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The intrigue of Hector Santiago

One of the newest Twins is also suddenly one of the most interesting.

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

I hinted at this a little bit when I originally wrote my post of the Twins acquiring Hector Santiago for Ricky Nolasco (among others on both ends of the trade) but Santiago is an intriguing player. As I said before, a big part of that comes from him being almost the polar opposite of Nolasco as a pitcher when it comes to his approach. This post is going to go more in-depth with what I meant.

With Nolasco, he was a classic junkballer. Sure, he threw fastballs 47% of the time, but those were split up between 4-seamers (27%) and 2-seamers (20%). If we look at each individual pitch, nothing was thrown more than 33% of the time (his slider). Just for good measure, he also twirled a bunch of curveballs and some splitters at the hitter. Nolasco was going to attack you with pretty much everything he had to make up for his mediocre fastball.

As for Santiago, he too has a full arsenal of pitches but he has been far more deliberate with what he throws. Although he has five (six?) pitches, he focuses on using just two most of the time: the fastball (62%) and a change-up (22%). Although pitchF/X classifies his fastball as a sinker, just watching it demonstrates that it’s an error. For one, Santiago actually gets a ton of “rise” on the ball. No pitch truly rises when thrown, but thanks to the Magnus effect and a ton of spin, Santiago has a fastball that rises 10 inches compared to a spinless ball. In addition, it has also averaged 8.5 inches of armside movement which has certainly made it a tough pitch to square up.

As for the change-up... or is it something else? You see, Santiago is probably the last remaining pitcher in the majors that throws - or has thrown - a screwball. When pitchers want to throw a breaking pitch, they often turn the palm towards the body upon release to get the desired spin. With the screwball, you instead turn the palm away from the body to get the pitch to move like a “reverse” slider. However, it’s believed that the pitch puts plenty of stress on the arm which is why the pitch has started dying out (the last two I can think of that also threw it were Daniel Ray Herrera and Dallas Braden). Additionally, it’s tough to control so many pitchers end up learning the circle-change instead, which has similar movement and theoretically puts less stress on the arm. PitchF/X says Santiago still throws it once in a blue moon and he has admitted himself that it’s now mainly a show-me pitch to keep hitters off-balance, so we can keep an eye out for it. If you click on the link above, there’s a GIF of the pitch which looks sort of like a big 12-to-6 curveball.

While he was with the Twins, Nolasco was frustrating because he got knocked around all the time. He’s been a frustrating pitcher for years because his FIP was often lower than his ERA. FIP is an ERA predictor that has been shown to be more reliable at estimating a pitcher’s future ERA than his current ERA. FIP and ERA often end up being similar over a pitcher’s career as demonstrated by the collection of pitchers below.

  • Randy Johnson: 3.29 ERA, 3.19 FIP
  • Greg Maddux: 3.16 ERA, 3.26 FIP
  • Bert Blyleven: 3.31 ERA, 3.19 FIP
  • Brad Penny: 4.29 ERA, 4.12 FIP
  • Randy Wolf: 4.24 ERA, 4.38 FIP

Of course there’s variation and in smaller samples the ERA and FIP can wildly differ, but generally they’re pretty close to each other. That is, unless you’re Nolasco and Santiago.

  • Ricky Nolasco: 4.58 ERA, 3.85 FIP
  • Hector Santiago: 3.68 ERA, 4.63 FIP

Typically we would say that Nolasco has been very unlucky in his career while Santiago has been lucky. However, every once in a while you get a pitcher that just simply breaks FIP. In Nolasco’s case, it’s his unusually high .314 BABIP (the majority of pitchers hover around .300) while for Santiago, his is exceptionally good at .268. We’re done with Nolasco, so then why has Santiago been so good at limiting hits? First, it’s because Santiago is an extreme flyball pitcher. In his career, roughly 65% of his batted balls have been hit in the air while pitchers have typically allowed 55% of their batted balls over the same time frame. Flies are the least likely batted ball type to become a hit, so while it does leave Santiago a little more homer-prone, the trade-off is that he also gives up fewer hits. Secondly, Santiago has been exceptional at inducing infield flies. He’s at 12% for his career while the league has been between 9.5 and 10.5% every year since Santiago debuted. Essentially he’s a lighter version of the Royals’ Chris Young, another FIP-beater that succeeded in the past by getting tons of fly balls and plenty of infield flies.

Target Field has become more homer-friendly over the years so it’s not like Santiago’s gopher balls will disappear, but theoretically with an outfield of Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario behind him, he should be a slightly better pitcher than when he was with the White Sox and Angels. Once again, I was very satisfied with his acquisition and with him reaching his third year of arbitration next season, the Twins will have far more options with him than if they had kept Nolasco. Plus, he’s a huge collector of autographs which should certainly endear him to a good chunk of the fanbase more than Nolasco ever did.