Baseball 97: Johan Santana

Johan Santana spent much of his childhood trying to stop being left-handed. Think about that for a minute. When Santana was growing up in Tovar -- a remote town in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela -- he wanted only to be like his father, Jesus. Johan idolized his dad. And Jesus Santana played shortstop on a semi-pro team.

Johan wanted to play shortstop too. He was told that lefties don't play short. So he spent weeks learning how to throw the ball right-handed.

I sometimes wonder if odd life turns like that make a bigger difference than we might think. You probably know that Henry Aaron started out hitting cross-handed. Did that quicken his wrists? With Santana, I wonder if throwing the ball with both hands -- he would throw left-handed when he played outfield and right-handed when at short -- helped him gain the extraordinary balance and feel that enabled him to develop one of the greatest change-ups in baseball history.

The Houston Astros signed Santana on the sheer will of one scout named Andres Reiner. You can't tell the story of Venezuelans and Major League Baseball without talking about Reiner, who in his 80 years of life scouted, developed and encouraged more or less every great recent Venezuelan player from Bobby Abreu to Miguel Cabrera to Jose Altuve. He opened the first baseball academy in Venezuela.

The legend goes that Reiner first heard about Santana during the 1994 MLB players strike; Santana was 15 then. Houston scouts were under strict orders to spend no money -- including the 400 bucks that Reiner needed to get to Tovar -- so Reiner paid for his own car and drove 10 hours through the mountains. Santana was mostly a centerfielder then. He wasn't fast. He wasn't strong. He didn't hit with power. But Reiner saw a spark. The kid had something.

Three years later, the Astros signed Santana as a pitcher ... and he was mostly unimpressive. He went 0-4 with a 7.93 ERA his first year in rookie ball. He went 15-18 with an ERA around 5 in his first three minor league seasons. The Astros still liked his arm, but they didn't like it that much -- they left him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft. The Minnesota Twins had the first pick in that draft, and, of course, they selected ... Jared Camp?

Right. The Florida Marlins had the second pick, and they selected Santana. The two teams then swapped players, with Florida paying the Twins $50,000 for the privilege. You would have to say that, in the big picture of baseball history, trading Johan Santana AND $50,000 for Jared Camp should go down as one of the worst trades ever. But remember that there was talk back then of baseball contracting the Twins. They needed to make a few bucks any way they could.

[caption id="attachment_23100" align="aligncenter" width="381"] Santana's career peak was downright Koufaxian.[/caption]

Santana had been toying with his change-up for a while, but he got serious about it in Minnesota. Perfecting it became an obsession. He walked around with a baseball wherever he went, and just practiced his grip hour after hour, day after day. "A baseball is my partner," he told The New York Times. "I have to keep it with me at all times. We have 162 games a year, plus spring training. You spend more than half the year with a baseball in your hand. You can't forget that."

Santana's circle change was a wonder not unlike the Grand Canyon. From afar -- say from the stands or the press box -- it can be hard sometimes to figure out exactly what makes a pitch so devastating. With Santana's change-up, you always knew. The thing practically stopped in mid-air. "It just comes to the plate like a fastball," Jason Giambi said, "and falls off."

"With Johan, I sometimes look back at the catcher after I swing," Mike Sweeney said. "I want to be sure the ball didn't just disappear."

From 1960 through 1966, Sandy Koufax made 237 starts. These years make up more or less his entire regular-season Hall of Fame case.

From 2003 through 2010, Johan Santana made 240 starts. These years make up more or less his entire regular-season Hall of Fame case.

I can tell you the numbers. I can tell you that Koufax pitched 137 more innings in his starts, because starters went longer in those days. That also explains why Koufax had 37 shutouts to Santana's eight.

But other than that, it's hard to see much difference, especially once you account for how different their eras were.

Sandy Koufax (1960-66): 137-60, 2.36 ERA, 147 ERA+, 1,910 Ks, 512 walks, 3.73 K-W, 48.0 WAR, 3 Cy Youngs, 1 MVP, led league in pitcher WAR twice.

John Santana (2003-2010): 122-60, 2.89 ERA, 150 ERA+, 1,648 Ks, 409 walks, 4.03 K-W, 47.8 WAR, 2 Cy Youngs, led league in pitcher WAR three times.

I'm hardly the first to make the Koufax-Santana comparison, And, realistically, you can play around with it any way you like. After all, much of Koufax's legend comes from his performance in the postseason, which is not included in the above. Santana's postseason history is short and checkered. He made five postseason starts; one of them was terrible, two of them were quality starts, none of them was legendary.

So, no, I'm not saying -- nobody should be saying -- that Santana was Koufax.

But what IS apparent is that Santana was incredible. He was the best pitcher of his time. At his peak, when his fastball was in the mid-90s and his slider was a tilt-a-whirl and his change-up put on the brakes and let bats fly over, there was nobody in baseball at his level.

[caption id="attachment_23101" align="aligncenter" width="387"] Santana still owns the only no-hitter in Mets history.[/caption]

And it makes you wonder: What defines baseball greatness? Santana was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2018. Four players were elected -- Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero, Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman. Two more got more than 60% of the vote -- Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina.

Santana got all of 10 votes and fell off the ballot.

And I'm not sure I would have traded an in-his-prime Santana for ANY of those others.

I say that squeamishly -- I voted for five of the other six, and I did not vote for Santana. If presented with that ballot again today, I might do the same. There are obvious points to be made. Santana started only 284 games in his career, same as Matt Garza and Carl Pavano, fewer than Chan Ho Park or Ismael Valdez. He won only 139 games, and no matter how little you think about wins, that still doesn't FEEL Hall of Fame worthy. We're so used to Hall of Fame pitchers being defined by certain numbers, and with 139 wins, with fewer than 2,000 strikeouts, it all feels a bit short.

But looking at history through the Baseball 100 prism, I'm just not sure that's the right way to evaluate it. He didn't have the eight to 10 average years that would have made him a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. But does that really change the story? Johan Santana was a dominant pitcher for seven or eight seasons. In the many iterations of the Baseball 100 formula, which admittedly skews toward peak performance, Santana consistently rated as one of the 100 greatest baseball players ever. I think he was.

One of the joys of being the sports columnist in Kansas City was that I got to see Johan Santana pitch a lot. He was a dancer on the mound, so graceful, everything in perfect balance. He did every little thing that a pitcher needs to do to be great. Every pitching delivery was a mirror image of the one before. Every pitch ended with him in ideal defensive position. He was lightning quick to cover first base on grounders. He pitched at a rhythm and speed that always felt his and his alone.

You know how in football, they'll sometimes talk about a defender being all over the field, like there are two of him out there? That's how it felt to face Johan Santana at his best. It was like there were two Santanas out there.

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BONUS: After this post came out, our pal Brandon McCarthy tweeted a quick story from 2005 when he pitched for the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. In September, he pitched against Minnesota and Santana.

"He tipped every pitch he threw against us," Brandon wrote, "and went 8 shutout innings with 13 strikeouts. He was absurd."

In addition to telling us the sheer awesomeness of King Johan, it also brings up an interesting topic for another day: How much does a pitcher tipping pitches matter? I'll try to get Brandon to discuss.