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Hector Santiago is not to be trusted

The Twins are more doomed than we thought, which is crazy because “doomed’ feels binary not like a scale but it may be a scale after all so that’s terrifying.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Minnesota Twins
I’m terrified to see what’s about to happen once this pitch is released.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Unless something surprising happens in the next two months, the Minnesota Twins’ biggest off-season story of 2017 will be a trade between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or the Twins acquiring a catcher who was worth 0.9 Wins Above Replacement last season. Eat your heart out, pitch-framing acolytes and/or Jason Castro’s immediate family.

The Twins have largely chosen to stand pat, which makes some sense: the team boasts plenty of young, cost-controlled former top prospects whose best years are (hopefully) ahead of them, and the Twins lack any obvious veteran trade chips, save Brian Dozier, the one famously not traded for Jose De Leon.

Up there, in the part where I just wrote “it makes some sense,” I probably should have added one qualifier: “on the position player-side.” The 2016 Twins pitching staff was an abomination, and the 2017 version is like a new edition of a textbook where two words were changed and a page was added to make you cough up $199.99 again.

Last year’s team allowed 889 runs — 29th in the majors, one run ahead of the D-Backs — and struck out 1,191 batters, good for just 26th in MLB and yet somehow a marked improvement over recent years.

Dan Szymborski’s 2017 ZiPS projections don’t augur particularly well for this season: as myjah’s headline summarized it, “Pitching still sucks, batting might be ‘meh.’”

Here’s how Fangraphs’ Carson Cistulli described Minnesota’s 2017 starting rotation:

“The prognosis for the starting rotation isn’t as strong. Last year, Twins starters finished 26th by the FIP version of WAR and dead last by the version of WAR calculated with runs allowed. By that latter standard, the club’s 2017 rotation is likely to be a rousing success. By the standard of preventing runs relative to their opponents, however, they’re likely to perform worse than average.”

I can never summon more than *shrug emoji* whenever I think about this team’s pitching.

Two notable pitching changes occurred between Opening Day 2016 and Opening Day 2017, however: The Twins did add lefties Hector Santiago and Adalberto Mejia during the 2016 season. Twins fan saw plenty of Santiago, who made 11 starts for the Twins after arriving from Los Angeles midseason.

Santiago hasn’t earned much ink this winter; the off-season chatter vis-a-vis the rotation has focused on getting productive innings from youngsters Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey, and Phil Hughes’ return from injury. Santiago has slipped seamlessly and silently into the “No. 3-starter, innings-eater, sub-par pitcher” role.

In his 2017 starting rotation forecast, SooFoo Fan slotted Santiago somewhere in the Gibson/Hughes mid-rotation tranche of mediocrity that follows Ervin Santana’s default top spot, which feels about right. But here’s the thing.

(Now I’m going to try and pull of that pivot thing where I just spent 300 words telling you how our pitching sucks x amount and then Boom! I go in for like 1,700 more on how actually it sucks way more than x because Hector Santiago is not good.)

Hector Santiago is not good. He should not be trusted.

(OH DAMN! There it was. That was the pivot. Did you see it and/or feel it? Said pivot was undermined by the headline, author now realizes...)

I know that the 2017 Minnesota Twins are not inspiring a whole lot of confidence these days. Tom Froemming just posted a story on how the Twins could very easily lose 100 games again.

But among Froemming’s litany of reasons the Twins could implode — Berrios and Buxton not coming good, Dozier coming back to earth, Ervin Santana regressing — there was no mention of Mr. Santiago.

And I’m here to rain all over that already-wet-as-hell parade.

The thing about Hector Santiago to the extent there is a thing about Hector Santiago

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If Hector Santiago is notable for anything so far in his rather unremarkable career, it’s the gulf between his ERA and FIP. Here are the 10 active pitchers with the largest career negative differentials between their ERA and their FIP — a.k.a. the pitchers who have most outperformed their “expected” ERA.

ERA minus FIP

Jared Hughes Pirates -1.27 2.82 4.09 4.09 1.28
Darren O'Day Orioles -1.03 2.41 3.44 3.61 1.02
Brad Ziegler Marlins -0.93 2.44 3.38 3.53 1.23
Aaron Sanchez Blue Jays -0.91 2.86 3.78 3.82 1.15
Tony Watson Pirates -0.89 2.56 3.45 3.69 1.04
Hector Santiago Twins -0.89 3.84 4.73 4.9 1.33
Pat Neshek Phillies -0.83 2.93 3.77 3.96 1.05
Tyler Clippard Yankees -0.82 2.95 3.77 4.1 1.11
Tony Sipp Astros -0.77 3.65 4.42 4.15 1.24

Blue Jays righty Aaron Sanchez is the only pitcher “ahead of” Santiago who has ever started a game. The rest are one-inning-at-a-time-or-less specialists, which makes sense; it’s easier to trick the ol’ FIP machine the fewer innings you throw, as ERA and FIP tend to jibe as innings accrue.

