Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ervin Santana Giving Twins A Good Problem

The Minnesota Twins have seen a nice turnaround to start the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Hovering around the .500 mark, Paul Molitor's squad looks much more reflective of their true talent level than the team did just a season ago. You could argue that the club's main attraction thus far has been their ace Ervin Santana. This go round though, he's not just the Twins ace, but is currently pitching better than anyone in baseball.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece on Ervin Santana and what he needed to do in order to be effective in Minnesota. The crux of the discussion is that on his own, Santana has had a solid career, and his best years have come with good outfields behind him. Up until this point, that's something the Twins ace hasn't been able to say. Now with Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario behind him on a nightly basis, he's enjoying the returns.

Through five starts, Santana owns a 42.4% fly ball rate. That's the highest mark of his career since 2010 with the Los Angeles Angels. His ground ball rate is on par with his career averages, and his line drive rate is actually reduced. Summarizing the balls put in play. Santana is getting more fly outs, and combining that with the fact they aren't being hit as hard (his 24.1% hard hit rate is a career low).

When it comes to stuff, Santana isn't rewritting his book by any means. He's still throwing fastballs, sliders, and changeups all at the same relative velocity. In fact, outside of his changeup, which he's relied on a bit more, Santana is utilizing his repertoire in roughly the same fashion as well. He's not getting opposing hitters to chase that much more (33.1% is a career high, but just up from 31.4% in 2016), and he's actually generating less swinging strikes (8.4%). Batters are being allowed to put the ball in play (82.3% contact rate is a career high), but Ervin is also striking out just over one-fifth of the batters he faces (21.1% K rate).

Again, it's not some reinvention of the wheel, but rather a solid pitcher that's been given exceptional circumstances. We also see the evidence in looking at Santana's FIP mark to date, 3.06. With a sparkling 0.77 ERA, it's actually been the fielding that has helped to significantly elevate the overall results.

When broken down to results, Santana finds himself atop the proverbial mountain for the time being. He's 4-0 through five starts. His 35.0 IP have yielded just three earned runs, and he's got a serviceable 2.6 K/BB ratio. Leading the league in WHIP (0.657) as well as hits per nine (3.3), the Dominican has himself positioned to benefit exponentially from good defense behind him.

There's been plenty of talk regarding what to do with Byron Buxton. He's scuffled to start 2017, and his bat has lagged behind his glove. Although that's turned somewhat recently, it will remain a question how much Minnesota can give up offensively to keep their outfield defense in tact. I'd imagine if the club asked Ervin Santana of his preference, it'd be that those behind him in the field stay the same.

Unlike volatile signings like Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco, players that had a pretty wide variety of potential outcomes, Ervin Santana always appeared to be a safe, high floor pitcher for the Twins.He's proving as much at this point, and the strong defensive effort is elevating him to new heights. As the year draws on, the Twins will find themselves with a decision to make.

Minnesota is on the hook to pay Santana $13.5 million in 2018, with a $14m team option in 2019, or a $1m buyout. If the club continues to tread water around the .500 mark, it makes sense to keep Santana and pair him with a top tier arm for a playoff push a year from now. Should the timeline look farther off, they could have arguably the most valuable trade chip on the market come the middle of the summer. It's a good problem to have, and for an organization that has been pitching starved for so long, a welcomed one.

It could've been expected that a focus on catching and defense would raise the ability of the pitching staff, but Santana is making that work to perfection. By and large, he's the same guy he's always been, and the sum of Minnesota's parts has turned him into a gem to start the year. Now, it's up to the entire collection to keep it rolling.