In order for the Kansas City Royals to be real contenders in the AL Central this season, a lot of things are going to have to go right. The young offense will need to continue to develop, and the starting pitching will need to vastly improve for the Royals’ playoff dreams to become reality. While the newly acquired James Shields will headline a stronger rotation (at least on paper), question marks still remain. In my opinion, the most important question will have to be answered by Ervin Santana.
Santana is coming off a horrendous 2012 season, in which he posted a 5.16 ERA, and surrendered a league-worst 39 home runs in 178 innings for the Los Angeles Angels. That ERA put him in the bottom six among qualified starters, along with other Royals Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen. Despite putting up those unsightly numbers, and being owed $13 million in 2013, Dayton Moore decided to trade away left-handed reliever Brandon Sisk to acquire Santana plus $1 million cash at the end of October. While losing Sisk is not a major hit to the organization, why was Moore willing to make a $12 million gamble on a pitcher who just posted a line that could make Runelvys Hernandez blush?
My best guess: Moore saw Santana’s 2012 season not as a result of his pitching skills diminishing, but just plain old bad luck.
Most of the time, the “lucky breaks” for a team or a player balance out throughout the course of a season. A team might have a month in which every ball they hit is drilled right at the fielders, and follow it up with a stretch of play in which no one can make solid contact, but bloop singles start falling all over the diamond.
Sometimes, however, players will go through season-long stretches of luck, good or bad. It’s entirely possible that Santana’s 2012 was one of those bad luck stretches. At first glance, one can see his BABIP allowed was .241, 50 points lower than his career average, which some would say suggests Santana was actually the recipient of good luck. However, since home runs allowed are not included when calculating BABIP, that is likely not the case. Because Santana allowed so many home runs – one out of nearly every four hits allowed left the park – the number of non-HR hits was lower, thus resulting in a lower BABIP.
Even allowing that many home runs seems to be a fluke. Santana’s career high in home runs allowed prior to last season was 27, in a year in which his FB% was 42.7 Because of the higher percentage of fly balls allowed, his HR/FB% that season was only 9.2. In 2012, Santana surrendered 39 home runs to accompany a FB% of 37.3 – a career-low in that category – good for a HR/FB% of 18.9, almost twice as high as his career average. In raw numbers, 39 out of the 206 fly balls he allowed ended up leaving the stadium. That is 1 out of just over every 5 fly balls getting deposited in the seats.
Giving up home runs that frequently is extremely tough to do, even if you’re actively trying to do so. Just ask Robinson Cano’s dad.
When looking at Santana’s other statistics, including a GB% of 43.2 (well above his career average), and a LD% of 19.5 (right in line with his career average), it’s tough to see how the absurdly high home run numbers fit in without accounting for bad luck. When normalizing for the extraordinarily high HR rate, Santana’s xFIP was 4.48, again suggesting his line should have been much better than it actually was. It was just that pesky long ball that gave Santana so much trouble.
This isn’t to state that bad luck was undoubtedly the sole reason for Santana’s struggles last year. Another contributing factor could have been his decreased fastball velocity. His average velocity had dropped from 92.7 in 2011 to 91.7 in 2012. Typically, losing velocity for a fly ball pitcher is going to lead to worse results. It’s also possible the decreased velocity was an indicator of some kind of injury problem. Jeff Zimmerman at Royals Review did some research into whether Santana is approaching an injury. While the data isn’t totally conclusive, one could argue that Santana seems to be heading that direction. Obviously Santana passed his physical tests, but that injury risk is certainly there. In Santana’s first spring training start, he was working between 92-93 MPH, so that will definitely be something to watch for moving forward. If the velocity returns to his 2010 and 2011 average, I would bet his stats improve as well.
The other possible reason for Santana’s awful year: he’s just not a good pitcher anymore. After throwing almost 1500 innings since 2005, his skills may have diminished to the point where he can no longer be effective. Personally, I think this is the least likely of all potential causes (although it could be my spring optimism rearing its beautiful, warm, welcoming head once again). Santana is only 30 years old, and his peripherals didn’t drop off much at all in 2012. If his strikeout and walk rates start off going in the wrong directions, then I would start to be concerned. But as long as the velocity returns, I’m looking forward to a nice bounce-back season from Santana.
I’m not expecting Santana to return to his 2008 form, in which he threw 219 innings with a 3.49 ERA and an 8.8 K/9 rate. But if his numbers return to something closer to his career averages, particularly the HR rate, I see no reason why he can’t give the Royals roughly 200 innings with an ERA in the 4.30 or 4.40 range. And if some of his bad luck from last year turns the opposite direction, a sub-4 ERA isn’t totally out of the question. Those are incredibly valuable numbers for a number 3 starter. Those are the numbers Dayton Moore traded for, and those are the numbers Dayton Moore is betting on.
Let’s just hope Dayton’s $12 million gamble pays off.