Johan Santana vs. the Phillies

By BloombergSportsPro //

Johan Santana had one of the worst starts of his career a couple of nights ago, giving up 10 runs in 3.2 innings pitched against the Philadelphia Phillies. I’m going to use the Bloomberg Sports Professional tool to take a look at his start and see if anything stands out as the cause of Santana’s struggles. Most of the analysis will be based on pitch f/x data, one data source which the tool integrates and puts into a more useable, visual format.
One issue which has come up over the last few years, when talking about Santana, is his velocity. While Santana used to sit in the low 90s and touch the mid 90s his fastball velocity has dipped significantly over the past few seasons. In his last start Santana threw seventy seven fastballs and pitch f/x only picked up two with a release speed of over 90 mph.

Given his recent velocity troubles this was the first thing I checked in the tool. It seems, however, that Santana’s velocity was much improved in Philadelphia compared to his previous start. Santana threw 41 fastballs against the Phillies and 23 had a release velocity of over 90 mph. This rate of 56.1% of his fastballs being over 90 mph is just about the same as his 2009 season where 958 of the 1603 fastballs (59.8%) were measured at over 90 mph. Given the fact that Johan tends to build velocity as the season goes along this should actually be an encouraging sign for Mets fans.

During the game the announcers brought up the issue of Santana’s pitch selection. Primarily they were wondering why Johan was relying exclusively on his fastball and change-up. I decided to examine Johan’s pitch selection to see if this might be the cause of his struggles.

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While Santana only threw 7 breaking balls it doesn’t seem like his rates were different against the Phillies compared to the previous two seasons. If anything he was throwing sliders slightly more frequently. This makes sense, as the Phillies have more left-handed hitters than most teams and Johan generally throws his slider to lefties and his change-up to right-handed batters.

It seems as though we can rule out velocity and pitch selection as potential causes for Santana’s struggles in Philadelphia. The third factor which I wanted to look at was pitch location. Santana is generally thought of as one of the most accurate and aggressive pitchers in baseball, throwing about 55% of his pitches within the strike zone, consistently one of the highest rates in baseball. Santana had 48 strikes and 23 balls yesterday (this includes swinging strikes not just balls in the strike zone), almost exactly what one would expect, so it doesn’t seem like he was having problems throwing strikes.
Throwing strikes is only one part of the equation in control, though. A pitcher must hit the right spots in order to succeed. Santana gave up 5 extra base hits during last night’s game. Here are the locations of the pitches which the Phillies hit hard.

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Four of the five extra base hits which Santana allowed were on fastballs (the red markers.) All four of those fastballs were right over the heart of the plate and at least waist high. The fifth hit, Ryan Howard’s Home Run, came on a change-up which was low and away.

Every pitcher throws some pitches right over the heart of the plate. Did the Phillies do an especially good job of taking advantage of Johan’s mistakes? Let’s take a look at the location of every pitch which Santana threw last night.

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Santana threw a lot of pitches right down the middle yesterday. Out of the 66 pitches tracked by pitch f/x 17 of them (25.8%) were located right in the middle of the strike zone. This includes 13 of the 41 fastballs (31.7%) which he threw. How often does Santana usually throw pitches in that zone?

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The image above shows us the location of every pitch which Santana had thrown in 2010 before the game against the Phillies. Santana threw 78 of his 514 pitches (15.2%) in the center of the strike zone, including 63 of his 308 fastballs (20.5%.) For the 2009 season Johan threw 14.5% of his pitches and 16.3% of his fastballs in this section of the strike zone. While Johan was able to throw a similar number of pitches in the strike zone he did not have the kind of accuracy within the strike zone which he relies on to get batters out. By throwing so many pitches right down the middle, Santana gave the Phillies an opportunity to put good swings on pitches. They obliged, crushing four home runs and a double.

Johan Santana is not the power pitcher he once was. He relies on his accuracy and intelligence as a pitcher to consistently get batters out. When his accuracy falters, as it did in Philadelphia, he can be very hittable. Santana’s future success will depend heavily on his ability to locate his pitches. He has demonstrated control on par with the best pitchers in baseball over his career so it seems way too early for Mets fans to worry. The fact that Santana’s velocity increased and that he was throwing his usual selection of pitches are both good signs. If you want to know whether Santana will bounce back you now know where to look – the location and quality of strikes which he is throwing.

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