For various reasons, Santana is the riskiest pitcher in the free agent market. Pitchers tend to be risky, especially those on the wrong side of 30, but several factors in Santana’s profile make him even riskier.
Santana had a good 2013 season with the Kansas City Royals. He threw 211 innings, with a 3.24 ERA. This was a big improvement on the previous year when he managed a bloated 5.16 ERA and a 5.63 FIP that was easily the worst in the majors.
Throwing lots of strikes and getting help from his defense were big keys. His 18.7% strikeout rate was below the MLB average. However, he also had a low 5.9% walk rate, and his defense did a great job of converting outs, as shown by a .267 BABIP.
Overall, Santana’s season was more solid than spectacular. His 97 FIP- was just a shade better than the MLB average. He did have a strong 10% swinging strike rate that was better than all but his 2008 season.
Since his first full season in 2006, Santana has been notoriously inconsistent. Here are his numbers by year.
2006: 204 IP, 4.28 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 3.3 WAR
2007: 150 IP, 5.76 ERA, 5.13 FIP, 1.1 WAR
2008: 219 IP, 3.49 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 6.0 WAR
2009: 139.2 IP, 5.03 ERA, 5.02 FIP, 1.1 WAR
2010: 222.2 IP, 3.92 ERA, 4.28 FIP, 1.9 WAR
2011: 228.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 2.6 WAR
2012: 178 IP, 5.16 ERA, 5.63 FIP, -1.0 WAR
2013: 211 IP, 3.24 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 3.0 WAR
That’s a lot of variance. 2008 was great, 2006, 2011 and 2013 were solid, the other years were mediocre to average with the exception of 2012, which was awful. 2009 involved two trips to the DL, and while he didn’t hit the DL in 2012, the drop in his fastball velocity and inconsistency with his release point suggested he was pitching at less than full health.
Whoever signs Ervin Santana won’t get the 2008 version that finished 3rd in the AL in WAR. His fastball averaged 94.4 miles per hour that season. Even though it rebounded some from 2012, his fastball was still a full two miles per hour slower in 2013 than it was in 2008.
Santana is more of an injury risk than other pitcher. He throws a lot of sliders. In 2013, Santana threw his slider more frequently than any other starting pitcher.
While it might be an arbitrary cutoff, pitchers who throw their slider more than 30% of the time are much more likely to end up on the DL the next year.
Here are some of the names of pitchers who have used their slider more than 30% of the time over the course of a season. Michael Pineda (hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2012), Tommy Hanson (DL for most of 2013), Brandon Morrow (several DL trips from 2012-13), Francisco Liriano (never thrown 200 innings).
I could go on. C.C. Sabathia throws over 200 innings every year, but he greatly stepped up his slider usage from 2011 to 2012, and he underwent elbow surgery in the offseason. His fastball is down almost three miles per hour in the last two years.
Big contracts are risky. Pitchers are risky. Throwing lots of sliders is tough on the arm. When you add it all together, Ervin Santana is particularly risky.
Salaries are rising, and $100 million isn’t all that much anymore, at least in the baseball world. Still, Ervin Santana shouldn’t get anything close to that.