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A Hall Of Fame Case For Johan Santana

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Twins celebrated their Hall of Fame weekend. On Saturday, Michael Cuddyer was inducted, and then Sunda it was Andy MacPhail’s turn. The fun part about the Hall of Fame (baseball’s or the Twins) is the conversation that it can create.

While watching Bartolo Colon on Sunday, the name of Johan Santana was mentioned. Of course, I mentioned about how Colon ‘stole’ the 2005 Cy Young from Santana. As baseball conversations tend to do, it shifted again, this time to a comparison between Johan Santana and Sandy Koufax.

Koufax, of course, was a Hall of Famer. He was one of baseball’s greatest pitchers ever for a six year period in the early 1960s. His full career went 12 years, but his final six seasons were incredible. He retired while at the top of his game. He was just 30 years old and coming off a great season in which he won his third Cy Young Award. However, he had chronic arthritis in his left arm. He feared it would become increasingly worse until he eventually couldn’t use his left hand.

Santana was a Rule 5 pick for the Twins. He spent a couple of seasons in the early ‘90s working primarily out of the Twins bullpen. But he had an eight year stretch where no one in baseball was as good.His final five seasons with the Twins, and his first year as a member of the Mets were six incredible seasons.

So, how do the careers, and those “peak seasons” of Johan Santana and Sandy Koufax match up? Let’s find out.
Image courtesy of Gregory Fisher, USA Today
It’s interesting to note that both Johan Santana and Sandy Koufax pitched in 12 major league seasons. For Koufax, his career spanned 1955 through 1966. For Santana, he pitched in the big leagues from 2000 until 2012. He missed all of 2011 which is why he pitched 12 seasons. Let’s just put some of the numbers out there between the two and see how they line up.

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Santana had a stretch of five seasons during which he did not pitch less than 219 innings. During Koufax’s career, he had a stretch where he threw over 300 innings in four out of six seasons. The times were different, of course, as Bert Blyleven informs us, frequently. Santana had 15 complete games during his career. Koufax went the distance 15 or more times in five seasons. That’s why Koufax had more wins and more losses. He rarely had to rely on his bullpen finishing what he started.

Their WHIPs are pretty much identical. Koufax gave up fewer hits, but Santana had much better control. They both struck out about a batter an inning.

It’s interesting to note that while Koufax gave up nearly a half run less per nine innings over his career, Santana’s ERA+ is actually 5% better than Koufax’s. Why? In the late 1950s, offense was down. In 1961, baseball raised the mound in an attempt to help hitters. It worked, and yet run scoring was still not high. Santana was pitching during an era when offense was prevalent, for whatever reasons you want to credit.

Looking at the totality of their careers, one would have to say that they are very much equivalent, particularly when adjusting for era. Koufax was very much an average big league pitcher over his first six seasons, and then he became one of the best pitchers ever over a six year stretch to close out his career. Santana had two years of adjusting to the big leagues after being forced to be in the big leagues because of the Rule 5 status. His second year also wasn’t great. However, from 2002 through 2010, he never had an ERA+ under 129 (29% better than average). Santana’s stretch of success was a couple of years longer than Koufax’s. Unfortunately, once Santana got hurt in 2011, his career was basically over. He tried multiple comebacks but was not successful.

Both great left-handers had careers that ended far too soon. Koufax made that decision as a 30-year-old. Santana’s great stretch ended as a 31-year-old. Koufax benefited - in terms of long-term status - because he didn’t end his career with injury. He quit too early, rather than too late. Santana, for many, may have hurt his stock by pitching hurt and trying to come back for so long.

One of those things that people like to look at is a player’s peak. How good was a player, or a pitcher, when he was at his best. As it relates to the Hall of Fame, the minimum peak seems to be five or six years.

While I noted above that Koufax's peak was a six-year period, Santana's was an eight-year period. But to be equal, I just looked at Santana's best six-year stretch.

