Johan Santana faces an uphill climb to Cooperstown
By Jay Jaffe
Given that no major league pitcher has undergone two surgeries on the shoulder capsule of his throwing arm, and given that none of the small handful who have undergone even one such surgery have subsequently completed a full season in the majors, there’s a strong possibility that Johan Santana’s latest injury is a career-ending one. Inevitably, that prompts questions about the two-time Cy Young winner’s Hall of Fame case. Even for a great player, with just 117 innings after his age-31 season, he faces a steep uphill climb.
Thus far, Santana has thrown only 2,025 2/3 innings over the course of his 12-year major league career (2000-2010, 2012) with the Twins and Mets, with the first three of those years totaling only 238 innings. Only in seven of those seasons did he throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. That’s an extremely small workload for a Hall of Fame pitcher; only three of the five enshrined relievers (Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Rich Gossage) and one starter (Dizzy Dean) threw fewer total innings. Even Addie Joss and Sandy Koufax — two standouts whose careers were extinguished in their primes, the former by death due to meningitis in 1911, the latter by elbow woes in 1966 — had roughly 300 more innings pitched during their brief careers, and reliever Hoyt Wilhelm racked up about 200 more during his lengthy one.
Santana packed a lot into those innings, however. Among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings in the high-scoring post-1993 expansion era, his 3.20 ERA and 136 ERA+ both rank fifth on a who’s who list of greats. Here’s a chart ranked by the latter stat to account for park and league scoring context:
More than half of the pitchers on that list are going to wind up with bronze plaques in Cooperstown sometime in the next decade — almost certainly Martinez, Johnson, Maddux and Clemens, likely Smoltz and Schilling, and possibly Halladay, who remains active. Santana isn’t likely to be among that lot, and it’s because of the relative size of his workload, particularly considering that most of those potential enshrinees started pitching before 1993 and thus have even more total innings on their résumés than reflected above.
Turning to the advanced metrics to compare Santana’s case against the starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame using Baseball-Reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement and my own Jaffe WAR Score (JAWS) system (explained here), we can get a better sense of the impact of his short career. With the caveat that I’ve picked the exact day that B-R is in the process of updating its WAR — slightly lowering its replacement level to align with that of FanGraphs (explanation here) — and that we can thus expect the numbers to shift slightly upwards for nearly everyone, Santana has compiled 49.1 WAR for his career, and 43.1 for his peak (his best seven seasons), for an overall JAWS of 46.1. The average starting pitcher in the Hall has compiled 68.1 WAR for his career, and 47.7 for his peak, for an overall JAWS of 57.9. In other words, Santana is well short measured against all three standards.
At this writing, Santana ranks 75th among starters, with a very similar score to the 82nd-ranked Koufax (46.2/43.8/45.0), whose stats lose a bit of their shine when properly adjusted for the parched run environment of mid-1960s Dodger Stadium. But Koufax won three Cy Youngs and an MVP award, and had a much greater postseason impact: a 0.95 ERA in 57 World Series innings for four pennant winners and three world champions in a seven-year span, compared to Santana’s 3.97 ERA in 34 innings, 30 1/3 of which came in AL Division Series, with the balance in the 2002 ALCS. Based on that and a decisive advantage in term of leagues led in key categories (what Bill James calls Black Ink), I’d still rank Koufax well above Santana in an overall analysis of Hall of Fame fitness.
Santana’s JAWS is higher than only 15 of the 58 enshrined starters, and even his peak score — a proxy for his short career — is outdone by 36 of them. Relative to the nine other contemporaries listed in the table above, he’s behind all but Oswalt (48.8/36.7/42.8) in career WAR and JAWS, and all but Oswalt and Smoltz (65.9/37.0/51.4) in his peak.
All that said, it’s fair to suggest that Santana was on a Hall of Fame trajectory, at least before the first of the two capsule tears. His WAR through his age-31 season ranks 38th all-time, outdone by only 24 Hall of Fame hurlers. While certainly interesting, that merely qualifies him for the Hall of What Might Have Been, and even then, he’s a few wins below another two-time Cy Young winner whose career was wracked by injuries, Bret Saberhagen. Coincidentally, Saberhagen is believed to be the first major league pitcher to undergo surgery to repair his capsule back in 1996.
