Ervin Santana was really, really good yesterday. Anytime you can get 8 innings out of your starter and only one run it is good, but there was much more to it than that. There are a few things that are possible indicators that Santana will not be just an average starter this year.
First, and most obvious, are his peripherals. The 9.6K per nine is probably not going to stay quite that high, but it is nice to see a lot of strike outs. His career high in K/9 is 8.79 back in 2008, which was his career year. To go along with that his walk rate so far is 1.3 per nine, which is also likely to come up toward normal over time but is also showing some solid command early. These are nice, but most of my optimism is being derived from PITCHf/x of game 2, so let’s take a look at that.
The PITCHf/x data shows two really good indicators that Ervin is in good form for this year. Velocity may be the most promising indicator. Last year he saw a dip in his fastball velocity:
Avg. Fastball Velocity
Mar 18, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ervin Santana (54) pitches during the fourth inning against the Texas Rangers at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Then in the first game of 2013 his fastball averaged 90.1 and I have to admit I was a little nervous that either he was headed toward another injury or going to need to become a new pitcher. It was only one start though, and sometimes velocity comes up a bit over the first few starts of the year. In game two it certainly did in this case. He posted an average velocity of 93.1, which matches his high annual average, and his high watermark for velocity on July 21st. There is a big difference between last year’s and this year’s game though, in that last year when Ervin matched the 93.1 average velocity he only went an inning and two thirds, gave up 3 HRs, and was yanked. This year he sustained it for 8 innings and only one run.
Another thing PITCHf/x showed that makes me excited is his slider movement. The horizontal slider movement in game one for Ervin was 2.77, and then it jumped to 4.41 in game two. Last year’s best slider article from Fangraphs will give you an idea of what a great slider looks like (Santana’s made the list at an average horizontal movement of 4.2). His out pitch is in mid-season form. This is leading to more strike outs, and a lot of optimism on my part.
Yes, Santana left a couple of balls up in the zone in the first inning yesterday that got tagged for singles. He also got a little lucky that Justin Morneau hit one to dead center and came up a few feet short. It was not a perfect outing yesterday, but Ervin is starting to look pretty good. Improved velocity and a deadly out pitch are a nice combination. Remember that this is a guy who was 6th in the Cy Young vote back in 2008, so his best is pretty good. I don’t expect him to be in the running for the Cy Young, but so far the early returns are pointing more toward Cy Young contention than the struggles of last year.