Johan Santana and the Hall of Fame Ballot

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The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the official 2018 National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. You're going to hear a lot more about this ballot in the months to come, because by most folks' estimation, this ballot is stacked. Sportswriter emeritus Joe Posnanski noted in a Tweet that he believed 20 players on the ballot have "sizable support" for a Hall of Fame case: there are 33 men on the ballot, and those who have a ballot can only vote for 10.

Interestingly enough, though, when I took a look at the ballot for what I considered to be 'no brainer' Hall of Fame cases, I could only count four -- and two of those (Bonds, Clemens) are uphill challenges to actually get into the Hall while on the ballot due to voters' dislike of their connections to performance-enhancing drugs. Now I don't claim to be the Oracle of the Hall, others might look at the ballot and see more no-brainer candidates than I do, but the point is that there are enough guys who are debatable, who might legitimately get in or not get in, that the real challenge of this ballot is not going to be to identify the guys you should vote for, but the guys you likely want to vote for but shouldn't.

And this brings us to former Twin Johan Santana.

Some folks are going to say that Santana should be in the Hall of Fame. From the moment he became a full-time starter for the Twins, he became one of best pitchers in baseball. From 2004 through 2006, he was the best strikeout pitcher and the most unhittable pitcher (by hits per nine innings) in the American League, and in two of those three seasons he won the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the AL. (He finished third in 2005, behind Bartolo Colon and Mariano Rivera.) He had a bit of an off-season in 2007 by his own standards, but if the Twins this off-season find a pitcher who last year went 15-13 with a 3.33 ERA in over 200 innings while walking only 47, you'd have to think TwinkieTown would be overwhelmingly appreciative of the team's new ace.

While it's fun to claim that Santana fell apart once he was traded to the Mets prior to the 2008 season, that's not really true, either -- Santana led the NL in ERA in 2008 and went 16-7 for a club that won nearly 90 games despite changing managers mid-season. No, what downed Santana after being dealt to the Mets was injuries -- in 2008, Santana pitched with a torn meniscus in his left knee, for which he had surgery in the off-season. Then in 2009, Santana ended his season early to have arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. Finally, in 2010, Santana had surgery in September, again ending his season early, to repair a torn anterior capsule; this would be the injury that would ultimately cost Santana his career, as he re-injured it in 2013. The Mets bought out his contract following the injury, and though Santana would try to get back into the majors, signing with the Orioles in 2014 and the Blue Jays in 2015, Santana never again pitched a game in the big-leagues, leading to his imminent arrival on the Hall of Fame ballot now.

The biggest thing working against Santana in getting into the Hall of Fame is the shortness of his career -- he had just 12 seasons in the majors before injuries drove him from the game, and because of this he matches up with a number of other pitchers who pitched very well and left the game after a shorter career: Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and even Ron Guidry show up on Santana's comparables list on Guidry actually makes an interesting comparison to Santana: Like Santana, Guidry didn't become a regular starter until he'd been with the team a while -- Guidry was 26 when he finally pitched more than 16 innings in a season -- and like Santana he finished in the top 3 in Cy Young voting three times in his career. Unlike Santana, Guidry finished his career with two World Series championships (in three tries), so in that sense, at least, Guidry might have a better case than Santana. Guidry, though, was never considered a real Hall candidate by the BBWAA -- he never received even as much as 10% of the vote in any year he was on the ballot, and was dropped from the ballot after his ninth appearance in 2002 for falling below the requisite 5% to stay on. (Some folks are more interested in comparing Santana to Sandy Koufax, since Koufax is in the Hall and Guidry isn't -- yet Guidry rates as more similar to Koufax than Santana does.)

Most other arguments you can make against Santana for the Hall eventually lead back to that 12-year career. Concerned that Santana has only 139 career wins? That's what 12 seasons gets you. However, there is one argument to be made, thanks to sabermetrician Jay Jaffee's WAR score method, that is independent of Santana's short career -- that Santana's peak wasn't really all that impressive of a peak, when compared to other Hall of Famers.

In the best seven seasons of Santana's short career, he amassed 44.8 WAR. That's a good amount, an average of over 6 WAR per season on a scale where 5 is considered an All-Star. Compared to Hall of Famers, though? That's not a good total. Check out Bert Blyleven, who spent 14 seasons on the Hall of Fame ballot before finally being elected in 2011. Blyleven's seven best seasons were actually worth 50.7 WAR**, and that total is only a tiny bit higher than the Hall of Fame average of 50.3 WAR in the top seven seasons. The main point behind a Santana Hall argument -- that he was so 'dominant' for the time he was good that he should be in solely on that performance -- is undercut by the former Twin that nobody remembered as being better than Santana in his best seven seasons. Other non-Hall pitchers as good or better than Santana by WAR7: Dave Stieb, Kevin Brown, and Curt Schilling (though Schilling, peaking at over 50% of the vote in his fourth year on the ballot, might still get in). Active pitchers Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw have better WAR7 totals than Santana. Heck, even the late Roy Halliday, who's going to be a sentimental favorite when he comes on the ballot next year, has a better WAR7 than Santana.

** Fun fact -- Johan Santana's career WAR total? 50.7. So Johan Santana's entire career was exactly as valuable, by WAR, as the best 7 seasons of Bert Blyleven's 22 year career. We could have an interesting discussion talking about the implications of that observation, and what it says about how we rate 'greatness'.

So Santana's peak wasn't really up to the standard of existing Hall of Famers, and he didn't have a long career where he could amass significant milestones. It's hard for me to conclude that Santana has a real Hall of Fame case. If Santana dropped off the ballot after a couple of seasons, it wouldn't be at all surprising.