Among multiple Cy Young winners, Saberhagen and Denny McLain are the only ones who have come and gone from the BBWAA ballot without gaining entry, while Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Martinez and Tom Glavine have yet to receive their final verdicts from the voters (Clemens reached the ballot this past year; Maddux and Glavine will do so this year). Halladay and Tim Lincecum are still active. Of those latter two, Halladay (62.3/48.6/55.5) has a peak score that’s above the standard for starting pitchers, though he’s still short on the other two fronts, and with only 199 career wins, he’s likely to be seen as short of qualified by the old-school voters — to say nothing of Santana’s 137 wins.
As a basis of comparison, Saberhagen’s overall line (56.0/41.4/48.7) outdoes Santana on career and JAWS if not peak, and while his 4.67 ERA in 54 postseason innings is nothing special, his 0.50 ERA in 18 innings in the 1985 World Series, which earned him MVP honors while helping the Royals to a world championship, is. If he’s not in — he fell off the ballot after receiving just 1.3 percent of the vote in 2007 — it’s tougher to make a case for Santana.
What if Santana had won a third Cy Young? Along with winning the trophy in both 2004 (20-6, 2.61 ERA, 265 strikeouts, 8.6 WAR) and 2006 (19-6, 2.77 ERA, 245 strikeouts, 7.5 WAR) — years in which he led the league in both ERA and K’s — he recorded a season that was nearly as strong in 2005 (16-7, 2.87 ERA, 238 strikeouts, 7.2 WAR). In terms of everything besides won-loss record, he outdid winner Bartolo Colon (21-8, 3.48 ERA, 157 strikeouts, 4.0 WAR), and he was far more valuable than runner-up Mariano Rivera (43 saves, 1.38 ERA, 4.0 WAR) as well. By the time the dust settles, none of the eight three-time Cy Young winners (Clemens, Johnson, Steve Carlton, Maddux, Koufax, Martinez, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver) is likely to land outside the Hall; had voting justice been done in 2005, Santana would have stood out as the exception there, though if one wants to nitpick each of those winners’ cases on a pure WAR basis, the picture might change significantly.
If Santana can’t make it back from this shoulder injury, he’ll likely remain outside Cooperstown, but there’s no shame in that. He has had a great career, and he’ll be remembered as one of the dominant pitchers of a high-scoring era. His battle back from his 2010 shoulder injury, which reached its apex with his no-hitter last June, was memorable and inspiring; watching it myself, I found it impossible not to get choked up, or to enjoy the revelry in a bar full of Mets fans handing out free shots in his honor.
It has been suggested that the 134 pitches Santana threw that night were what did his fragile left shoulder in for good. While one can make a superficial case given the 8.27 ERA he put up in the 10 starts that followed, that ugly statistic ignores the fact that after he was rocked in his first two follow-ups (10 runs, 10 innings against the Yankees and Rays), he ran off a three-start stretch in which he allowed just two runs in 20 innings against the Orioles, Cubs and Dodgers — exceeding 100 pitches each time. The last of those was an eight-inning, three-hit effort on June 30, his third-best outing of the season behind the no-hitter and the four-hit shutout of the Padres that immediately preceded it. While those 134 pitches may have contributed to the overall mileage on his shoulder, the suggestion that he pitched through a torn capsule for the remainder of his season, but that it wasn’t discovered for another nine months even while he received treatment for an ankle sprain (which sent him to the DL in late July) and lower back inflammation, seems very unlikely.
On the other hand, the “impromptu and angry bullpen” session Santana threw earlier this month — said to be 15-20 pitches — in response to general manager Sandy Alderson’s assertion that he wasn’t in pitching shape resulted in persistent pain that limited him to long toss thereafter and culminated in the MRI and examinations that confirmed the re-injury of his shoulder. We’ll never know for sure, but it seems far more likely that session was the final straw for his fragile shoulder.