Injuries robbed Johan Santana of some of his prime years, but is that enough of a reason to let him fall off the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year?
The 2007 New York Mets will forever be remembered for one of the worst collapses in baseball history. Safely seated atop the National League East with a seven-game lead over their division rival Philadelphia Phillies, it was all but certain the Mets would clinch a playoff berth for the second straight year.
After all, the wounds were still fresh from their 2006 NLCS loss. The Amazins’ had unfinished business to take care of. But to the dismay of Mets fans, the Phillies roared back to do the unthinkable, starting a run of five consecutive division titles that included two pennants and a World Series title.
Entering 2008, the Mets resolved to do anything possible to avoid the disastrous outcome of 2007. So what did they do? They went out and acquired the best pitcher on planet earth.
On February 2, 2008, the Mets acquired Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Deolis Guerra, and Kevin Mulvey. The deal was also contingent on the club agreeing to a contract extension with Santana. Negotiations were successful and the two sides agreed to a six-year, $137.5 million extension, a record-setting agreement at the time and in retrospect, the Mets acquired him for almost nothing.
Despite the acquisition of such a marquee player, the Mets fell victim to their own demons once more and missed the playoffs after losing to the Florida Marlins on the last day of the season in 2008. The only thing more painful than back-to-back collapses was the painful ceremonial closing of Shea Stadium that followed that crushing loss in 2008.
A two-time Cy Young Award winner and five-time All-Star, Santana was miles ahead of his contemporaries during his prime. From 2003 to 2010, he was nothing short of dominant, amassing 122 wins during that stretch with a 2.89 ERA over 1670.2 innings pitched.
Santana would go on to win 139 total games in his career while eclipsing the 2000 innings pitched mark and posting an ERA of 3.20. He garnered top-ten Cy Young Award votes six times, top-fifteen MVP votes three times, and netted a Gold Glove Award for himself in 2007.
This is the first year that the Baseball Writers Association of America can select Santana on their ballots for Hall of Fame enshrinement. Each writer can only vote for a max of ten players while any player receiving less than five percent of the vote is removed from the ballot. Thanks to Ryan Thibodaux’s Baseball Hall of Fame Tracker, we have insight into 39.9% of the ballots that have publicly reported. As it stands right now, Santana is only receiving 1.8 percent of the vote and will be removed from the ballot at such a pace.
During the back-end of his career, the Venezuela native saw years and years of wear and tear finally take its toll on his arm. Injuries robbed Santana of his twilight years and for that, he is seen as an afterthought when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. But the funny thing in all of this is that Santana was so good during his prime years, that he does have a case to be made for Cooperstown. I’m not here to argue whether or not Santana deserves baseball’s highest honor, but rather that he was good enough to deserve more votes and remain on the ballot for at least a few years.
What has always been intriguing about Santana is how unique his path to the big leagues was. As a relatively unknown 15-year-old prospect, Santana was discovered by Andres Reiner, a scout working for the Houston Astros organization. Reiner convinced Santana’s parents to let him attend the Astros’ academy in Valencia, Venezuela, while they mulled over his potential as an outfielder or pitcher. After being told to pitch exclusively, Santana almost left the academy because of his desire to continue playing center field.
In 1999, the Twins acquired the 20-year-old Santana in a swap of Rule 5 draft picks with the Marlins. Up to this point, Santana had pitched no higher than the Single-A level. The meteoric rise of this left-hander that followed was unprecedented. Two unanimous Cy Young wins, an American League leader in strikeouts from 2004-2006, and 200-plus strikeouts in five consecutive seasons from 2004-2008. He also led the league in ERA and WAR three times each mixed into that span.
His changeup was absolutely devastating. It struck fear into the hearts of major league hitters. When it was all said and done, Santana came up just twelve short of 2000 strikeouts in his career. Over 12 major league seasons, he accumulated a WAR of 51.4.
Different people value different numbers. Younger fans who embrace the acceptance and implementation of advanced stats may place an emphasis on figures like WAR and ERA+, while traditionalists may focus on the numbers that have been available to us for decades like ERA, wins, and so on. With the help of the Hall of Fame Statistics found in every Baseball-Reference player profile, we can see a snapshot of where a particular player matches up on the spectrum of Hall of Famers.
Each test has different criteria and for those interested in learning more about what factors in, you can simply follow the corresponding links.[table “” not found /]
What we can take away from these numbers is pretty obvious. Santana, at the height of his game, is close if not equivalent to the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher. Of the 62 starting pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown, 13 have a lower WAR total than Santana, while 26 have a lower seven-year peak WAR. Santana’s prime years are rated higher than likes of Tom Glavine, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, and John Smoltz, to name a few.
Taking this a little further, Amazin’ Avenue’s Dave Capobianco does an eye-opening comparison of Santana’s numbers against those of Sandy Koufax and Jack Morris. If both Morris and Koufax are enshrined, then how can Santana be turned away? More importantly, how can Santana fall off the ballot in his first year when his dominance was so prevalent that his numbers stack up with other greats over a shorter career? It all comes down to a fundamental belief in the importance of consistency. Isn’t a player who is great over the span of a few seasons better than one that is average over a long career?
Santana may never receive the necessary amount of votes from the BBWAA for enshrinement, but he should be given enough to remain on the ballot. Anything less would be disrespectful to one of the best pitchers of his generation. You would be hard-pressed to find another hurler with as dominant of a changeup as Santana and he deserves his rightful place amongst baseball history.
If this trend holds true, all hope is not lost for Santana to be immortalized. Candidates who fall off the BBWAA ballot can gain entry by way of a separate committee that is not comprised of BBWAA voters. With the way things look now, that may be Santana’s best chance at baseball immortality.