Just days after the calendar turned to 2019, the New York Mets signed left-hander Hector Santiago to a Minor League contract with an invite to Spring Training. The move gave the Mets potential depth and versatility both in the rotation and out of the pen, as Santiago has experience in both roles (238 games, 137 starts).
Santiago, 31, is an eight-year journeyman who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 3oth round back in 2006 as a draft-and-follow prospect. He attended Okaloosa-Walton College in Niceville, Florida, for the 2007 season before coming to an agreement with the White Sox that same year. He made his major league debut with the club in 2011, appearing in two July games. During his rookie year in 2012, Santiago appeared in 42 games (four starts), posting a 3.33 ERA with a 10.1 strikeouts-per-nine.
After the 2013 season, Santiago was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels as part of a three-team trade that also included the Arizona Diamondbacks. In his second year with the club in 2015, Santiago made the All-Star team after posting a first half ERA of 2.33 over 108.1 innings pitched (17 starts, one relief appearance). Among pitchers with a minimum 100 innings pitched in the first half of ’15, Santiago’s 2.33 ERA was the eighth-lowest. Out of 17 first-half starts, eleven were quality.
The New Jersey-native split time between the Angels and Minnesota Twins during the 2016 season before pitching in just 15 games in 2017 season due to a back injury. His velocity took a major hit that year, as his average fastball velocity dropped from over 92 to 87 by July. After setbacks in his rehab, the Twins shut down the lefty and placed him on the 60-day disabled list in September.
Santiago returned to the South Side on a minor league deal in 2018. His velocity returned to pre-injury form and he appeared in 49 games (seven starts), posting a 4.50 ERA with 9.1 strikeouts-per-nine. His splits were far more pronounced out of the pen, where he posted a 3.62 ERA compared to 6.12 in the rotation, a 1.82 WHIP compared to 1.46, and a 35.9 percent hard hit rate compared to 29.1 percent out of the pen. His second half numbers were also significantly better when compared to his first half, posting a 3.97 xFIP to 6.06 in the first, a 17.5 K-BB rate to 5.7 percent, and a .288 wOBA to .377.
The main issue that’s plagued Santiago at times throughout his career has been inconsistent command. Since 2015 and among pitchers with a minimum 500 innings tossed, Santiago owns the third-highest walk rate at 10.3 percent. This certainly plays a role in why his xFIP is nearly a full run higher than his ERA during that stretch (4.39 ERA to 5.38 xFIP).
Through four spring appearances as of Tuesday, Santiago has looked solid for the Mets. He’s tossed six innings, allowing just one run (earned), with one walk and 11 strikeouts. He has hit three batters (which he did as well last year in spring training), but he’s neutralized left-handed hitters so far, allowing just two hits while striking out six.
The local-lefty is hoping to get a chance to help his childhood team make a postseason run this year. Recognizing the win-now mode the club is in along with the less than an hour drive from his roots in New Jersey made signing with the Mets a no-brainer.
Santiago took the time to answer some of my questions via Twitter recently, where he discussed why signing with the Mets was appealing, what he’s working on this spring, and his philanthropic work with kids.
MMO: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
MMO: At what point during your youth did you start pitching?
Santiago: Ever since I started playing baseball I’ve always pitched.
MMO: You were selected in the 30th round by the Chicago White Sox in the 2006 MLB Draft as a draft-and-follow prospect. Heading into the Draft, did you have any idea that the White Sox were interested in you? And how did attending Okaoosa-Walton College help prepare you for the pros?
Santiago: I had no idea the White Sox were interested; I had no idea who was interested. College definitely gave me a better understanding of the competition that was out there and what I would be competing against at the next level.
MMO: I read an article that said you’re an avid autograph collector. When did the hobby start for you?
Santiago: I started collecting in the minor leagues from ex-players that were now my coaches. Once I got to the big leagues I got some teammates. I decided it would be a cool idea to grab some other players around the league for my house and that family and friends could enjoy where I’ve played and who I’ve played against and hopefully my kids could enjoy it in the future.
MMO: In an interview you gave with MLB Network in 2016, you talked about how while with the White Sox organization it was mandatory that when the count was 0-2 you had to throw a fastball down and away. You mentioned how you spoke to your coaches about throwing down and in and inside more, was that a big point in your development?
Santiago: Yes, throwing inside has become a big part of my game because it made guys respect both sides of the plate.
MMO: I think you might be the only pitcher who features a screwball in his repertoire. How and when did you develop that pitch?
Santiago: I started throwing a screwball in 2010 winter ball in hopes to develop a new weapon and it was exactly that.
MMO: In 2018 you posted much stronger splits in the second half of the season. Were there any adjustments you made to contribute to that success?
Santiago: I really focused on getting in on the hands better and when I went away to do it with movement and changing speeds.
MMO: You signed a minor league deal with the Mets shortly after the New Year. What was enticing about signing with the Mets for you?
Santiago: Growing up a Mets fan and having an opportunity to come play close to home has always been a dream of mine, but most importantly the Mets want to win and I want to win. Those two ideas made my decision easy.
MMO: You’re a local guy from Newark, New Jersey, how special is it to be potentially pitching so close to home with the Mets?
Santiago: I’m very excited about having the opportunity to play close to home and in front of family and friends and be able to enjoy some off days near home.
MMO: Do you have a preference when it comes to starting or relieving? And how do you adjust your overall routine for either role?
Santiago: As a pitcher I would love to start but honestly knowing that I have a chance to pitch every day is very exciting to me. I’m the gap to the late inning guys.
MMO: Have you noticed any differences in pitching philosophies when it comes to the White Sox, Angels, Twins, and Mets?
Santiago: I think as a veteran now they let you be you. But all teams have come down to almost the same philosophy: throw strikes, keep throwing strikes, and throw more strikes when you’re ahead to put them away. Pound in for effect and strikes, sink it down, and change speeds.
MMO: You’ve had a great spring so far with the Mets, is there anything specific that you’ve been working on early whether it’s pitch selection, command, a particular pitch, etc.?
Santiago: Basically I’m just working on my mechanics. Finishing pitches and throwing strikes with all my pitches.
MMO: Can you talk about Santiago’s Soldiers? When did you start that up and what is it all about?
Santiago: I started Santiago’s Soldiers in 2011 to try to help inner city kids get in the game, stay in the game, and hopefully motivate them to continue playing while getting into college and getting a degree and if possible to live a major league life. But mainly to keep them out of trouble and off the streets.
Baseball has a great structure and helps you grow as a person, with life lessons and dealing with the ups and downs in life. Getting inner city kids into the game could possibly lead into the direction of a career choice.
Follow Hector Santiago on Twitter, @hecsantiago53
Visit his website here.