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As you recall from the 12-year comparison, Koufax has a better ERA during his peak years than Santana did. In this case, Koufax also was better relative to the league. He was 56% better than league average while Santana was still very impressive at 50% better than the league. They both gave up right around one base runner per inning. Koufax's control was significantly better during the great half of his career, with a walk rate of nearly one less per nine innings.

They both recorded a lot of strikeouts. While hitters a decade ago didn't strike out quite as much as they do now, they struck out a lot more than they did in the '60s. In other words, 9.4 K/9 in the '60s is more impressive than 9.4 K/9 in the '00s because fifty years ago, batters took a lot of pride in not striking out.


LEAGUE LEADERSHIP/AWARDS

Sandy Koufax - Led the league in strikeouts four times. Led in innings pitched twice. Led in ERA five times and ERA+ twice. He led the league in WHIP four times. He led the league in K/9 six times. He won three Cy Young awards and finished in the top three four times.

Johan Santana - Led the league in strikeouts three times. He led in innings pitched twice. He led the league in ERA and ERA+ three times. He also led the league in WHIP three times. He led the league in K/9 three times. He won two Cy Young Awards and finished in the top three four times.


SUMMARY

While this is a very quick analysis and comparison of the two pitchers, I think the high-level data does show that Sandy Koufax was a little better statistically in his era during his peak than Santana was. Looking at their full careers, the argument could certainly be made that Santana had the better career.

Wins Above Replacement - bWAR, Koufax led 53.1 to 50.7. Koufax has a bigger advantage in fWAR (54.5 to 45.3). And again, 46.5 of Koufax's fWAR was in those six peak years.

So yes, Sandy Koufax was the better of the two pitchers. But it does seem that even us, Twins fans, may not realize how great Johan Santana was. I watched him pitch. I knew he was good, but to look at the numbers, and realize just how similar Santana's career was to Koufax's, it surprised me.

Obviously Johan Santana will be a member of the Twins Hall of Fame, likely the first time he appears on the ballot. But maybe the Twins fan base should also start pushing the candidacy of Johan Santana for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown too.

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37 Comments

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mickeymental
Aug 24 2017 12:36 AM
very interesting. one big difference: koufax was on three world series winners (plus one loser) and had a 0.95 era in 57 innings with 61 strikeouts and a 0.825 whip. johan, of course, saw no world series but had a postseason era of 3.97 in 34 innings with 32 strikeouts and a 1.324 whip.
    • Jerr and Dantes929 like this

I agree the lack of post season success will hurt Santana as does the small market of the Twins as does not getting that 3rd Cy Young, ridiculous as it was.  However, its not like Koufax barely got into the Hall and Santana is a little worse so he should miss out.  If you narrowed down the HOF to 22 players instead of 220 Koufax would be one of those 22 so being just slightly not as good should get Santana there if all was fair.  I would weigh a great 6 year stretch over a very good 20 year stretch.  Blyleven is in and a strong case could be made for Morris. Santana was better than either of them and not by just a little bit.  Same could be said for Santana vs. lot of those already in the Hall.

    • Seth Stohs, gil4, 70charger and 1 other like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Aug 24 2017 07:59 AM
The Twins should have Sid spearhead the campaign.

Santana should very clearly make the Hall. That Colon Cy Young will always burn me because it's what kept him from winning three in a row. Three in a row would be a surefire HOF argument. He'll still get in but I think it'll take 5-10 years for momentum to build.

Weird that the Twins have, in my mind, two of the borderline HOFers in Puckett and Bert. I'm still convinced Bert doesn't get in if he wasn't an announcer trumpeting his case while Puckett clearly got in with some nostalgia for a player struck down in their primes.

 

It'd be nice to have a HOF who is considered borderline who actually deserves to be there. Go Johan!

 

P.S. I can't wait to be having these discussions about Joe in 7-10 years.

    • 70charger likes this

 

very interesting. one big difference: koufax was on three world series winners (plus one loser) and had a 0.95 era in 57 innings with 61 strikeouts and a 0.825 whip. johan, of course, saw no world series but had a postseason era of 3.97 in 34 innings with 32 strikeouts and a 1.324 whip.

