The Best of Johan?

Johan Santana
Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

Through 6 innings of Sunday night’s series-deciding game with the Yankees I could have sworn Johan Santana was wearing a Twins uniform.  He was locating his fastball, getting ahead of hitters, and his change-up was, well, Johan-esque.  All this while making quick work of the cross-town rival Yankees.

For the first time in a good bit I started getting the feeling that this is a good Met team.  Jason Bay was hitting, Wright was fielding, even the umpires seemed to like us.  Johan was at his best and because of it I was having a good laugh at the expense of some friends who so proudly adorned their Yankee gear.  Sure they retaliated with talk of championships, playoff appearances, and even 2010 records, but this was May 23rd and nothing else mattered.

But then the 7th inning started.  Santana had managed to throw a paltry 68 pitches, struck out 5 and only walked 1 batter through 6.  He began the inning by making quick work of both A-Rod and Cano.  Then it seems like someone hit a switch.  I even looked around my apartment to see which Yankee fan had the Johan Voo-doo doll, complete with neatly trimmed facial hair.

After not having any of the 23 previous batters he faced reach a 3 ball count, he threw four straight balls to Nick SwisherFrancisco “Lord Helmet” Cervelli then took things to ludicrous speed.  With the count full he went Spaceballs and “singled” off the top of the left field wall.  Johan rebounded and got out of the inning with only 82 pitches under his belt.  Surely, he would be the first Met starter to pitch 8 innings in 2010!

Wrong….oh so wrong.  Four more straight balls to Marcus Thames to start the 8th (who managed to walk down to first without tripping over the bat), a hard hit single by Teixera, a walk to A-Rod and Johan’s night was over with 105 pitches.  Due up 2nd to start the bottom of the 8th it was important for Johan to finish out the 7th and make it so that Jerry Manuel would potentially only have to use 1 reliever after having used 4 last night.  Instead, Santana exited the game like a BP oil tanker exits the Gulf of Mexico, with a giant mess left behind.  The bases were loaded and Pedro Feliciano was called on to bail him out, which he did by utterly baffling Cano.

Come the 8th the Mets were forced to pinch hit for “Every Day” Pedro and put the ball in Ryota Igarashi’s hand to start the 9th.  Before you could blink the game is 6-2 and after throwing 28 pitches last night K-Rod was coming on to close out what was once a 5 run lead to start the 9th.  End result was a successful save, but this isn’t 2008 and Rodriguez is not trying to break any save records, so believe me when I say nobody wanted to see him out there.  It’s not that Rodriguez didn’t do a great job, he was masterful in striking out Cameron Diaz’ boyfriend to end the game, but it would have been nice to not have to reach for the Pepto……for once.

I’m not saying tonight wasn’t a quality start for Johan, statistically it was just that.  After all, I praised what Pelfrey did the night before and yet am seemingly more critical of an arguably stronger performance by Johan tonight.  But as I pointed out in the Pelfrey article, it is still Johan who is classified as the staff ace.  So with that, I’m just wondering if Santana will ever be an 8 inning pitcher again or if what we saw was truly “the best of Johan”.

He literally looked tired after 80 pitches.  After throwing 1st pitch strikes to 23 of the first 28 batters he faced he could only do so for 4 of the last 8.  Unfortunately, this just may be what we have to learn to expect from Santana.  While he has also pitched very well in his last couple of starts prior to tonight’s outing, neither resulted in a win or pitching past the 7th; bottom line remains that he is unable to work deep into games.

This is something an ace has to do, he has to be able to give your bullpen days off.  Watching Fernando Nieve and Pedro Feliciano out there every day is starting to make my arm hurt.  Not to mention the fact that Rodriguez is making ~30 pitch saves his norm.  Santana has only pitched 8 innings twice in the last 2 seasons (a feat that has still escaped him this year after going 7 2/3 tonight) and since joining the Mets he has only 3 complete games (all coming in his first season with the team).  For comparison, Roy Halladay has 4 complete games in 10 starts with the Phillies.  So have we seen the best of Johan?  He continued to show tonight that he is still one of the best in the game, but with the burden of a tired bullpen on his back, there has to be hope that he can give the team another inning.

From a trajectory standpoint perhaps there’s little reason to think Johan will ever be that type of pitcher again.  If we look at the # of starts in which he has thrown at least 8 full innings since 2005 a trend may be forming, one I hope is broken sooner than later.

Starts of 8 innings or more

2005: 12

2006: 9

2007: 5

2008: 6

2009: 2

2010: 0 (and counting)

I don’t want to take away from what was a great performance or be ‘that Met fan’ who lives in the penthouse and complains about how long the elevator ride is down to the lobby.  I am still holding out hope that Johan has his typical strong second half and during that time bucks this trend.  Watching him work 6 brilliant innings against the Yankees tonight went a long way towards fueling that hope, but unfortunately only as long as ~7 innings.

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  • vinnycartiglia

    great post Jay,

    After Johan cruised through the first 6 innings the talk was will he complete the game, but like you said it was like someone hit a switch. Johan completely hit a wall in the 7th inning.

    I felt it was important for the Mets, for Johan to go 9 last night, with today's off day and a three game set vs. the Phils upcoming, the bullpen could have used a much needed two days off. Especially Pedro, who will see plenty of action vs. the Phils big lefty bats

  • DeRumpleForskin

    Nice article Jackson. When Johan was with the Twins, he would be around the plate all the time, well at least in the first five or six innings. He would routinely challange even power right handers early in the count. Hitters that wanted to get to him would swing at the first fastball they saw, and that was usually pitch one or two. I dont know if it was just to give hitters a different look, but as the game wore on, he would rely on his slider and change more, and he would nibble at the corners in the later innings. I dont know if that is because he lost some of the juice on his fast ball, but I can tell you, watching Johan in the first 5 innings is much different then watching hm in innings 6 and 7.

    I wonder if we could ask the sabermaticians what his pitch-per- inning average in innings 1-5 is, and then compare that with innings 6 and 7. I willing to wager kevin Mulvey there is a marked difference.

  • Jason Robotham

    Matty D. I love having your insight into Johan. It's good to hear the perspective of a life long Twins fan. One of our writers is big into sabermetrics so I'm going to see if we can dig up those #'s and include it in a future post. Thanks again for reading.

  • Jason Bertone

    Johan is a shell of himslef, no longer the pitcher we had signed with such high hopes. Like most every Mets free agent signing a BUST he was brought to bring us penants and world championships. So far he has brought us nothing of the sorts. You guys can breakdown all the numbers you want at the end of the day your still left with a team that is over paid and under acheaving. I have given up on this team a long time ago.

  • vinnycartiglia

    He did all he could in 2008 towards giving us a chance at a championship with his dominant performance over the fish on the last Sat at Shea….