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Johan Santana’s Cooperstown Case: The Koufax Argument

Met’s manager Terry Collins wanted to limit Johan Santana to 110-115 pitches but that wouldn’t be the case on this night. With 133 pitches already taxing his surgically repaired shoulder, Santana reared back for a 3-2 change-up. David Freese swung and missed. Across the baseball world, grown men felt tears build up in their eyes. It took over 8,000 games but the New York Mets had the first no-hitter in franchise history.

In a perfect world, Santana would have pitched into his late 30’s or early 40’s while continuing to be one of the best in the game. That ideal world didn’t play out and he never pitched a big league game after the age of 33. At the height of his career, there is no doubt that he was the best pitcher on the planet.

This year will mark his first chance at being elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In this series, I will build up Santana’s case for enshrinement. The following is an opus to the career of the southpaw from Venezuela. A man who should and can be elected into the hallowed grounds of Cooperstown.
Image courtesy of Gregory Fisher-USA Today Sports
Part 1: Johan Santana's Cooperstown Case: The Puckett Clause

At the end of the 1960 season, Sandy Koufax had pitched almost 700 innings at the big league level. He had a 4.10 ERA with a 1.43 WHIP. He was not a Hall of Fame pitcher but he was only 24-years old. Over the next six seasons, Koufax would dominate on the mound like few had done before. During that stretch, Koufax posted a 2.19 ERA with a 0.97 WHIP while striking out more than a batter an inning. He had punched his ticket to the Hall.

Koufax became the youngest ever inductee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was able to accomplish this feat because he retired at the height of his pitching prowess. Following his age-30 season, he stepped away from the game. Elbow problems and arthritis caused him worry about his golden left arm. He rode off into the sunset with a Hall of Fame resume.

Like Koufax, Santana took some time to reach “ace” status as a starting pitcher. Minnesota acquired Santana as part of the 1999 Rule 5 Draft. This meant Santana was required to stay on the Twins 40-man roster for the entire 2000 season. Between 2000 and 2001, he pitched 129.1 innings out of the Twins bullpen to the tune of a 5.90 ERA and a 1.71 ERA. His change-up wasn’t full developed and it was hard to imagine the type of starter he would become over the next decade.

While Koufax walked away from the game on his own terms, Santana didn’t step away from the game so lightly. Santana tried multiple comebacks with organizations like Baltimore and Toronto before finally calling it a career. As I mentioned in the first piece in this series, many trace the beginning of the end for Santana to his no-hitter in 2012.

Many comparisons have been written about the similarities between Koufax and Santana. Pitching at Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s was much different than pitching at the Metrodome in the early 2000s. Baseball is an ever-changing game and it’s lazy to look at simple numbers like ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts to try and get a full picture of a pitcher.

Baseball Reference has the ability to neutralize pitcher’s numbers to align with different eras. Santana pitching at Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s would result in some statistical numbers that are usually only seen in video games.

While Koufax pitched in an era of pitching dominance, Santana’s era was known for offensive dominance. Since the expansion era (post-1993), Santana’s 136 ERA+ ranks sixth among starting pitchers. Take a look at the names ahead of him: Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Brandon Webb, and Chris Sale. Martinez is already in the Hall. Kershaw and Sale look well on their way. ERA+ has Santana ranked higher than Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, two recent Hall of Fame inductees.

Jay Jaffe literally wrote the book on who should and shouldn’t get into Cooperstown. His JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system) takes a player’s career WAR averaged with their 7-year peak WAR. Using this system, Santana ranks 85th which is three spots higher than Koufax. Santana’s JAWS is higher than 15 enshrined starters in Cooperstown.

At age 31, Santana was headed to the Hall. His shoulder gave out, he was forced under the knife, and his career took a different path. However, his WAR through his age-31 season ranks in the top-40 all-time. Only 24 Hall of Fame pitchers rank higher than Santana with Koufax coming in at number 30.

Does the Santana and Koufax comparison hold up? Should the same logic that was applied to Koufax be applied to Santana? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.


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18 Comments

The Koufax clause is not applicable to Johan as there are no sterling post seasons in Santana's resume. Koufax had an ERA of less than one in the post season. True that being in the playoffs is a team thing. Koufax started exactly one more game than Santana did in the post season.There is a night and day difference between the two.

