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Is Ervin Santana actually good this year?

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Spoiler: He was actually a better pitcher in 2016.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, Ervin Santana has been the best pitcher in baseball by most metrics. He owns a 7-2 record, with two complete games, and is averaging exactly 7 innings in his 11 starts to date. His ERA is 1.75, and he has surrendered 29 walks to 56 strikeouts, and a batting average against of .138. His traditional stats look sparkling.

Believe it or not, this could actually be considered a down year for Santana. In his career, he has notched a K/9 of 7.18, and a BB/9 of 2.83. This year, the strikeouts are down to 6.55 K/9, and the walks are up to 3.39 BB/9. Compare that to his 2016 numbers for the Twins, and the difference is even more striking. Last season he averaged 7.40 K/9 and 2.63 BB/9. In both 2016 and 2017, Santana gave up home runs at a rate of .94 per nine innings pitched, with is down from a career average of 1.14, saving him one dong per 5 games essentially. By K/9, this is the lowest big league number Santana has posted since his sophomore season, in 2006, and second worst overall. The only season he has ever offered more free passes per nine in the big leagues was 2007. That season he averaged 3.48 BB/9.

In his career, Santana has a 19.0% strikeout rate, and his career high is 23.9%. In 2016, he struck out 19.9% of batters he faced, and in 2017, that number has dipped to 19.3% His career walk rate is 7.5%, and in 2016 he finished at 7.1%. In 2017, he is at a career high 10.0%. Despite the relatively high number of bases on balls, he has limited base runners by only allowing an overall batting average against of .138, down from a very good 2016 number of .243, and career number of .247.

Santana’s groundball ratio is up slightly from his career average of 40.3%, but down from last year’s 42.6%. It currently sits at an even 41 percent. Similarly, his Home Run/Fly Ball numbers are not extraordinary. His career average is 10.6%, and last year he served up long-balls at a rate of 9.9 HR/FB. In his career, he has seen as low as 7.7%, and as high as 18.9%. He is currently sitting at 9.2, which while good, is not great.

Santana’s pitches are being hit, as well. For his career he has given up contact on 79.5 of all swings, 59.3% on pitches out of the zone, and 89.4 on pitches in the zone. 2016’s numbers were 78.8/64.1/88.4, and in 2017, have jumped to 81.5/66.0/90.4.. For his career, Santana has given up an almost equal percentage of groundballs (40.3%) and fly-balls (39.5%,) while limiting line-drives (20.1%.) In 2016, he was a slightly groundball heavy pitcher, giving up 42.6% groundballs, 35.7% fly-balls, and 21.7% line drives. For 2017, those numbers have reversed. 43.5% of balls hit off Santana have been fly-balls, while 41% have been on the ground. He has lowered his line-drive percentage to 15.5, a career best number.

Peripheral stats tell the rest of the story behind Santana’s success.He has stranded 91.2% of base runners in 2017. That is a massive increase on his career averaged of 73.1, and last year’s performance of 74.1. In Santana’s best big-league performance, 2013, he left 76.9 percent of runners on base. His BABIP is currently almost exactly half of what it was last year. In 2016, he gave up a .285 BABIP, while thus far in 2017 holding batters to an incredible .143 average.

In 2016, Santana pitched to a 3.38 ERA, which tied the second best performance of his career. Furthermore, he outperformed his FIP and xFIP numbers of 3.81 and 4.21 respectively. Those were basically career average numbers for him, with his average FIP a bit higher at 4.22, and his average xFIP at 4.20. In 2017, however, he has vastly outperformed his FIP and xFIP. While Santana’s ERA is currently 1.75, his FIP is at 4.10, and xFIP at 4.69. SIERA doesn’t like him any better, his 2017 number is 4.75, well above 2016’s 4.29 and his career 4.14.

All of these stats go to show, Ervin Santana was actually a better pitcher in 2016 than he has been in 2017, but the difference has been made by the human highlight reel playing behind him. As this spray chart shows, there has only been one deep ball hit against him which has stayed in the park and not been caught.

Batted Balls against E. Santana, as of 6/2/17
Fangraphs


Contrast that to 2016, when his outfielders allowed a ring of doubles off the wall, and vastly more singles to the shallow part of the outfield. Obviously, the sample is larger, but it is still instructive.

Batted Balls against E. Santana, 2016
Fangraphs


Overall, having Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler as his everyday outfield has been much more of a factor in Santana’s success than Ervin Santana has himself. While his numbers are likely to regress to mean somewhat, his pitching could actually improve over the course of the year, which would help to offset the LOB% and BABIP falling from their unsustainable highs.

Ervin Santana may not be able to keep up his current pace, but could very well end the year looking like an ace still, if his defense can keep picking him up, and his actual pitching performance improves.