Ervin Santana: Could a Royal Reunion Become Reality?


Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks and months, you’re going to read a lot about potential free agent and trade targets the Royals might pursue to fill one of the holes in their roster. I will probably write several such articles, this being the first of those. The Royals are going to need a right fielder, designated hitter, and a starting pitcher at the very least. There are other areas I’d look to improve the roster, but those first three spots are the main concerns.

Today’s post, as you can probably tell from the title, will focus on the hole in the rotation that had been filled by James Shields. Shields will join Jon Lester and Max Scherzer in the top tier of free agent starting pitchers, a group that is also known as Too Expensive for the Royals. Some may feel the team can round out the rotation with an internal candidate such as Brandon Finnegan or Christian Binford, with Kyle Zimmer possibly on the way.

While it would be great to have a young prospect jump into the rotation and perform right away, it’s important to remember TINSTAAPP. Relying on prospects to immediately pan out can be risky business, and teams need depth in their rotation. Pushing the young guys to the bigs right away thins the depth that will likely be needed later on. The Royals need an alternative.

Below the elite tier of free agent starters is a group of pitchers the Royals should absolutely be targeting, one of whom they are familiar with and apparently have a bit of interest in: Ervin Santana.

Santana had an outstanding 2013 in Kansas City, pitching 211 innings with a 3.24 ERA (80 ERA-), which followed a disappointing 2012 as an Angel. He signed a one-year contract with the Braves during Spring Training after declining the qualifying offer from Kansas City, which suppressed his market value. Santana now faces a similar situation this winter, when he once again would force a team signing him to surrender a draft pick for his services.

He’s now a year older and coming off a less impressive season in the ERA department, as he put up just a 3.95 ERA (103 ERA-) in 196 innings. However, for teams who won’t be able to afford Scherzer, Lester, or Shields, Santana could still be an attractive option. He had strong peripheral stats, including a 93 FIP- that was even better than the 98 he had in 2013. I’ll get into his stats again shortly.

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  • Based on the market, Santana could be in line for a contract of 3 years and about $40 million, depending on how willing teams are to give up that draft pick. A $14 million average annual value certainly wouldn’t prevent the team from making other moves, and a 3-year commitment to a soon-to-be 32-year old pitcher isn’t a terrible investment. With the Royals picking toward the end of the first round, and set to receive a compensatory pick when Shields signs elsewhere, giving up their pick wouldn’t be as much of a deterrent, should Dayton Moore attempt to bring Santana into the fold once again.

    So the money and draft pick aren’t impossible hurdles. Now the question becomes: is Santana going to be all that good?

    Yes, I think so.

    Oh, you probably want some reasoning for that. Right.

    Obviously a pitcher with a below average ERA isn’t incredibly appealing, but there are signs that Santana could bounce back yet again, particularly in front of the Royals’ defense. It’s not that the Braves’ defense was poor – having Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward will help any pitcher – but the Royals’ defense is a bit more balanced and could provide a boost. One stat rarely tells the whole story, but it does tell part of the story. In Kansas City, Santana allowed a BABIP of .267, which is just a bit below his career average. In Atlanta, he allowed a BABIP of .319.

    As one would expect with a move to the National League, Santana’s strikeouts went up, all the way to 8.2 per 9 innings, and he allowed fewer home runs, just 16 all year. He did walk more batters (2.9 per 9 innings), which is less than ideal, but I think the batted ball results were his biggest downfall.

    Now, this isn’t to say it was just bad luck. Santana allowed a line drive rate of 24.7%, by far the highest of his career, and his fly ball rate was the lowest of his career, at 32.6%. Lots of line drives and fewer fly balls normally result in a higher BABIP. However, his fly ball rate was just barely lower than it was with the Royals (32.9%) and even a high line drive rate shouldn’t result in a BABIP spike of nearly 50 points.

    The biggest driver in his increased BABIP was his fastball. Opposing batters hit .323 with a .469 slugging percentage against that pitch in 2014, after hitting .270 with a .401 slugging percentage in 2013. The BABIP on his fastball was .344, almost 70 points higher than it was the previous year. Again, some of that is due to extra line drives, but there’s more to be learned here. And what better way to learn than with pictures?!

    First, here is a heat map showing where Santana threw his fastball in 2013:

    Here is a similar heat map showing where he threw the fastball in 2014:

    We see a few more pitches down in the zone, which is where we often hear pitchers want to put their pitches. Now, though, let’s look at the batting average allowed on fastballs. First, in 2013, because chronology:

    And in 2014:

    Notice how that bottom part of the zone has numbers beginning with a 4 or 5? That’s bad. Well, bad for the pitcher. Opponents were getting some hits off of his low fastballs in 2013. They got many more hits off of his low fastballs in 2014. This is indicative of a macro trend in baseball, with more hitters focusing on hitting low pitches, because more and more pitchers are pitching to the bottom part of the zone. It could also be indicative of Santana’s fastball losing effectiveness, but the numbers don’t tell you much in that regard.

    His average fastball velocity in 2014 (93.5 MPH) was right in line with his 2013 velocity (93.3 MPH), and actually slightly higher. He also didn’t lose more than a couple tenths of an inch of movement, so that doesn’t explain anything.

    The only thing I can find that may suggest a real issue, other than slightly diminished command, is with Santana’s pitch mix. He may have been a bit too predictable in 2014 by throwing first-pitch fastballs too often, instead of using his secondary pitches a bit more frequently. That’s certainly a correctable issue, and the command is something that could improve as well.

    Speaking of Santana’s pitch mix, there’s one other point I wanted to make in regards to a concern some expressed over his injury risk. In his career, Santana has mostly been a two-pitch pitcher, with a fastball and a wipeout slider. The slider has been great, and it was great yet again in 2014. But sliders can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s elbow, especially a pitcher who threw sliders more frequently than any other starter in baseball between 2008-2013.

    This was part of why the Royals were hesitant to offer a longer contract following the 2013 season, and surely other teams were cautious as well. However, Santana mixed things up more this past season, throwing his slider less frequently, while throwing more changeups. His slider usage only dropped from 37% to 33%, but his changeup usage increased from 7% to almost 14%. It went from a show pitch to a legitimate offering. The whiff rate on his changeup also increased exponentially, from 8.9% to 15.5%.

    Santana still had his struggles with left-handed batters, but the fact that he was willing to use a changeup more may mean it’s something he can continue to refine so he can stay healthier for a longer time, while also giving opposing batters something else to think about.

    Bringing Santana back to Kansas City makes sense for all involved. Santana enjoyed his time here and could benefit from having the Royals’ defense behind him once again. Despite his struggles in 2014, he appears capable of bouncing back with a few small adjustments in approach and slightly better command. His injury risk may be at a lower level thanks to his new-found changeup. And to cap things off, he’s a former Brave! (I’m not sure if that joke still applies, but I feel somewhat obligated to use it anyway.)

    When the Royals traded for Santana before the 2013 season, I was happy, because I thought he could bring solid production to the middle of the rotation and help the team contend for a playoff berth. The team didn’t reach the playoffs, but Santana outpaced even my optimistic expectations. Now, the Royals could use that solid production to help them defend their title as American League Champions.