So here’s a possible narrative: Santiago managed to outsmart the advanced stats until last year, when his ERA jumped up to 4.70 after four seasons of sub-4 ERA’s. The chickens came home to roost, Daddy-O.

Except Santiago still had a pronounced negative ERA-FIP differential last year; he was just worse across the board last season. He didn’t outsmart a thing!

Santiago’s ERA by year

2012 3.33 4.70 -1.37 70.33
2013 3.56 4.44 -0.88 149
2014 3.75 4.29 -0.54 127.33
2015 3.59 4.77 -1.18 180.67
2016 4.70 5.31 -0.61 182

Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average is a metric I like a lot that — through a lot of complicated nerdery I don’t totally understand — drills down deeper than FIP or xFIP to get at a pitcher’s true contributions. So how did Santiago do in DRA last season?

Worst DRA's 2016

1 Jered Weaver ANA 7.97 144 5.06 5.58 144 -5.32 178
2 James Shields SDN,CHA 6.03 124 5.85 6 123 -1.39 181.7
3 Jimmy Nelson MIL 5.71 121 4.62 5.16 113 -0.71 179.3
4 Hector Santiago ANA,MIN 5.68 120 4.7 5.27 124 -0.67 182
5 Chase Anderson MIL 5.66 120 4.39 5.13 122 -0.53 151.7
6 Matt Wisler ATL 5.54 119 5 4.89 116 -0.34 156.7
7 R.A. Dickey TOR 5.53 119 4.46 4.99 117 -0.33 169.7
8 Brandon Finnegan CIN 5.43 117 3.98 5.23 115 -0.15 172
9 Doug Fister HOU 5.34 116 4.64 4.71 117 0.04 180.3
10 Tom Koehler MIA 5.22 115 4.33 4.64 115 0.29 176.7

First off: Jered Weaver, ladies and gentlemen! Wowzers.

Secondly, Hector Santiago is again near the bottom of the league. Again: he was not good. That was the point of all those stupid tables. Hector Santiago in 2016 = Not Good.

OK, but why was he not good?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Good question, me.

Santiago’s 2016 season featured a few troubling trends. His walk rate climbed to its highest since 2013, while his strikeout rate dropped to a career low. His K-BB% plummeted to a pretty poor 8.3%. (Or, if you’d rather, his K/BB ratio dropped to 1.82, which is another way of saying “not good.” Sensing a theme?) Striking out fewer batters and walking more is a pretty tried-and-true recipe for stinking it up. Santiago also managed to give up homers on 12% of his fly balls, a rate 1.7 percent higher than his career average.

OK, that last one could actually be a sign of bad luck, right? Maybe that anomalous HR/FB rate will regress closer to his career norms and Santiago’s ERA will drop accordingly. Maybe those home runs were fluky.

Not so much. Of the 33 home runs Santiago surrendered in 2016, only four were categorized as “Just Enough” by ESPN’s Hit Tracker. The other 29 slotted in as either “Plenty” or “No-Doubters.”

In case you’re not convinced, we’ve got Statcast data now. Yay! And Santiago’s Statcast data is horrifying. Shucks!

Last season, 10.2 percent of batted balls against Santiago were “barreled” (i.e. well-struck balls with an expected AVG/SLG of .500/1.500), the fourth-highest mark in the majors among pitchers.

To recap: Hector Santiago is walking more batters and missing fewer bats than ever — and when he doesn’t miss bats, opposing hitters are wailing on the ball.

Lefty vs. Lefty

Santiago also added a troubling wrinkle to his game last season: struggling against lefties.

Here are Santiago’s rate numbers against left-handed hitters for his career, via Fangraphs:

And a few 2016 numbers, via Baseball Reference.

Hmmm. Santiago’s 124 OPS+ against lefties stands out to me, and rightfully so — it’s the 10th-worst mark among lefties last season.

The 29-year-old southpaw has never excelled at throwing strikes against lefties, but in 2016 he had the worst control of any lefty against same-handed foes: Santiago walked 12.9 percent of the left-handed batters he faced last season.

