wrote about Ervin Santana and what he was bringing to the Twins after signing as a free agent. The crux of the piece was that he needed to show an ability to be more than his surrounding parts. He's been a great pitcher when paired with great defenses. That has been the case in 2017 for the Twins, but in June, his defense hasn't been able to be a factor.
As doom and gloom sets in of late, it's first worthwhile to offer some perspective. Santana has made 15 starts for the Twins, and pitched exactly 100 innings. He owns a career best 2.97 ERA and his 1.020 WHIP also registers as a high water mark. Throw in three dazzling complete game shutouts, and the sum of all parts still equals a very fun-to-watch 2017. In June though, the wheels have fallen off, and it's worth finding out why.
Having now made four starts in the month of June, Santana owns a 7.04 ERA while opposing hitters are enjoying a .972 OPS against him. He's labored to get through outings, going more than five innings just once. In fact, had he not thrown a complete game shutout against the Giants as one of the four starts, the already gaudy numbers could look even worse. In taking a deep dive to find a deficiency, it seems that Santana has become susceptible to the ball that can't be caught. He's given up seven homers in four June starts, after allowing just eight in his other 11 combined.
On the year, Santana has danced around danger by avoiding hard contact. He's given up low line drive rates, and the ball simply hasn't been difficult to track down. Some of that has continued in June, but as the ball has elevated, so too have the numbers.
Santana has actually dropped his line drive rate from 15.5% (4/3-5/29) to 11.4 % (6/3-6/20) as the months have gone on, but the hard hit rate has spiked ever so briefly from 24.5% (4/3-5/29) to 28.8% (6/3-60/20). As the ball has been hit harder, the Twins aced has seen a BABIP go from .143 through the first two months, to .315 in the last one. Giving his fielders less of a chance to help him out, he's also watched his FIP balloon from 4.19 through May to 6.82 in June. The icing on the cake is pretty simply though; the amount of fly balls turning into home runs is incredible. At just 9.2% through May, that number has spiked to 25% in June.
Among qualified starters, only six pitchers have allowed over 20% of fly balls to leave the yard. Of those, only the Yankees Masahiro Tanaka has given up a 25.0% HR/FB rate, and his ERA rests at 6.34. Pretty obviously, allowing one out of every four fly balls to leave the stadium is not a path to success.
Santana is a guy that has seen his fair share of homers allowed, but it's never been an egregious problem for him outside of 2012 with the Angels when he led the league with 39. After giving up 1.0 and 0.9 HR/9 with the Twins each of the past two years, Santana has seen the total swell to 1.4 in 2017, ow the worst mark since that 2012 season. Before June hit, that total was at just 1.0 on the year.
In trying to figure out what has changed, Santana doesn't offer a whole lot of clues. He's allowing less line drives of the past month, and while the hard contact is slightly up, he's actually decreased the flu ball rate by just over 8%. If there is something that jumps off the page however, it's the usage of his pitches.
Through May 29, or his 11th start, Santana was throwing his changeup 14.7% of the time. In the month of June, he's cut that number down to 8.2%. As we can see in comparing his pitch types by count in April/May up against June, the changeup is a pitch he's all but abandoned in multiple scenarios. Not only has he turned away from it in pitcher's counts (namely 2-2 and 1-1), but he's not using it to keep hitters off balance either (3-0, 3-1, 2-1). It's not a pitch he's thrown at 14% over the course of his career, but it is something pitching coach Neil Allen is known for, and an offering that the Twins ace appeared to be having success with.
We could absolutely look back on the month of June late in the season and see it as a blip on the radar. Santana could simply have a confidence issue he's working through, and this could easily be put behind him. It could also end up being a turning point that spoils what began as a very exciting start.
There's no denying that Ervin Santana has always been a pitcher held up by a strong defense. He's capable on his own, and elevates his game by using the guys behind him. When allowing the ball to leave the yard as much as he has however, no one is able to come to the rescue, and things snowball as they have. Whether turning back to the changeup, or finding some other way to right the ship, Minnesota needs Santana to give himself and his fielders a chance.