 

Yeah, I think this is where Johan gets hurt. While Koufax in the regular season is a good comp, the post-season certainly helps him and tends to be one of those things that pushes the guys with shortened careers over the top. (terell davis anyone?) But I would put Johan in regardless. I would rather have the comet who was brilliant for 6-8 years and only lasted 10-12 than the grinder who compiled it over 18-20 but was never really thought of as the best pitcher in the game.

 

There's been a push from a lot of people to include Jack Morris in the HoF (I'm not one of them no matter how wonderful 1991 was); I'd rather have Johan in there. Johan had more bWAR in less time, has "black type" in good categories splattered all over his resume (half of Jack's "black type" entries are ones you don't want, like Wild Pitches), and Johan's career ERA+ is better than any single season from Jack.

 

The post-season issue is an area I can give Johan a pass: it's not his fault that when he hit his prime the teams only made the post-season twice, and as a starter he did just fine when he had the opportunity. One bad outing in his first playoff start, followed by 3 excellent playoff starts...and never got another chance. His other appearances were in relief in the really early days. That's bad luck, not a lack of ability to pitch in the post-season.

    • 70charger and MN_ExPat like this

Few things that have to be mentioned:

 

Unlike Santana Koufax went to the World Series 4 times, his team won 3 times, and 2 of those times Koufax was the WS MVP. He also won a NL MVP award in 1963 and was second in the MVP award in his other 2 CY years, 1965 & 1966.

 

Johan Santana started 5 post-season games and won only one of them.

 

Post-season matters.

 

Also Koufax left the game in his prime after he won 2 Cy Young awards in a row at age 30, instead of dragging it around another 6-7 seasons. In his worst season after age 24, Koufax led the league in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. Santana's 2012 hurts his candidacy. 

 

I think that another Twins' ace who was also was traded to the Mets, is a better comparable for Santana, and hard to make a case that Frank Viola is a Hall of Famer...

There are pitchers who equally or even more dominant than Santana in their peaks, and they are not in the HOF because of longevity issues (Doc Gooden), or perception (Kevin Brown) who are not there. Kevin Brown is an interesting contemporary comparable to Santana (career: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 127 ERA+, 68.5 bWAR)who was never thought a dominating pitcher because of the lack of strikeouts.His 1996 season was crazy and was robbed for the Cy Young (17-11, 1.89 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.944 WHIP, 8 bWAR).He also appeared in 2 WS and won one.

 

So, unless Brown, Viola and Gooden are in the Hall of Fame, I'd find it hard to make a case for Johan.  

    • Jerr likes this
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Winston Smith
Aug 24 2017 10:32 AM

This is apples and oranges. Koufax pitched off a 15" mound and prior to the dh. Santana pitched off a 10" mound and with the dh. 

    • sploorp likes this

 

This is apples and oranges. Koufax pitched off a 15" mound and prior to the dh. Santana pitched off a 10" mound and with the dh. 

 

I mentioned that in the article too, well, the mound part, not the DH part (which is another great point). 

    • Jerr and MN_ExPat like this

I agree that the World Series stuff matters. Let's be honest, that's a large part of why Kirby Puckett is a Hall of Famer. And, like Koufax, Puckett's career came to an abrupt end, though he was already 34, so he didn't have a downturn in his performance. 

 

Johan Santana was great right up until his injury, then missed a year, then came back for a year (and threw a no-hitter, I believe) but wasn't the same, and then that's been it due to more injuries. So, if not for the return season, his career would have ended abruptly and on top.

 

The case for Mauer is that up until the concussion, there has only been maybe a handful of catchers in history to do what he'd done. Had his career just ended right then, he's probably a first-ballot guy (though he may not have had the 10 years). Instead, he's come back, clearly not the same, and that's hurt him. It's a similar argument with Dale Murphy, who was very good, won two MVPs, and then fell completely. The difference is OF versus C. 

