Monday, June 21, 2010

The Not-So-Great Johan Santana

In 1987, Nolan Ryan led the National League in ERA, strikeouts and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and had a WHIP (Walks + Hits, / Innings Pitched) of 1.139, which is really good, even if you pitch your home games in the Astrodome. And he was 40.

Yet he went 8-16, because the Houston Astros averaged just 4 runs a game. Collectively, they had an OPS+ (On-Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage, in relation to the rest of the league) of 86, meaning they were 14 percent behind the rest of the league's average (which, by definition, is always 100), and 86 also turned out to be the number of games the Rainbow Warriors lost. Ryan was 8-16, yet he was still arguably the best pitcher in baseball. I actually saw him pitch that year, going the distance and pitching well enough to win, but getting stuck with a 2-1 loss to the Phillies at the Vet.

In 1968, Bob Gibson had a record-low (for the post-1920 Lively Ball Era) ERA of 1.12, and won 22 games for the Cardinals, and still lost 9, including 6 1-0 games.

Walter Johnson won more games than any pitcher in AL history, but the Senators were so inept that he also lost more: He went 417-279.

Ted Lyons, who pitched for some pitiful White Sox teams in the 1920s and '30s, never coming close to a Pennant race, still won 260 games, losing 230. Joe McCarthy, manager of the Yankees for much of Lyons' career, said that if he'd pitched for the Yankees, he would have won 400. I believe it.

Lack of run support happens to the best of pitchers. Long ago, not that long ago, and now. And it will happen long after every fan who attends a game this season, even the infants, has grown old and died.

Johan Santana is a very good pitcher. Whether he will join Ryan, Gibson, Johnson and Lyons in the Hall of Fame remains to be seen, but he is a very good pitcher. He made one mistake yesterday, and Mark Teixeira roped it over the left-field fence for a grand slam, in a 4-0 Yankee win over the Other Team.

Santana -- or "The Great Johan Santana," as I tend to call him to tease the Flushing Heathen, who thought the would be The Answer -- is still one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball. But in this just-completed series, he did not pitch as well as CC Sabathia (who outdueled him yesterday), or Phil Hughes (Saturday's winning pitcher, famously NOT traded for Santana), or Hisanori Takahashi (the winning pitcher for the Mets on Friday night), or (arguably) Javier Vazquez or Mike Pelfrey, both of whom pitched very well in defeat (on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, respectively).

The Mets do need to hit better for Santana. But Met fans also need to consider that they are not getting what their team paid for: A difference-maker. Sabathia turned out to be a difference-maker. Today, on WFAN, Mike Francesa said that Santana was the best 2nd-half pitcher in baseball. No, he's not. Has Sports Pope (as Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News calls Francesca) seen CC in the 2nd half the last few years? A monster. A big fat monster on the mound. (As long as it's not endangering his health, I don't care about his weight, same as with David Wells when he pitched for us.)

It's time to face the facts: Johan Santana has not been what the Mets thought they were getting. The difference between one of baseball's Top 10 pitchers, and one of its Top 3, is bigger than you might think. And getting him more runs might not make all of that difference.

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