Santos proves a quick-change artist
The stories all start the same. They were out of chances and at dead ends and couldn’t let go. Baseball does that. It sinks its hooks into a player and seduces him and convinces him that life without the game isn’t much of a life at all.
And so Sergio Santos(notes), like Carlos Marmol(notes) before him, and like Rafael Soriano(notes) before him, and like Trevor Hoffman(notes) before him, refused to go out on someone else’s terms. His career stalled, his destiny of a major league career unfulfilled, Santos went back to the muse that treated him so badly for one final shot, and unlike so many whose hearts are broken one final time, it actually worked.
“I was thinking about it the other day,” Santos said, slipping on his Chicago White Sox jersey. “This is always where I wanted to be. But I’m pitching, and that is just so strange to me, knowing I picked it up 13 months ago.”
When the 2009 season opened, Santos was a shortstop – a lifelong shortstop who dominated Little League, didn’t outgrow the position in high school and continued to play it throughout the minor leagues. Shortstops live with a certain attitude. They are important. They stand in the middle of everything, the fulcrum on which so many baseball teams operate, and to give that up to sit in a bullpen for a whole game and throw an inning at a time? Well, that took time.
Time and patience and, most of all, giving in to the reality that the entire identity he’d forged was about to go away.
“I never thought he had that good of an arm.”
In a clubhouse halfway across the country, Arizona catcher Miguel Montero(notes) is flabbergasted. Not only is Sergio Santos in the major leagues as a relief pitcher, he is one of the best in the major leagues this season. Santos logged another scoreless outing Monday, his 17th in 18 games. His earned-run average of 0.52 ranks fifth among all pitchers. Only a baker’s dozen worth of players throw a fastball harder than his 95.5-mph gas.
“It never crossed my mind that he could be a pitcher,” said Montero, his teammate with the Diamondbacks’ rookie affiliate eight years ago. “He threw kind of ugly, kind of sidearm. I thought he could hit. For sure.”
Everyone thought Santos could hit. The Diamondbacks drafted him 27th overall in 2002 out of suburban Los Angeles and paid him a $1.4 million bonus. Baseball’s official scouting service said his 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame was reminiscent of Alex Rodriguez’s.(notes) And perhaps Montero’s memory is spotty, because the scouting bureau said Santos had a “major league arm with carry.”
His bat was supposed to get him to the major leagues, and Santos slugged .461 as a 20-year-old at Double-A. He figured his path was clear. Then he struggled the next season. Arizona traded him to Toronto. He never got past Triple-A. Minnesota took a shot. Same thing.
Come 2009, Santos had turned into a minor league utilityman. The White Sox signed him and wanted him to pitch. He hadn’t done so since his freshman year in high school, more than a decade earlier. Santos had nothing to lose. In front of general manager Kenny Williams, pitching coach Don Cooper and farm director Buddy Bell, he threw a bullpen session. His fastball hit 96 mph. The White Sox were believers.
Santos still wasn’t. He was a shortstop, even if others didn’t think so. He sat down with Bell, the five-time All-Star third baseman, and asked him to treat him like he would any of his sons.
“If my name was Sergio Bell,” Santos said, “what would you have me do?”
“I wouldn’t become a pitcher,” Bell replied.
Later that week, Chicago traded Santos to San Francisco – with a caveat: If the Giants couldn’t play Santos every day at Triple-A, they would send him back to Chicago so he could start the conversion. In his first game, Santos hit a home run. He thought he found a spot. Then the Giants sent Kevin Frandsen(notes) to Triple-A, and Santos’ at-bats vanished.
Ten days later, he was back with the White Sox.
“There were no more what-ifs,” Santos said. “I was on to the next phase of my life. So I put all my energy into becoming a pitcher.”
Of all the converted pitchers, none in modern times has done so with the expediency of Santos. Soriano took three seasons in the minor leagues, Marmol a little more than two. Hoffman, the future Hall of Famer, spent two years learning to pitch. Even Bob Lemon, who made the move at the major league level, had spent years in the Navy during World War II pitching.
Santos took one year. One really bad year. The White Sox sent him to Class A, a level at which he’d never played, and saw him put up a 7.36 ERA in eight games. They sent him to High-A, where he struggled again. Didn’t matter. Off Santos went to Double-A. Fifteen hits and 10 runs in 8 2/3 innings later he was at Triple-A, where he allowed five runs in five innings. In his one minor league season, Santos threw 28 2/3 innings and gave up 26 earned runs. His 30 strikeouts were nice. His 20 walks offset them.
The White Sox needed to see if Santos was worthy of a 40-man roster spot, because surely another team would take a flyer on him. He passed their test. Numbers were numbers. They saw something else. His fastball moved. His slider, once he learned to command it, would be an out pitch. And knowledge as a shortstop would only enlighten him more when it came to approaching hitters.
“The whole key to this thing was his instincts,” Bell said. “He really understands the game. This is one of the brighter baseball minds, for a kid, I’ve been around. You didn’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to see what kind of arm he has.”
Others are catching on, the trend of hitter-to-pitcher conversions not ending with Santos. San Francisco, trying to not miss on a perfect candidate, switched former Kansas City shortstop Tony Pena Jr.(notes), who is now destroying Double-A hitting and struck out seven in a 3 1/3-inning outing last week. Kenley Jansen, a cannon-armed catcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, couldn’t hit his weight before switching to pitching. He’s already at Double-A, his 6-foot-6 frame generating 99-mph fastballs.
Whether Santos’ arm always was that gifted or, as Montero would attest, an ugly duckling that blossomed, it is a sight to behold. At 240 pounds today, he generates tremendous velocity. Last season, he said, “my only goal last year was to hit 100 mph.” He did it in the final inning of his final game.
He wants to do it again this year, only in a big league park. Hitters already have enough trouble with Santos’ stuff. He has 21 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings and has limited hitters to a .161 batting average. In a bullpen full of power arms – Matt Thornton(notes), Bobby Jenks(notes), Scott Linebrink(notes) and J.J. Putz(notes) – Santos’ might be the most powerful.
“I knew, in my heart of hearts, I was going to be successful,” Santos said. “But has it gone even better than I’ve thought? Yeah. Probably.”
Because Santos’ story started just like everyone else’s, with a career on life support. And it was saved, baseball enrapturing him once again, giving him the chance so few get: to write his own ending.