    • 70charger likes this
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EddieMatthews
Aug 24 2017 11:12 AM

I carry some disappointments regarding Santana's career, not for Johan's play, but for how he was (mis)managed.  In 2002 and 2003 he was used in relief and as a starter, and couldn't break into a full time starter until 2004.  Even with a 2.99 ERA in 2002 and 3.07 in 2003 he had Kyle Lohse, Matt Kinney, Kenny Rogers, Rick Reed, Joe Mays, and Brad Radke getting starts that should have gone to Johan.  

 

In Johan's first year as a full time starter, he wins the Cy Young.  Followed that up with three more great years before the trade to the Mets.

 

In my opinion, if Santana had stayed in Minnesota, playing with a good run scoring team, and for a manager who "coddled" pitchers, he may have continued for several more years of success.  In NY he had one great year, and then tapered off, encountering injuries that ended his career.  

 

So Santana lost four years of greatness and posted mediocrity instead.  That would have given him HOF credentials, and we wouldn't need this discussion.

 

Few things that have to be mentioned:

 

Unlike Santana Koufax went to the World Series 4 times, his team won 3 times, and 2 of those times Koufax was the WS MVP. He also won a NL MVP award in 1963 and was second in the MVP award in his other 2 CY years, 1965 & 1966.

 

Johan Santana started 5 post-season games and won only one of them.

 

Post-season matters.

 

Also Koufax left the game in his prime after he won 2 Cy Young awards in a row at age 30, instead of dragging it around another 6-7 seasons. In his worst season after age 24, Koufax led the league in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. Santana's 2012 hurts his candidacy. 

 

I think that another Twins' ace who was also was traded to the Mets, is a better comparable for Santana, and hard to make a case that Frank Viola is a Hall of Famer...

There are pitchers who equally or even more dominant than Santana in their peaks, and they are not in the HOF because of longevity issues (Doc Gooden), or perception (Kevin Brown) who are not there. Kevin Brown is an interesting contemporary comparable to Santana (career: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 127 ERA+, 68.5 bWAR)who was never thought a dominating pitcher because of the lack of strikeouts.His 1996 season was crazy and was robbed for the Cy Young (17-11, 1.89 ERA, 215 ERA+, 0.944 WHIP, 8 bWAR).He also appeared in 2 WS and won one.

 

So, unless Brown, Viola and Gooden are in the Hall of Fame, I'd find it hard to make a case for Johan.  

I would throw Ron Guidry in that mix as well but we are still talking about shorter careers with light shining brighter.  2 Cy Young's and 4 top 4 finishes is more than the others on your list.  I think you could make the case that a few of these should be in or that a few that are in should be out. I didn't realize Kevin Brown's case was so good.

    • Thrylos likes this
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diehardtwinsfan
Aug 24 2017 12:22 PM

I don't think Santana's post season appearances (all of 5 games at that) should have much bearing on whether or not Santana is in the hall. He was, without question, one of the best pitchers of his era. I'd add that he pitched in a live ball era, unlike Koufax, as well. That matters too as he faced much better offensive production.

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mickeymental
Aug 24 2017 12:39 PM

hard not to wonder if johan was thwarted by his 134-pitch no-hitter on June 11 of 2012. He only made 10 more appearances that season: 49 IP, 68 H, 45 ER.

 

After his August 21 start that same summer his major-league career was over.

    • Dantes929 likes this
There are a couple errors in the article.

1)Johan wasn't technically a rule 5 pick by the Twins. He was picked by Florida ( the Twins picked Jared Camp), then traded to the Twins.

2) Lowering the mound would help the hitter, not raising it.
    • The_Phantom likes this
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The_Phantom
Aug 24 2017 01:39 PM

 

Weird that the Twins have, in my mind, two of the borderline HOFers in Puckett and Bert. I'm still convinced Bert doesn't get in if he wasn't an announcer trumpeting his case while Puckett clearly got in with some nostalgia for a player struck down in their primes.

 

It'd be nice to have a HOF who is considered borderline who actually deserves to be there. Go Johan!

 

P.S. I can't wait to be having these discussions about Joe in 7-10 years.