 

There is the 137 complete games and42 shutouts in the regular season that Santana can't match. Koufax started 41 games in his last season.Different era or generation, but it points to the fact that they compiled the similarity in other stats in a far different situation.

    • gunnarthor likes this

It is close, but I feel that opening this door would start letting many players in with close, but not great overall statistics.Edgar Martinez is the name the comes to mind.Very good hitter, but no position after the first few years.No lifting his team on his back and carrying them when needed.The early era had multiple players in this category and none of them or very few are in the hall of fame.Martinez did not play in the current era where his statistics would be better than they were in the era he played.It will be interesting how the HOF treats this players as Mauer is also in the category(higher in my mind because of the position he played when he won his three batting titles).

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JaleelWhite FanClub
Dec 05 2017 08:17 AM

What's the latest on his comeback? Last time I heard anything was that he was going to give it one more shot.

 

Not holding out hope for much, but it'd be great to see him take one more shot at pitching again, even if it's as a reliever or in the high minors.

Santana was known as the best pitcher in the mid-to-late-00s. I would not be surprised if he gets enough HOF votes from voters who are old enough to remember, regardless of what his stat sheet says.

I'm really torn on Santana. I like a big hall. I like a lot of seasons. I don't love short peaks. But at the end of the day, you only need 10 MLB seasons to be considered for the hall. Not 15 or 18. So people with shorter careers should get in. I don't like that we've put short peak guys with long careers in (Tim Raines had a five year peak worth 32 WAR and then played from 88-02 and amassed 30 WAR). And Santana was undoubtedly considered the best pitcher in baseball for a number of years and won two Cy Young awards. I'd vote him in. I'm not sure how the actual voters will treat him.

 

Raines is an interesting comparison.

In 12 seasons, Santana topped 4 WAR 7x, 5 WAR 5x, 6 WAR 4x, 7 WAR 4x.

Raines, in 21 seasons, topped 4 WAR 6x, 5 WAR 6x, 6 WAR 4x, 7 WAR 1x.

 

If we decided that Raines short peak is hall worthy, shouldn't Santana's peak - which was longer in much fewer seasons, be a HOFer? I mean, no one put Raines in the hall because of how he played in the 90s. But voters sorta rejected that argument with Nomar.

 

In 14 seasons, Nomar topped 4 WAR 6x, 5 WAR 6x, 6 WAR 6x, 7 WAR 2x but he wasn't in.

 

So I think Santana should be in but, like Nomar, will be given short shrift.

Interesting side note to that no-hitter.Somewhere in that game, a Cardinal hit a fly down the line that was called foul.Replay showed it was fair, and it would have ended the no-hit bid (TV replay, not an official MLB review, this was before replay was allowed to overturn calls).Johan would have been pulled around 100-110 pitches and may have been able to avoid the arm injury that shortened his career.What seemed like good luck turned out to be bad luck....

    • Oldgoat_MN and Doomtints like this

I don't think there's any question that Johan had a worthy peak. The question is whether that peak was high enough long enough to make up for the shortness of the overall career. It's not an easy one, and I think it makes Johan borderline.

 

I would argue yes. he wasn't a guy who was only good for 5 years and did nothing else; he was a guy who was amazing for 5 years, good for 4 more, then around for 3 more past that (2 getting started and 1 trying to hang on). If he'd tacked on 3 more years like his last one with the Mets and boosted his innings and wins by 10-15% would it really change much about his case for the HoF? I don't think so, although it probably earns him a lot more votes.

 

I can't hold post-season against Johan. The first two season were relief jobs when he was still a pup. As a starter he only got 5 chances: 3 great, 1 ok (pulled early), 1 awful. Given his last three were his best just when he was hitting his prime, it's hard to think he wouldn't have done well with more opportunities, and it's not like he was a disaster.

 

Johan had a 5 year stretch where you had to bring his name up as one of the best pitchers in his league or people would look at you funny. He's got the awards and the "black type" stats to back it up. There's just enough years for me to be ok with him going in, because of the sustained greatness.

