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How good in Johan Santana now?
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considering players most comparable to Johan Santana

 

I was curious how Johan is doing. He used to be the best pitcher in baseball. I think Roy Halladay can now claim that now. Quite a few other pitchers have passed Johan as well: CC Sabathia and King Felix come to mind. Probably Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecom, Cole Hammels, Roy Oswalt, Adam Wainwright, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Zach Greinke have passed him, too. Possibly others. He is still a solid starter, but his strikeout rate has declined drastically since he left the Twins. That indicates to me that he just isn't that dominating pitcher he used to be. That happens. They aren't similar pitchers, but Greg Maddox had a run where he was far better than his contemporaries Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. From the age of 33 on, however, the other two blew passed him. Speaking of Mets, look at the more comparable Tom Seaver. He was great until 34, when he suddenly and for the rest of his career was merely good.

Let's look at his 10 most comparable pitchers at his current age of 31:

Roy Oswalt - had an off year at 31 (last year), but recovered just fine.

John Candelaria – a lefty,  had a career year at 23, however, his strikeout rate increased the following season. His control improved a little, too. In fact, he pitched better in his prime during the years  he wasn't trying to strike everyone out. He was having his next best year at age 32 with his lowest strikeout rate ever, when he missed half the season presumably to injury. He was never as good since. Although his strikeout rate was as high as ever, he didn't quite have the pinpoint control he had in his hay day.

Tim Hudson - had a better year than Johan this year. He was never close to being the strikeout pitcher Johan was. The reason, I assume, he made this list is because he had his worse year at age 30 – and his worse four year stretch from ages 28 to 31. He is now 35 and going strong.

Roy Halladay is 33 and as good as ever.

Jim Maloney - awesome ages at 23-26. He isn’t so famous, because those years were completely overshadowed by Sandy Koufax. Then Maloney declined somewhat for three years as Johan has. Then, at age 30, Maloney’s career went down the toilet. But, that was 1970. We know much more about rejuvenating pitchers now.

Bob Welch was less of a strikeout pitcher than the others here except Hudson, though it was pretty darn good - close to 7.0 /9 during his years ages 25-30. His strikeout rate actually dropped from 5.9 to 4.8 at age 33 when he had his Cy Young / 27 game winning season. After that, it dropped to 4.1 and he hung on for barely four seasons.

Mike Mussina - every once in awhile, Mussina would have an off year. At age 35-36 he had two in a row. His strikeout rate dropped dramatically at 38, but he came back nicely enough to win 20 games in his final year at age 39.

Bob Gibson's best years were from ages 26 to 34. His strikeout rate dropped substantially the next year, but he was still an outstanding pitcher for another three years. Then he dropped to mediocrity at 38, then worse at 39. That's a pattern that might fit Johan except it might be happening to Johan several years younger.

David Cone's best season was a 25 year old sophomore Met. However, his strikeout rate increased two years later to a Johan Santana-like 9.9 /9. It remained in the 9s until he was traded to the championship winning Blue Jays late during the season he was 29. (They received Jeff Kent, so it was not a bad deal for either team.) Though Cone remained an outstanding pitcher in the American League, his strikeout rate didn't return to such a high level until his age 33-35 seasons. It dropped again at age 36. After that it dropped a little more and his ERA exploded to 6.91. He recovered a bit at age 38 to a 4.31 ERA at Fenway - his last full season.

(Trivia nuts should know that Cone had two stints with the Royals, two stints with the Blue Jays, and two stints with the Mets, but his longest stint with a Major League team was with the Yankees.)

Last on this list is Whitey Ford - the only other lefty on the list besides Candelaria. It is a wonder Ford is on this list as his strikeout rates were more like Tim Hudson's. However, batters just didn't strikeout as much in Ford's day as they do  now. He faced more Nellie Fox and Eddie Yost types who rarely struck out. Ford was dominant after his call-up at age 21 going 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA , then pitched all but the last out of a shutout in the World Series. He spent the next two seasons helping the war effort in Korea. For the next three years when he returned, he was a perennial all-star MVP candidate, but his K:BB was only about 1.20. He took that up a couple notches at 27, then had his best season at age 29 - although Stengel was spotting his starts. He only pitched 219 innings that year and was kept under that until Ralf Houk took over when Ford was 32. Ford's best string of seasons ensued until he wore out at age 37.  Funnily, while Ford's strikeout rates his final two years decreased dramatically as did his innings totals, his ERAs were 2.47 then finally 1.64.

Baseball-Reference has two similarity lists. One is the 10 most similar and the other is the 10 most similar through Santana's current age which is 31. I chose the latter, but I don't know if that was the right choice. Oswalt and Maloney are the top two names on the other list, but the others are: John Tudor, Harry Breacheen, Sal Maglie, Denny McLain, Chris Carpenter, Mort Cooper, Preacher Roe, and C.C. Sabathia. I think the list I studied seems more relevant.

In conclusion, it is safe to say no two pitchers are alike. It is not uncommon for a pitcher to come back from an off year or two, but only David Cone came back from three years of lower than normal strikeouts. However, Cone pitched a career high 254 innings that first lower strikeout year. The next two years were strike years, but he continued to be one of the league's workhorses leading the league in innings that third year 1995 with 229 innings. He could have been conserving his pitches to some degree. He wasn't pitching for a contender until that third year. The following year he had arm problems and only pitched over 200 innings once the rest of his career reaching 208 at age 35 - probably in a push to win 20 games which he did. Santana's inning total in his first off year was a career high (234), but well in line with what he had pitched the previous five years. (Not so off that it kept him from leading the N.L. in ERA.) He hasn't reached 200 innings since.

Was he a steroids user? I don't live in New York anymore, but I get the Sunday Times. I've never heard such a rumour. Johan has been fighting off bone chips and a strained pectoral. He's only 31. I think there is a reasonable enough chance that could come back re-challenge Halladay for "best pitcher" honours.

John Carter