Despite shutdown, Johan Santana offered Mets more than expected
On Wednesday, the Mets announced that they would place Johan Santana on the disabled list due to lower back inflammation, a move that effectively marks the end of the 33-year-old southpaw’s season. While his final numbers — a 6-9 record and a 4.85 ERA in 21 starts and 117 innings — aren’t much to write home about, the two-time Cy Young winner did give the Mets more than they might have expected given that he missed the entire 2011 season due to a tear in his left shoulder capsule. Most notably, he supplied the team’s signature moment, a June 1 no-hitter against the Cardinals that represented the franchise’s first in 51 years of existence.
From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, the arc of Santana’s season has mirrored that of the Mets, and his no-hitter almost exactly coincided with the team’s apex. Despite a fastball that rarely cracked 90 MPH, to that point he put up a 2.38 ERA while striking out a batter per inning in 68 innings over 11 starts, seven of them quality starts. The no-hitter pushed the team’s record to 29-23; they would go on to win the next two games against the Cardinals to move into a tie for first place in the NL East at 31-23. That marked the only day after April 11 that they occupied or shared the top spot, and the only time that the team would reach eight games over .500.
That wasn’t too shabby for a pitcher whom the Mets didn’t know if they were going to get anything out of this season — or for a franchise that entered the year under a black cloud of financial woes due to declining attendance and their ownership’s potential liability in the Madoff case. Santana came into the year having not thrown in a major league game since Sept. 2, 2010, and having managed just two starts and five innings of minor league rehab in all of 2011. He wobbled through spring training without a significant setback even as the organization and its fans held their collective breath, then threw five scoreless innings against the Braves on Opening Day, kicking off an early run whose only outing of less than five innings came on April 17, when he was chased in the second inning by the same Braves.
Santana made just 10 starts totaling 49 innings following the no-hitter, interrupted by a three-week stint on the disabled list for a sprained right ankle. His ERA during that stretch was an unsightly 8.27, with just three of his turns quality starts. Six of them were disastrous starts, in whuch he allowed more runs than innings pitched, including the last five, dating back to the beginning of July. His first start after the no-hitter — which marked his second consecutive shutout — set the tone, as he was rocked for four home runs and six runs in five innings against the Yankees. Over those final 10 starts, he allowed 2.4 homers per nine, though his strikeout rate remained a solid 7.9 during that freefall.
Given that the Mets had been outscored by six runs even after reaching eight games over .500, it was reasonable to expect some regression in their performance as well as that of Santana, but the team’s fall-off was steeper than anyone expected. After winning those three straight against the Cardinals, the Mets lost six out of their next seven games, though it would take until July 22 for them to slip below .500 for the season. Since the no-hitter, their record is 28-44, the fourth-worst mark in the NL; since the All-Star break, it’s 11-27, a mark surpassed by only the Indians (10-29) and Astros (6-32). Check how well the team’s monthly record tracks with the pitcher’s availability and performance:
The change in Santana’s 2012 fortune will forever be tied to manager Terry Collins’ decision to let him throw 134 pitches in the no-hitter, representing not just his season-high but his career high, surpassing the 125 he threw against the Cubs on Sept. 23, 2008, and marking the first time he had gone beyond 120 in one day shy of two years. During the no-hitter, Collins fretted about the consequences of the high pitch count. “My heart told me to take him out due to the fact that I’m playing with a huge piece of the organization,” he told reporters following the game. “I went against just about everything I stand for … In my heart, I was very, very excited for Johan, and very, very excited for everybody. But I kind of had felt that I had made the wrong move.”
Faced with the decision to continue despite his mounting pitch count, Santana chose to go for it and accept the consequences. “When I had that situation there, I knew I had to take the most out of it, and then we’ll figure it all out tomorrow,” he said afterwards. Sympathetic to a downtrodden fan base, and sensitive to the emotions of the moment, general manager Sandy Alderson and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon both backed the decisions of Collins and Santana.
For as badly as Santana pitched following the no-hitter, the team can still take heart in the fact that none of his subsequent woes appear to be directly related to arm troubles. Santana sprained his ankle while attempting to cover first base during his July 6 start against the Cubs. The injury was thought to be minor enough to pitch through following an eight-day rest, including the All-Star break, but it altered his landing and sent his delivery out of whack, and he was pummeled in two starts before going on the disabled list. If there’s fault to find with the Mets’ handling of him this season, it lies in not temporarily shutting him down there, because injuries anywhere on a pitcher’s body create the risk of so-called “cascade injuries,” in which additional stress is placed on the shoulder and elbow. The ankle healed, but according to Santana, he began experiencing tightness in his lower back a couple of weeks ago. His back stiffened up during his August 17 start against the Nationals, just his second since returning from the DL, and continued to bother him during Monday’s bullpen session. After he underwent an an MRI on Tuesday, the team decided that shutting him down for the remainder of the year was the best course of action.
Santana still has one year plus an option remaining on the six-year, $137.5 million deal he signed with the Mets upon being traded from the Twins in February 2008. He’ll receive a $25.5 million salary next year, and the Mets will almost certainly choose to pay the $5.5 million buyout on his $25 million club option for 2014. Like many a big-money deal, this hasn’t worked out as expected for the Mets; while his 3.18 ERA with the team is a hair lower than the 3.22 mark he put up with the Twins, he has made just 109 starts, surpassing the 30-start and 200-inning thresholds only in 2008. Still, the 14.6 WAR (or 14.4 WARP) he has accumulated during that time means he’s far from the worst contract in the game.
Alas, the Mets don’t have the luxury of shutting the entire team down at this point, a move that would provide some relief to a team that has lost 12 out of its last 16 games while being outscored 81-42. But no matter what their final record is, the team provided far more excitement early in the early season than their fans might have dared hope back in March, and Santana’s no-hitter will forever stand as one of the shining moments in franchise history.