Let's do some comparisons

 

Note that there are only 75 pitchers in the HOF, including Babe Ruth....

 

Average HOFer / Santana

Years played: 18 / 12

All Star Games: 4 / 4

bWAR: 70.0 / 50.4

Wins: 253 / 139
W%: 590 / .641
ERA: 2.98 / 3.20

Shutouts: 41 / 10

Games: 596 / 360

Strikeouts: 2153 / 1988

Let's do some basic extrapolation. 

 

Would Santana's WAR go to 70 with another 6 years of play? Doubtful.

Would he get 120 more wins? Doubtful.

Would his ERA drop to sub-.3.00? Doubtful.

Would he get 30 more shutouts? No.

Would he appear in another another 240 games? No.

BUT...

 

His W% and All Star Appearances show he was the best in his era.

His strikeout total is right up against players who pitched careers 33% longer.

I would vote FOR Santana to go into the HOF, and this isn't coming from me being a Twins fan. It comes from the dominance he had when he played. All playing longer would do is pad his stats, Santana proved he was the best pitcher in the game for a few years, and that's what the HOF should be about.

The point is, even if Santana had played 18 years, he wouldn't be a shoo-in as far as all of these metrics are concerned, either! We have to judge Santana on who he was, not on what might have been, and he WAS the best pitcher in an era and he has a more than adequate sample size to know this wasn't a fluke!

As others have pointed out, Johan Santana lacks the signature post-season moments that make Koufax and Puckett so memorable. I wouldn't mind if Johan made the HOF, and as much as I love him, I don't think he'll be elected.

    • Oldgoat_MN likes this

 

 as much as I love him, I don't think he'll be elected.

Woah, is this Twinkie Town?

    • myjah and Oldgoat_MN like this

My guess is that Santana will get about 40% of the votes. I do not see him being placed in the same category by the voters as some of the pitchers coming up for election. I also do not buy the argument that he was as good as Koufax in his prime. He was very good and should be on the ballot for many years but I will be surprised if he ever gets more than 60% of the votes. We'll see.

I'm guessing Santana gets between 10%-20%.Enough to stay on there, but never enough to get in.It's too bad the Mets messed him up (and continue to do the same with their pitchers)

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yarnivek1972
Dec 06 2017 05:31 PM
Johan Santana isn’t even a gimme to make the Twins Hall of Fame. I’m pretty sure his Twins career was shorter than anyone else in the Twins HOF. Much like Justin Morneau probably won’t be a Twins HOFer, despite winning an MVP.

Right now, Zoilo Versalles is the shortest tenured Twin in the Twins HOF. He spent 7 full seasons plus 2 partial seasons with the Senators. Johan had 6 full seasons and 2 partial seasons in a Twins uniform.

 

Johan Santana isn’t even a gimme to make the Twins Hall of Fame. I’m pretty sure his Twins career was shorter than anyone else in the Twins HOF. Much like Justin Morneau probably won’t be a Twins HOFer, despite winning an MVP.

Right now, Zoilo Versalles is the shortest tenured Twin in the Twins HOF. He spent 7 full seasons plus 2 partial seasons with the Senators. Johan had 6 full seasons and 2 partial seasons in a Twins uniform.

Johan and Justin will get into the Twins HOF.Two of the greatest Twins ever.

    • gunnarthor likes this
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yarnivek1972
Dec 06 2017 09:22 PM
The voters clearly value tenure over greatness. Greg Gagne is in. Chuck Knoblauch is not. One was way better, relative to his peers, than the other.

The voters clearly value tenure over greatness. Greg Gagne is in. Chuck Knoblauch is not. One was way better, relative to his peers, than the other.


Knoblauch is not in for off field reasons. In fact if I recall, his induction was cancelled at the last minute.
    • ashburyjohn likes this

 

The voters clearly value tenure over greatness. Greg Gagne is in. Chuck Knoblauch is not. One was way better, relative to his peers, than the other.

Knobby beat up his wife a week before he was going to be inducted. Justin and Johan will be inducted but neither one has officially retired yet.

 

The voters clearly value tenure over greatness. Greg Gagne is in. Chuck Knoblauch is not. One was way better, relative to his peers, than the other.

 

*popularity, not tenure.


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