Personally I don't get why people think Blyleven is borderline at all. He's top 40 bWAR of all time, including position players. He's also top 20 (16th) in starting pitcher JAWS, 11 points higher than the average hall of famer. His strikeout totals are insane. The only traditional knock against him was that he came up 13 wins shy of 300, but pitching wins are now widely considered an outdated stat as far as overall importance. I think he was getting snubbed for years.

    • Mike Sixel likes this
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Winston Smith
Aug 24 2017 01:44 PM

 

I mentioned that in the article too, well, the mound part, not the DH part (which is another great point). 

Just stressing the point, the higher mound is a big deal. Santana also pitched in the roid era even if it was tailing off supposedly.

But Koufax also pitched in a smaller league with less talent dilution. And also slightly lower strikeout rates?

It gets pretty complicated trying to make cross-era comparisons. Best to just compare them relative to their contemporaries (which ERA+ and WAR are doing).

 

Personally I don't get why people think Blyleven is borderline at all. He's top 40 bWAR of all time, including position players. He's also top 20 (16th) in starting pitcher JAWS, 11 points higher than the average hall of famer. His strikeout totals are insane. The only traditional knock against him was that he came up 13 wins shy of 300, but pitching wins are now widely considered an outdated stat as far as overall importance. I think he was getting snubbed for years.

I don't care about the win/loss.  He had a 22 year career and was an all star twice (I know this isn't a great stat but twice in 22 years). He finished in the Cy Young race in 3rd twice, 4th once and 7th once.  Essentially he was never the best pitcher in the league and very often not the best pitcher on his team. His strikeouts/9 was 6.7. Not in Santana or Koufax territory and actually identical to Kevin Slowey.  Those are some of the knocks on him.  I have compared Scott Diamond and Tyler Duffey to Blyleven after their good years and had some fans consider it sacrilege but it gets to the heart of the matter. For one season Duffey had the command and the break on the curve ball that Blyleven did.  The trick is to do it for more than one season and Blyleven did it for a lot of seasons. That was special and he gets in on the being really good for a really long time ticket.  We are debating about Santana getting in on the being great for a shorter time ticket.

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The_Phantom
Aug 24 2017 02:28 PM

 

I don't care about the win/loss.  He had a 22 year career and was an all star twice (I know this isn't a great stat but twice in 22 years). He finished in the Cy Young race in 3rd twice, 4th once and 7th once.  Essentially he was never the best pitcher in the league and very often not the best pitcher on his team. His strikeouts/9 was 6.7. Not in Santana or Koufax territory and actually identical to Kevin Slowey.  Those are some of the knocks on him.  I have compared Scott Diamond and Tyler Duffey to Blyleven after their good years and had some fans consider it sacrilege but it gets to the heart of the matter. For one season Duffey had the command and the break on the curve ball that Blyleven did.  The trick is to do it for more than one season and Blyleven did it for a lot of seasons. That was special and he gets in on the being really good for a really long time ticket.  We are debating about Santana getting in on the being great for a shorter time ticket.

I have issues in getting behind the idea of basing HOF vote off of Cy Young and MVP vote totals. You're effectively saying "you don't deserve votes now because you didn't get votes then". It's kind of a circular argument.  

I especially have issues with it right now, when most of the players that are up for vote are really being judged with different criteria than they were in their playing days. Up until a few years ago the best way to get cy young votes was to get to 20 wins. Now, most writers barely look at the win column because we've realized how team dependent it is. So since you're looking at two different sets of data/criteria, it doesn't make much sense to me to judge it based on how they were voted for previously. That same argument can somewhat apply to all-star selections. There's also the fact that he was a much better second-half player. Which All-star game tallies aren't going to account for. Career 3.12 ERA in the second half is very very good. 

 

The strikeout/9 point is a very interesting one but like you pointed out there is a lot to be gained for longevity.   

  

PS not trying to derail the thread away from santana, just wanted to point out that I thought blyleven was snubbed for years. 

I think Koufax also threw a perfect game...just some icing on his cake.

