The curious Hall of Fame case of Johan Santana

Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA Press/Icon Sportswire

The last time we discussed next year’s Hall of Fame class, it concerned Omar Vizquel, a man whose career was defined by longevity and specific excellence at one aspect of his game that trumped inadequacies in other places. The other most interesting member of next year’s class couldn’t be more different if he tried.

Johan Santana will be eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time next season. He is the most qualified new starting pitcher to be added next year, which is something of a qualified statement — his main competition there is Jamie Moyer, the absurd logical extreme of viability through longevity and more likely to be held up as a cautionary tale of the dangers of compiling than actually voted into the Hall.

But, of course, the main tragedy of Johan Santana is that he’s in this Hall of Fame class at all. By rights, he should have just hung up the cleats this offseason, or perhaps even still be the veteran back-end starter on a contending team.

Instead, it’s been five years now since Santana last pitched in the major leagues. His career, as so many other pitchers’ careers have been, was derailed by injury; in his specific case, it was his throwing shoulder that betrayed him. Possibly that was always going to happen, given his specific build, arm angle, and throwing motion; perhaps it was just bad, but common, luck. We still don’t know much about the intersection between a pitcher’s health and his pitching mechanics except to note that the act of pitching is one of the more unnatural contortions a human arm can undertake while moving at full speed, and it is an inherently risky act.

11 July 2003:    Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins during the Twins 5-0 loss to the Anaheim Angels at Edison Field in Anaheim, CA. Mandatory Credit:  John Cordes/Icon SMI

(John Cordes/Icon SMI)

Some people have held — and still hold — that it was Santana’s no-hitter that broke him for good. As I’ve written about before, this doesn’t quite hold up to inspection, even if it does make a good story. Santana threw his no-hitter on the first of June in 2012; his collapse didn’t start until July of that year, and he was better in the second half of June than in the first. If one instead argues that the no-hitter contributed to his shoulder problems rather than caused them, one is correct, but only trivially correct. Many, many things contributed to his shoulder problems, most of them related to throwing baseballs using the same arm motion that hurt his shoulder in the first place. The no-hitter was merely the most public-facing incident people can recall.

The career of the “real” Johan Santana, of course, didn’t end in 2012; it arguably didn’t even end in 2010, after Santana had two very good years for the Mets that were still somewhat of a disappointment for him. The “real” Johan Santana — what would be remembered as peak Santana, were it not also the vast majority of his career — came from 2003-2008, during his time with the Minnesota Twins and concluding with his first year in New York. Over that span, Santana threw 1413.1 innings of 2.86 ERA (156 ERA+) ball, won two Cy Young Awards, and struck out more than four times as many guys as he walked. That’s a Hall of Fame peak right there. That, relatively speaking, is supposed to be the hard part. You have a peak like that and then stick around for six more seasons throwing 100-120 ERA+ baseball, you’re in.

But while those years might be “easier” to find, they are also absolutely mandatory. Perhaps that shouldn’t be the case — perhaps the greatness of careers shortened by injury should be given more benefit of the doubt than they are. I could certainly see the case to be made there. But longevity has always been the single component valued more highly than any other when discussing the Hall of Fame — there have been explicit instructions that voters are not to consider singular moments of excellence when making their selections from the beginning of Hall voting (nowadays the idea of someone getting an “automatic induction” into the Hall of Fame for throwing a perfect game seems quaint, but Article 6 of the BBWAA rules still remains).

What’s more, it’s not just one block of voters who feel as such. While older voters generally use traditional stats and younger voters trend toward value stats such as Wins Above Replacement, the theory behind both is the same: given that WAR is a cumulative stat that increases most noticeably the more you play, not the better you play, an older voter saying a pitcher needs to have thrown 3000 innings in his or her mind to be eligible for the Hall is not substantially different from a younger voter saying he needs to have beaten a WAR threshold of 60 (or thereabouts). The only time those two views really come into conflict is over guys like Jack Morris, who threw almost 4000 innings that were clearly not up to the Hall standard but had his torch carried because of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and the fact that he had a personality that made sports guys swoon.

[graphiq id=”3MtRSvTDYMZ” title=”Johan Santana Wins Above Replacement (WAR) by Season” width=”800″ height=”403″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/3MtRSvTDYMZ” ]

In the current situation, neither camp is going to be particularly impressed with Johan Santana. Which isn’t quite infuriating, but it is unfortunate: all he was missing was another four or five merely decent seasons. If you took that many of Jamie Moyer’s solid-but-not-remarkable seasons and tacked them onto the backend of Santana’s career — not his 1998 and 1999 in Seattle, but 1988 in Chicago, 1993 in Baltimore, 2001 in Seattle and the like — you have a Hall of Fame pitcher.

As it is, however, it seems likely Santana will go down as the best pitcher of his generation not to make the Hall. In doing so, he succeeds Brandon Webb, the man who previously held this dubious distinction. His seven-year peak saw him throw 1319.2 innings of 142 ERA+ baseball, winning a Cy Young Award to go with it. His seven-year peak was also his entire career. He fell three years short of the 10 required for candidacy for the Hall of Fame.

So it goes.

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