May 21, 2012: Pittsburgh, PA, USA: New York Mets starting pitcher Johan Santana (57) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Pugliese-US PRESSWIRE

New York Mets Johan Santana back on track

In lieu of Johan Santana‘s masterful four-hit shutout, it’s time to take a look at his early start to the season and see if the New York Mets starter is truly back on track after a devastating injury that cost him the entire 2011 season.

In 50 innings this season (all stats do not include his recent shutout), Santana has a 3.24/2.86/3.27 pitching triple slash and has been worth 1.2 WAR. His preseason projection had him at 2.2 WAR, but that should be upped to a total of 3.5 WAR, which was the exact total of his last healthy season in the Majors in 2010.

That year, Johan Santana managed to have a 2.98 ERA despite having a low 6.5 K/9 in 199 innings. His fastball velocity dipped under 90 miles per hour for the first time in his career, but he was actually better in 2010 than he was in 2009 (2.6 WAR). The Mets ace has seen his fastball velocity decrease, and he is nowhere near the pitcher who was worth over 7 WAR for three straight seasons (yeah, Santana used to be THAT awesome).

What helped Santana the most in ’10 was his 31.4 O-Swing% which set a career high, and hitters started to make more contact off of his pitches out of the zone. This increase was significant and probably caused a little bit weaker contact to be hit against him. That helped him keep his home run rate down, but it should be noted that he had an increase in contact rate against him across the board.

The spike in O-Contact% helped contribute to a career-low 9.2 SwStr%, and it was the first time in Santana’s career that he caused a hitter to whiff against him less than one-tenth of the time. His strikeout rate was at rock bottom that year, but he had a solid WAR total due to the fact that he didn’t get burned often that year.

This year, Johan Santana is back to punching out hitters at a high rate, and he has a 9.54 K/9 which is the highest total in his New York Mets career (we’ll ignore sample size for now). He is, however, walking 2.9 batters every nine innings for the second highest total of his career, with his previous high coming in his rookie season.

Even so, Santana is on pace for a 3.30 ERA, which would put him at around 4 WAR overall (ERA and FIP projections are interchangeable). While his fastball velocity has still been under 90, he is still pitching well this season.

Johan Santana has a 26.3 LD% against him, and that slight bit of bad luck won’t last, with his career average being around 20%. He is getting hitters to chase just under 30% of the time, but hitters have also been much more patient against him this year.

The good news is that the contact rate against Santana has digressed back to his career norm over these 50 innings, but he is also throwing less first-pitch strikes and less pitches in the zone overall (44.7 Zone%).

Even so, his 11.6 SwStr% is his highest total while with the New York Mets, so the different approach is paying off. It seems like Santana is changing his approach ever since the injury and the velocity “droppage” into a more crafty pitcher who doesn’t try to overwhelm hitters with stuff that just isn’t there anymore.

The improvements that the Mets ace has made look legitimate early on, and he should be worth at least 3 WAR this season; with that rising to 4 WAR if he can stay healthy and keep this up over 100 innings. Once we hit the 100-inning plateau, we’ll get a true picture of whether or not Johan Santana is truly back but in a different form, so to speak. The interesting thing is that his LD% shows that he is getting some bad luck, and his 2.86 FIP accounts for this by off-setting his 3.24 ERA. Another bit of good news is that Santana has outperformed his FIP in his career, but, if he really has changed his approach, the relationship between his FIP and ERA totals will have differed.

In any case, Santana looks like he is “back” and the concerns about him no longer being a solid pitcher look like a wash. He is at least a 3 WAR pitcher right now and will be worth at least 4 WAR if he can keep getting hitter’s to chase on pitches and “craft” his way into generating outs and embrace a role as a crafty, veteran lefty who still has something on that slider.

I am going to be bold and project a 4 WAR season from Santana, and I believe he can keep this up over this season. If I’m wrong, feel free to bash me all you want at the end of the year, but I honestly believe in Santana. You should too, since it’s one of those feel-good stories of an elite pitcher retooling his approach after a big-time injury that caused many to believe that his days at being even a league-average starter were done. In fact, the only question mark regarding the starter with the eighth-highest whiff rate is if he can stay healthy over this season. For Santana’s sake, the Mets sake, my sake (that projection above), Mets’ fans’ sakes, and your sake; let’s hope so.

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Tags: Johan Santana New York Mets

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