Is Johan Santana MLB's best?

May, 21, 2009
5/21/09
2:40
PM ET
Allen Barra on baseball's best pitcher (at least according to me, supposedly):
    The hottest party of the year in Tovar, Venezuela, is called "El Cy Youngazo," which roughly translates as "The Great Cy Young." It's held in December, and the host and No. 1 attraction is Johan Santana, the town's native son and the New York Mets' star southpaw.

    --snip--

     
      William Perlman/US Presswire
      Johan Santana has a 5-2 record in eight starts for the Mets this season.

    The way things are going, this year's party is likely to be a real fiesta. Currently leading the National League in earned run average, second in strikeouts, and tied for second in wins, Mr. Santana is the odds-on favorite to win a Cy Young trophy -- the third of his career -- this season. This would make him, at age 30, a lock for baseball's Hall of Fame, where every pitcher who has won more than two Cy Youngs has wound up.

    --snip

    In fact, most baseball analysts -- and all New York Mets fans -- feel Mr. Santana should have already won three Cy Young Awards. Their point of view is expressed by ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer: "He's the best pitcher in the game, and by any objective standard should have won the National League's Cy Young last season."

    Mr. Santana actually finished third in the voting, which many regard as outrageous: He had a better ERA (2.53) than the winner, San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, and the second-place finisher, Arizona's Brandon Webb, and a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than either. "Everyone knows why he didn't finish first in the voting," says Mr. Neyer. "It's because he was 'only' 16-7." (To Mr. Lincecum's 18-5 and Mr. Webb's 22-7.)

    But 2008 was a season in which Mr. Santana could have won a lawsuit against his bullpen for lack of support. Seven times he left the mound with the lead only to see his relievers give it back. Combined with his other statistics, he probably would have swept Cy Young voting if his bullpen had just held on in five or even four of those games.

As usual, when Allen gets rolling, there's plenty to chew on here.

First, I should mention that it's just possible that I might have been slightly misquoted, or (even more possible) that I might have simply been wrong. While I do believe that Santana is probably the best pitcher in the game -- and certainly in the National League -- I do not believe, upon reviewing the evidence, that Santana should have won the Cy Young Award last season.

Yes, Santana finished with a slightly lower ERA than Mr. Lincecum, pitched slightly more innings, and walked significantly fewer batters. But Lincecum struck out significantly more batters, gave up significantly fewer home runs, and -- adding it all up -- finished with the best fielding-independent ERA (2.62) in the National League, while Santana's (3.51) ranked just eighth.

Actually, by most objective standards, Santana was quite fortunate to finish with the NL's lowest ERA.

But while Santana was not robbed of the award in 2008, he most certainly was in 2005 when -- finishing 16-7, just like last year -- he led the AL in strikeouts and finished second (by a hair) in ERA but finished third in the Cy Young balloting because voters are obsessed with wins and losses.

So Berra's right: Santana should have three Cy Youngs already, and if he wins one this year he's ... well, not a lock exactly, but a pretty good bet for the Hall of Fame. Santana's going to finish this season with something like 125 career wins, and the absolute minimum for a Hall of Fame starter must be something like 175 these days. Santana does have his 10 seasons in the book, so he's officially eligible. But if you figure he needs 175 wins, he's going to have to pitch another three or four full seasons before we can talk about him being a lock.

Is he the best pitcher in the game today? Gee, I don't know. When you consider the difference between the leagues, I suspect that the argument comes down to three pitchers: Santana, CC Sabathia, and Roy Halladay. Well, and Lincecum, and maybe Chad Billingsley, too.

If you choose Santana, I probably can't find any objective standard to argue that you're wrong. But I'm not sure you'd be right, either.

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