Can Hector Santiago Elevate and Dominate?
Image courtesy of Gary A Vasquez, USA TodayFirst impressions are important, but everyone deserves a second chance. Santiago got off to an absolutely rotten start with the Twins, but he ended the season pitching well, and there’s reason to believe he could in line for a bounce-back year.
Over his final seven starts of 2016, Santiago posted a 3.19 ERA and 1.23 WHIP while limiting hitters to a .207/.294/.389 line. He also may stand to benefit from recent changes in hitting philosophy. Santiago may be the perfect antidote to the "elevate and celebrate" trend so many hitters seem to have (justifiably) gotten behind.
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs recently wrote a pieceabout how pitchers could adjust to that trend. I don't want to give away the whole article (it's well worth your time), but in it Sullivan makes a pretty significant discovery: Homer rates are trending up, but only on pitches in the lower and middle third of the zone. The takeaway?
"... conventional wisdom has said the best way to avoid a home run is to pitch down. In truth, at least now, it’s probably to pitch up. High fastballs are associated with homers, but they should really be associated with pop-ups and empty whiffs."
It just so happens Santiago’s fastball is pretty nasty up in the zone. His career swinging strike percentage is 8.1%, but that number skyrockets on heaters in the upper third of the strike zone, according to data from BrooksBaseball.
To put that into perspective, neither Clayton Kershaw nor Stephen Strasburg have a single spot on the grid where their fastballs have a whiff rate of 20 percent, let alone three. Taking a look at the zone profile of slugging percentage against Santiago over his career, you can see even more evidence that staying up in the zone may be advantageous.
With a defense led by Byron “Death To Flying Things” Buxton, the Twins are expected to be above average in the outfield. The infield? Not so much, particularly on the left side. Toss in the fact that BABIP is much higher on ground balls than fly balls and it seems to make a lot of sense for Santiago to try to continue his extreme fly ball ways. He led all qualified pitchers with a 50 percent fly ball rate last season.
The Castro bump
You can’t talk about Twins pitching these days without dropping the F Word: Framing. What did you think I was gonna say?
With the arrival of pitch-presenting guru Jason Castro, the hope is the entire Twins staff will take a step forward, but it seems nobody wants to divvy out any of that hope to Hector. Well, Castro's strengths should actually be particularly well-suited to benefit Santiago. Here's a look at Santiago’s called strike percentage against right-handed hitters from FanGraphs:
It's very difficult for lefty pitchers to get that up and away corner called as a strike against right-handed batters, but if anybody's going to help it's Jason Castro. Parker Hageman recently wrote an excellent piece on Castro's framing, er ... proper receiving. In that article, was this graphic showing where Castro excelled in getting strikes called:
Castro is a wizard at getting outside strikes called on right-handed batters. Dallas Keuchel, a lefty who has thrown primarily to Castro over his career, gets that high and outside pitch to right-handers called strike called 61 percent of the time. Even a small improvement for Santiago up from 54 percent could go a long way toward him becoming a more effective pitcher.
There's also evidence that Santiago has benefited from working with other good pitch framers in the past. Here is a breakdown of all the catchers he’s pitched to for at least 50 innings, sorted by ERA:
A.J. Pierzynski: 2.84 ERA, .639 OPS
Geovany Soto: 3.00 ERA, .653 OPS
Tyler Flowers: 3.41 ERA, .692 OPS
Hank Conger: 3.47 ERA, .660 OPS
Chris Iannetta: 3.74 ERA, .727 OPS
Carlos Perez: 4.26 ERA, .766 OPS
The only one of those guys who rated out as a below-average framer during his time as a teammate of Santiago’s, according to StatCorner, is Perez (-6.6 RAA over last two seasons). Santiago had the least amount of success working with Perez. Hmm ...
Infield flys rule
Another part of the “secret sauce” that has made Santiago a deceptively good pitcher his his ability to induce popups. Santiago ranked ninth among qualified pitchers with a 13.5 IFFB percentage last season. If a pitcher can get a high percentage of strikeouts and infield fly balls, good things are going to happen. Here's a look at how Twins pitchers have fared in those categories over the past five seasons:
Santiago: 20.5 K% + 12.1 IFFB% = 32.6
Hughes: 18.6 + 11.5 = 30.1
Santana: 19.3 + 9.5 = 28.8
Gibson: 15.6 + 10.0 = 25.6
What about the WBC?
Santiago has been away from the team, pitching in a long relief role for Puerto Rico, but it would appear he's still in good shape to be ready for the regular season. Here's a summary of all his appearances this spring:
Feb. 28: 12 pitches
March 5: 24 pitches
March 11: 42 pitches
March 14: 52 pitches
March 20: 63 pitches
Santiago is scheduled to start for the Twins Sunday. I’d imagine he can crank it up to 80 or so pitches in that start before flirting with 100 in his final warmup game of the spring. Having pitchers in the WBC isn't ideal, but Hector looks like should be ready to go. Plus, I imagine he may have learned a thing or two working with Yadier Molina the past few weeks, so maybe that time away from the team turns out to be beneficial.
So, he’s Cy Santiago?
I’d love to wrap this up by making some bold prediction that Hector is going to be the ace of the staff and lead the Twins rotation back to respectability, but that’s probably not going to happen. Santiago’s command is spotty, his strikeout rate dropped to a career low last season and you can expect him to still give up his share of walks and home runs.
But can we be optimistic about Santiago delivering a solid season? Something in line with his career averages prior to last year? I think so, yet most Twins fans are trying to find ways to run him out of town.
There’s a reason Hector has made it this far. When he was drafted in the 30th round, he threw a fastball and … nope, that’s it. One pitch. Over time, he evolved a diverse enough pitch mix to become an effective major league starter.
He’s been making adjustments his entire career. It seems unwise to count him out now, especially if you have any faith in Derek Falvey’s ability to foster a pitching staff. Santiago is also hitting free agency for the first time at the end of the year, so there’s all the incentive in the world for him to spin out a good season.
Hector Santiago’s time with the Minnesota Twins didn’t get off on the right foot, but he deserves another chance.
- Mike Frasier Law likes this