Lefties walking lefties

Name Team BB% K% K-BB% BB/9 K/9 K/BB
Name Team BB% K% K-BB% BB/9 K/9 K/BB
Hector Santiago Angels/Twins 12.9% 18.2% 5.3% 5.26 7.41 1.41
Brandon Finnegan Reds 12.1% 17% 4.9% 4.62 6.46 1.4
Patrick Corbin Diamondbacks 11.5% 29.1% 17.6% 4.38 11.08 2.53
Brad Hand Padres 11% 33.8% 22.8% 3.75 11.5 3.07
Martin Perez Rangers 10.8% 19.1% 8.3% 3.92 6.92 1.76
Jorge de la Rosa Rockies 10.8% 19.1% 8.3% 4.46 7.86 1.76
Cole Hamels Rangers 10.2% 21.1% 10.8% 3.76 7.75 2.06
Drew Pomeranz Padres/Red Sox 10.1% 22.2% 12.2% 3.86 8.53 2.21
Mike Montgomery Mariners/Cubs 9.9% 23.7% 13.7% 3.55 8.45 2.38
CC Sabathia Yankees 9.7% 24.5% 14.8% 3.79 9.59 2.53

Man, this post has more tables than a West Elm catalog, amirite?!

Santiago attacks lefties on the outside part of the zone, though he’s not terribly good at it, via Brooks Baseball.

Santiago’s top-three pitch locations are not in the strike zone, which isn’t exactly how I would do it, but I’m not the professional here.

Here’s Santiago facing Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis in the first inning of a road game on August 29. After looking at the above chart, it feels like a representative plate appearance.

Ball 1.

Ball 2.

Ball 3.

And Ball 4.

Santiago clearly has a plan: try to pepper the outside corner while mixing in the occasional foray inside to keep Kipnis honest. He doesn’t execute it, of course. But he’s got a plan.

There’s a pretty good reason Santiago is a little skittish about playing around on the inside corner. And here is that reason.

Lefties feasted on Santiago’s inside offerings in 2016. (Though, to be fair, they also feasted on several other zones.)

I will now share with you three very emphatic reasons, from 2016, why Hector Santiago may be slightly scared of pitching lefties inside.

Exhibit A.

The best thing I can say about this dinger — which was the third-longest dong of the 2016 season — is that it didn’t occur in a Twins game.

Exhibit B.

This homer, which happened 25 days before the walk to Kipnis I GIF-ed above, goes a long way toward explaining said walk. That ball was straight-up smushed.

Exhibit C.

Behold, the three longest homers Santiago gave up to lefties last year: 491 feet for Mazara, 444 for Kipnis and 412 for Gordon.

Santiago’s struggles against lefties aren’t entirely surprising. Pitchers throw more breaking balls against same-handed hitters, and Santiago has never possessed an above-average breaking ball. Santiago relies on pitches that tend to work better against opposite-handed hitters: two-seam fastballs, sinkers, change ups and even a screwball, now and again.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I am a left-handed pitcher who used to be able to throw strikes and now cannot. Santiago throws across his body, which doesn’t prevent him from throwing strikes, necessarily, but does strike (ha!) me as a red flag delivery-wise. That Kipnis walk induces some pitching PSD because those are the walks I piled up as my mechanics disintegrated: balls up-and-in and low-and-away against lefties — the ol’ wing flying open and then over-compensating.

As Doug Thorburn wrote in 2014:

“Santiago has a very closed stride, such that he steps towards the left-hand batter's box before redirecting his energy toward the plate. He finishes with a crossfire of kinetic energy that causes him to drift toward third base after release, indicating that the closed-off approach is not in line with his ideal signature. ... There is some turbulence in his delivery during the stride phase, as Santiago has an abrupt gear change with added ferocity after max leg lift. This element can be volatile and will interfere with his timing, while the left-hander's late hip rotation is tied to a hip-whip strategy that further exaggerates the issue when his pace to the plate is shaky. ... The closed stride has an adverse impact on his relative distance at release point, and the inconsistent momentum undermines his balance in terms of his repetition.”

Thorburn also mentioned a lot of Santiago’s positives; I totally cherry-picked a bunch of that stuff, hence the ellipses. But the question marks always existed, and I for one think Santiago has the look of a pitcher whose control is slipping. I also possess zero confidence in the Minnesota Twins coaching staff’s ability to rectify literally anything, so there’s that. The Twins do not rehabilitate or improve players. That’s not our thing. We send promising players elsewhere to thrive. That’s our thing.

Then again, Santiago never could get lefties out, and now they’re just destroying baseballs in his vicinity. Also righties continue to mash Hector. Everyone is bashing Hector Santiago, and there is no data that can be summoned to suggest it’s going to improve. It just keeps getting worse, unfortunately.

Why are you telling me this, Louie?

I don’t know. I didn’t wake up this morning searching for a way to ruin your day. I adore the Twins as much as the next 2%-guzzling Stearns County-er; I’d love to tell you everything’s going to be OK. But I fear that the squad’s pitching staff is worse than we’d thought. And I know that I’m just yelling at a cloud/preaching to the choir/telling y’all something y’all already know.

But please, kids. Don’t trust Hector Santiago.