 

I have issues in getting behind the idea of basing HOF vote off of Cy Young and MVP vote totals. You're effectively saying "you don't deserve votes now because you didn't get votes then". It's kind of a circular argument.  

I especially have issues with it right now, when most of the players that are up for vote are really being judged with different criteria than they were in their playing days. Up until a few years ago the best way to get cy young votes was to get to 20 wins. Now, most writers barely look at the win column because we've realized how team dependent it is. So since you're looking at two different sets of data/criteria, it doesn't make much sense to me to judge it based on how they were voted for previously. That same argument can somewhat apply to all-star selections. There's also the fact that he was a much better second-half player. Which All-star game tallies aren't going to account for. Career 3.12 ERA in the second half is very very good. 

 

The strikeout/9 point is a very interesting one but like you pointed out there is a lot to be gained for longevity.   

  

PS not trying to derail the thread away from santana, just wanted to point out that I thought blyleven was snubbed for years. 

Quick count says there were 9 years where he could be considered the ace of the staff which was more than I thought it would be.  Check out this year where he had one of the higher ERA's.

https://www.baseball.../MIN/1972.shtml

 

Except for your argument about wins which is probably quite valid I have issues with your first paragraph.  Without the argument about the value of wins it is hardly circular.  Saying you weren't considered one of the elite at your position in any given year so what is your support that you were elite enough for the Hall is a reasonable position.  

    • The_Phantom likes this
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The_Phantom
Aug 24 2017 04:48 PM

 

Quick count says there were 9 years where he could be considered the ace of the staff which was more than I thought it would be.  Check out this year where he had one of the higher ERA's.

https://www.baseball.../MIN/1972.shtml

 

Except for your argument about wins which is probably quite valid I have issues with your first paragraph.  Without the argument about the value of wins it is hardly circular.  Saying you weren't considered one of the elite at your position in any given year so what is your support that you were elite enough for the Hall is a reasonable position.  

It still is circular because there is a laundry list of reasons the MVP voting hasn't always been reliable. I mean the notion that "you can't be MVP if your team doesn't make the playoffs" is just now dying. I could probably say even more recently than this, but with absolute certainty I will say that if 2016's stats happened in 2006, Mike Trout wouldn't be a 2x MVP. Mookie Betts would have, without question, won the MVP instead. Baseball writers also sometimes vote for their home team guy even if it doesn't make a lick of sense (though off the topic of my head i don't know any specific examples where that one has actually changed the outcome of a vote). To determine elite status i'd really rather look at how often they led the league or were at least top 10 in their league, rather than what flawed voters of the past had to say. 

 

But anyone with 3,000 strikeouts, let alone nearly 4,000 strikeouts, gets in my hall. Which i know you argued with longevity but I don't see any reason longevity is a negative. And honestly a good chunk of the guys in the 3000 strikeout club have a lower k/9 rate anyway.

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LeatherAntenna
Aug 24 2017 06:52 PM
World Series and World Series wins are somewhat out of a pitchers control since there are 8 other players on the field. Great pitchers contribute in a major way but can't get a team into the Series alone. Would Santana have made the same World Series if he was the pitcher on the Dodgers those World Series years? Would Koufax insured the Twins made the World Series 3 or 4 times? Very nice story. I don't know about any Koufax individual month analysis, but I wonder if anyone ever had a better month of September like Santana had in 2006. That was one epic month. If a pitcher did ever pitch a team into the playoffs he (and Liriano) did it that year.

World Series and World Series wins are somewhat out of a pitchers control since there are 8 other players on the field. Great pitchers contribute in a major way but can't get a team into the Series alone. Would Santana have made the same World Series if he was the pitcher on the Dodgers those World Series years? Would Koufax insured the Twins made the World Series 3 or 4 times? Very nice story. I don't know about any Koufax individual month analysis, but I wonder if anyone ever had a better month of September like Santana had in 2006. That was one epic month. If a pitcher did ever pitch a team into the playoffs he (and Liriano) did it that year.


Santana was actually even much better in June of 2006.
Just 5 earned runs in 6 starts. 44 k to 5 bb's in 43 innings.

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