Can Johan Santana pitch smarter and keep off the DL?

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the longevity of New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera and lefty Andy Pettitte. The article noted how both pitchers, who are in their 40’s now, have been able to pitch at such a high level so deep into their careers. It highlighted that Pettitte in particular, as he aged, learned how to pitch smarter. Pettitte understood that he didn’t need to throw 97 MPH to get outs, he had secondary pitches.

The Mets also have an aging ace in Johan Santana who could benefit from this type of wisdom. Santana’s past three years have been frustrating. Including surgically repairing his shoulder, missing all of the 2011 season, and after ten hot starts in 2012, including a no hitter, Santana struggled and eventually found refuge on the disabled list. The bottom line is Santana has been brittle, and it appears likely that he won’t be ready for opening day. Given that Santana hasn’t pitched consistently since 2010, now may be the time for the Mets coaching staff to consider reevaluating his approach.

It starts with Santana’s pitch repertoire, which includes a fastball, change up, slider, and an occasional two seamer. Of those four pitches, only the slider seems to be a red flag for injury. In the table below is some compiled pitch f/x data on the percentage of each type of pitch that Santana has thrown since 2008.

Year Fastball% Two-Seam FB% Change Up% Slider%
2008 62% N/A 26% 10.1%
2009 49.3% 16.6% 24.5% 9.2%
2010 28.3% 29.8% 30.4% 11.4%
2012 52.6% 6.1% 21.7% 20.4%

Eno Sarris of FanGraphs once conducted a study in which he found that pitchers who throw sliders 28% of the time are likely to end up with some sort of injury. This has been the case with guys like Michael Pineda and Brett Anderson, who have each had their own problems. Santana threw his slider 20.4% of the time last year. Although that is significantly below the 28% threshold, Santana does have a surgically repaired shoulder and throwing a large volume of sliders with that shoulder seems likely to lead to some sort of injury. We have already heard that Santana’s shoulder has been acting up in camp, so it’s probably a good idea to consider cutting down on the number of sliders he throws.

He doesn’t have to cut the slider out completely, but it is worth noting that last year he threw his change up fewer times than in most years, and more importantly he drastically dropped the number of times he threw his two-seam fastball. Prior to 2012, Santana has already had success but it wasn’t due to his slider. His success was credited to throwing his fastball, change up and two-seamer at larger volumes than his slider. In order for the Mets to keep Santana on the field a couple of more innings, it’s not a bad idea to have him cut down on his sliders, replace it with his two-seam fastball, and increase the number of times he throws his change up. These are the types of changes that allow Santana to pitch smarter, and in return keep him off the disabled list.

6 comments for “Can Johan Santana pitch smarter and keep off the DL?

  1. Chris F
    March 18, 2013 at 7:47 am

    No, in answer to your title. He makes 20 starts max if he goes the full year. In retrospect, it’s funny/ironic/sad to call him an ace given all we’ve gone through.

  2. March 18, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Santana’s best pitch is his change-up. I understand the need for a starter to have a breaking ball, but he should be living off his fastballs and change-ups.

  3. Metsense
    March 18, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    I found it amusing that some writer is telling Santana how to pitch smarter. Isn’t that the job of the pitching coach? Shouldn’t he be in the know on these statistics. Oh, I forgot, he only reads the back of the baseball card and last time I looked those type of stats aren’t there. Nice analysis Spencer.

    • Chris F
      March 29, 2013 at 7:40 am

      So the post mortem on Johan’s Mets career will be in full swing, and no doubt TC didn’t sleep a wink last night.

      But I want to ask the following: who is Dan Warthen? Under his watch we have dealt with three anterior capsule tears, a string of pitchers arm issues, and poor performance. He has no baseball career to speak of and his coaching career is a singular blight. He should have been fired along with Hudgens. I don’t want Warthen near Niese, Harvey, Wheeler or anyone else.

      I think keeping this coaching staff, which clearly is sub par (I mean didn’t the pitching coach call Johan or go to meet with him over the winter?????) represents one of the most shameful aspects of the Alderson era.


      • Joe Vasile
        March 29, 2013 at 10:41 am

        I can do without Warthen, but I like Hudgens. He preaches patience at the plate, and the hitters seem to have bought into it. Reyes won a batting title and Wright found his swing again under Hudgens’ tutelage.

        • Chris F
          March 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm

          I see that, but these are star athletes. I see a roster of left handed batters that cant hit left handed pitching to save their lives. Its not the stars that worry me, its the remaining folks that need coaching and are not getting it.

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