The Atlanta Braves might have signed Ervin Santana out of dire straits when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both went down in spring training with season-ending Tommy John surgeries, but this wasn’t a typical desperate act of digging around in cemeteries to find some retread veteran who had been good four or five years previous.
No, this was a guy who ranked ninth in the American League with his 3.24 ERA with the Royals in 2013. Santana has been inconsistent throughout his career, with three seasons where his ERA was over 5.00, three seasons where he pitched over 200 innings with an ERA under 3.50, and some other seasons in between. That pattern, plus the fact that a team would lose a draft pick for signing him, led to lukewarm interest in Santana’s free agency this winter. He didn’t sign until March 12 and had to settle for a one-year, $14.1 million contract; Atlanta also forfeited its first-round pick in the June draft.
Since he began his spring training late, Santana didn’t make his 2014 debut until Wednesday, and the first returns were overwhelmingly positive, as he tossed eight scoreless innings with just three hits allowed, six strikeouts and no walks as the Braves beat the Mets 4-3 (although the Mets nearly pulled off a ninth-inning comeback against Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel).
Yes, this came against the Mets, a team hitting .190 and leading the majors in strikeout percentage, but it’s also fair to point out Santana threw an efficient 88 pitches, starting off 20 of the 27 batters he faced with a strike. His first 20 pitches of the game were strikes and he threw just one ball in the first three innings. You command your fastball like that and good results often follow.
"In the bullpen I was all over the place," Santana said. "I just stepped over the line and focused and threw strikes."
Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Info noted that Santana became the third pitcher with at least eight scoreless innings in his first game with the Braves since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. The others to do this were Greg Maddux in 1993 and Derek Lowe in 2009.
There’s nothing fancy about Santana. He throws a lot of four-seam fastballs up in the zone and a lot of sliders, mixing in about five to 10 changeups per game. In 2012, the slider lost some of its bite, he hung a lot of them and he gave up 39 home runs with the Angels in just 178 innings. He regained the feel of the pitch last year and his home runs dropped to 26 in 211 innings and he was a big reason for Kansas City’s first winning season in a decade.
One of the fascinating aspects of his repertoire is that he succeeds despite getting few swings-and-misses with his fastball. Against the Mets, he registered just two in 31 swings (out of 57 total fastballs thrown), but that’s not that unusual for him, as he had just 84 swing-and-misses on his fastball all last season.
When Santana was still available in March, the Blue Jays also made a push to get him, but Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters that Santana’s agent said, "he wanted to pitch in the NL. ... It wasn't money. It wasn't years. He had a strong desire to pitch in the NL, and there was no way to compete with that."
Signing with the Braves could prove to be a smart move for Santana. He’s pitched his entire career in good pitchers’ parks -- eight years in Anaheim, one in Kansas City -- and now moves to another park that helps fly ball pitchers like himself, not to mention the advantage of getting to face the pitcher in the lineup instead of a designated hitter. Add a strong defensive outfield with the likes of Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers (although Jordan Schafer played center for the struggling B.J. Upton on Wednesday) and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, and you have a pitcher who could post an ERA well under 3.00 and turn into a sleeper Cy Young candidate.
Of course, Cy Young candidates usually need run support to help in the ol' win column, and the Braves’ offense has been a nightmare so far, with just 19 runs in eight games. The Braves have managed to go 5-3 despite the offensive struggles because the starters have allowed eight runs, a deadball-era 1.37 ERA.
Considering staff ace Mike Minor is still out as well, that's a nice start for an unheralded group of starters.