The Twins' supernatural talent
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
March 14, 2007
Eddie is Santana's electronic-stimulation machine, named so because a rotund figure that appears on the machine's LCD screen reminds him of former teammate Eddie Guardado. And following every start or bullpen session for the Minnesota Twins, Santana takes Eddie's four electrodes, straps them around his arm and watches it spasm as a series of pulses promote blood flow and muscle growth.
As if Santana needs any help.
Every pitcher in baseball would trade throwing arms with him. Santana, twice the American League Cy Young Award winner, is the best at his craft, and best by a longshot. He is the Tiger Woods of pitching, Roger Federer on a mound. And in concert with Santana's 28th birthday on Tuesday, it seemed an appropriate time to put what he has done into some historical context.
Right now, just five full seasons into his career, and with only three of those coming as a full-time starter, the argument can be made Santana is one of the dozen best left-handed starters ever to play.
"Those stats, those numbers – they seem impossible to match up," Santana said.
And yet when comparing his dominance with present-day peers, the man Santana most resembles is one from the past, widely regarded as the best left-hander of all-time: Sandy Koufax.
Over his final four seasons, Koufax threw a no-hitter each year, won three Cy Youngs and an MVP, never exceeded an ERA of 2.04 and struck out 1,228 hitters in 1,192 2/3 innings. And then, abruptly, he retired at 30 years old.
The game has changed certainly. Four-man rotations have gone by way of the Pony Express. Expansion watered down the pitching and hitting. ERAs rarely, if ever, hover near the 2.00 mark, which means the best way to compare Santana and Koufax is by stacking their numbers next to the league's average for each particular season, a statistic known as adjusted ERA+.
With 100 the ERA+ baseline for a league average, Koufax rattled off consecutive years of 161, 187, 160 and 190, the final year meaning he was 90 percent better than average. Santana's last four seasons were 151, 182, 153 and 161, and his strikeout and walk rates were better than Koufax's to boot.
And Santana's ERA+, minus his first two seasons, is around 160, which would be tied for best ever with Pedro Martinez. And he's fifth all-time in strikeout rate at 9.47 per nine innings behind Johnson, Kerry Wood, Martinez and Nolan Ryan. And he's got the third-highest winning percentage in history at .716.
Doctor the numbers any which way you'd like.
Santana, at very least, belongs in the discussion.
"Reality is, I'm not there yet," Santana said. "If I stay healthy, I may have a pretty good chance. If I worry about what I'm doing now and learn from the past, hopefully I'll be there in the future."
The six left-handers already mentioned are the standard bearers, and another half-dozen deserve mention. Two-time MVP Hal Newhouser, who would have won three Cy Youngs were the award around in the 1940s, put up a run reminiscent of Santana's and Koufax's. Lefty Gomez, too, would have won at least a pair of Cy Youngs. The New York Mets' Tom Glavine, who should cross 300 victories this season, does have two. Mix in Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank and a full-time-pitching Babe Ruth, and it makes the argument even tougher.
In historical context, certainly.
"He's the best lefty in the game," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Why stop at southpaws?
"Best pitcher in the game," Gardenhire said. "I can say that, too."
Proudly so. The Twins nurtured Santana to stardom after plucking him from the Houston Astros on December 13, 1999, in the Rule V draft. At 21, Santana played with the Twins the entire 2000 season, which meant they could later send him to the minor leagues for more seasoning.
They did in 2002, and at Triple-A Edmonton, Twins minor-league pitching coach Bobby Cuellar taught Santana to throw a changeup.
It was like watching Picasso learn to paint.
"I've seen that changeup make the best hitters in baseball look like they've never swung a bat," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said.
Not only did Santana have a complement to his 95-mph fastball, he had found what would become his signature pitch, much like Koufax's curveball. The changeup dies before it crosses the plate, like someone pulled a parachute chord, and even though hitters know it's coming, Santana hides it like a magician.
"Sometimes I wonder what's going to happen when he becomes wise," Hunter said. "He's left-handed, so he's going to be able to pitch until he's 40. Right now, he's only 28. In five years, he's going to be so much smarter.
"I'm in center field. I see everything. And he's aggressive. He goes in and out hard, soft and away. When he gets that wisdom, he's going to be one of the best ever."
To that, Santana repeats, "I still have a long way to go." And, begrudgingly, he is right.
He could blow out an elbow tomorrow. Hitters could start picking up his changeup. He could leave Minnesota via free agency following the 2008 season, sign a $25 million-a-year contract somewhere and turn into a lemon.
Just as easily – actually, more likely – Santana could win his third Cy Young.
And then the debate wouldn't be whether he belongs.
It would be how high a position on the list he deserves.
"Hopefully, 10, 15 years from now people will say something very positive about my career," Santana said. "Sure, people are talking. But I feel like I still have a long way to go.
"Hopefully, one day when I retire, I'll be next to the greatest."
Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Thursday, Mar 15, 2007 12:02 am, EDT