viewing First Half Johan?  Or is this a power drop-off to be concerned about, that Second Half Santana won’t alleviate?

Career-wise these are his numbers, with the splits of first-half and second-half (including this season):

1st Half: 66-45/3.42/1.162 WHIP

BA Against: .233/.290/.383

2nd Half:  61-19/2.73/1.061 WHIP

BA Against: .215/.270/.347

Johan Santana’s numbers are a little damning so early this season, as one of the highest paid pitchers in baseball and the “ace” of his staff, sporting a 5-4 record in 15 starts, a so-so ERA of 3.31 and a could-be-lots-better WHIP of 1.224.  His lifetime average K/9 is 8.9; currently, he is well below average at 5.7.  There is margin of improvement, since it is still relatively early in the season, but it’s alarming to me to see him so below his first-half K/9 average of 8.9.  I’m pretty certain that is a pace he won’t be able to beat or at the very least meet by the end of the first-half.

Of course, it hasn’t helped that some of the losses he’s incurred have been incredibly visible (complete with three losses to the Nationals, Phillies and Yankees where a grand slam was hit in EACH GAME).  There are some baseball statisticians who believe the win-loss record of an individual pitcher is the most overrated stat in all baseball (see: Tim Lincecum), when we should look at games where the pitcher has started that the team has ultimately won.  Out of Johan Santana’s starts in 2010, the team has only won SEVEN of 15 games.  (Ouch) Ten out of 15 starts he’s left the game where the Mets were tied or winning.  Yet, the Mets are still 7-8 in his starts.

In that respect, some people point to the offense failing him.  That’s a fair argument, given the stats above.  Some even point to the lack of Mets run support that would disallow Santana from making a start in the All-Star Game?  Would it be so bad if Johan did not make the All-Star game, though?

One thing I will admit concern over in Santana’s pitching is that there seems to be a wee bit of a power drop-off.  Let’s take a look at his Cy Young Award years, full-season, then splits.  In 2004, he had a 20-6 record, 2.61 ERA and 0.921 WHIP.  First Half: 7-6/3.78/1.067.  Second Half: 13-0/1.21/0.748.  (I almost had to check my eyes for that second-half ERA and WHIP, by the way).

In 2006, his second Cy Young year, he boasted a 19-6 record, 2.77 ERA and 0.997 WHIP.  First Half: 9-5/2.95/1.000.  Second Half: 10-1/2.54/0.994.

I feel like I sometimes forget how good he actually was for us in 2008, especially in the second half of the season.  Overall, he had a 16-7 record, 2.53 ERA and 1.148 WHIP.  First Half: 8-7/2.84/1.192.  Second Half: 8-0/2.17/1.096.  I won’t go into 2009, since it was injury-shortened.

Which brings me to my next point.  A legitimate concern as viewers we have is that Johan Santana’s velocity seems to have dropped quite a bit, and he’s walking way too many batters.  That is very true, evidenced in his WHIP thus far this season and his massive drop-off in K/9 average.  Lest we forget that he DID have an injury-shortened season in 2009 and was pitching with pain in 2008 (and still managed to gut out an amazing last day of the season performance and put up CY numbers for most of the season).  So technically he is coming off of two injury-ridden years and is getting back in the swing of things.  I, for one, am not surprised about his slow-ish start this season given these outlying data.

It’s easy to say that Johan Santana isn’t earning his contract, the Mets overpaid for him, he should be putting the Mets in the best position to win, etc. etc. etc.

Another high profile and highly paid ace sports the most losses on his team and also got gave up four runs in his start on Sunday, losing 4-1: Roy Halladay.  His stats are not bad: 8-6 record/2.43 ERA/1.078 WHIP.  However, the Phillies’ record with his starts (also 15) is just above .500 (remember: in Santana’s starts this season, the Mets are 7-8).  Halladay has pitched a perfect game!  Halladay hardly gives up runs!  My argument is that the Phillies cannot expect to win every Halladay start, nor can the Mets expect to win every Santana start.

No one knows better than I do how tough it is to lose two out of three to the Yankees, especially in a game where Santana starts and he gives up a grand slam.  Is this a first half hiccup?  Or indicative of future performance?

My theory on Johan Santana is that he is easing into the season due to injury recovery and that he may be performing extra carefully to ease himself in.  Therefore, we can expect a stronger second half.  However, I think the first half and second half differential that everyone screams about is a myth.  There will be a noticeable improvement with Johan, but it’s hardly the dramatic metamorphosis we have been brainwashed to believe.

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