Pulling the String: the Johan Santana Story – Romantic About Baseball
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Pulling the String: the Johan Santana Story

“Probably your best chance to hit him is if you’re Hank Aaron up there.” New York Yankee manager Joe Torre

Baseball Almanac

It seemed like a good deal at the time.

The year was 1999, and the Rule Five Draft was beginning. The Minnesota Twins sat atop the draft order, with the Florida Marlins at number two. They struck a deal to swap their first round picks: both young pitchers who showed promise but not many results. When the dust settled, the Marlins ended up with Jared Camp. The Twins ended up with Johan Santana.

The former would ultimately spend his career in the Minor Leagues, failing to post an ERA under five at anything above AA level. The latter would have one of the most fascinating careers in modern baseball history.

Johan Santana was originally discovered by the Astros as an outfielder, but eventually found his way onto the pitching mound after scouts noted his abnormally strong arm. Despite his love of diving for catches, he embraced his switch to the mound and found his way to the Twins via the aforementioned deal. He started his major league career as so many young talented pitchers do, with an electric gift and no idea what to do with it. His age 21 season with the Twins didn’t yield good results: he threw 86 innings to the tune of a 6.49 ERA, and walked nearly six batters per nine innings. After his required stint on the Major League roster was over (per the Rule Five draft regulations), he was sent to Triple-A Edmonton, where he worked with pitching coach Bobby Cuellar on developing his change up. When he returned to the Twins, things began to click for him, and he then posted one of the most successful runs in modern pitching history.

Santana had a bulldog-like competitiveness when he took the mound, often refusing to leave games when his pitching coach ambled out to the mound to retrieve him. He had the desire, skill, and results that seemed to prime him for a Hall of Fame career. The only element that couldn’t deliver was his body, as it failed him later in his career. Like the March winds, he roared in a majestic lion but exited a lamb, his roar dulling to a whimper with time. In order to understand his significance, let’s look at how great he was in his prime, and what did him in.

Just How Good Was He?

Really f*cking good. The resume between 2002 and 2010 is enough to bug the eyes of anyone who appreciates dominant pitching.

  • 1,779 IP
  • 1,785 strikeouts
  • 2.90 ERA
  • 150 ERA+
  • 8 shutouts
  • 2 Cy Young awards
  • 3 ERA titles

Hitters were simply lost at the plate when Johan took the mound. From 2004 through 2006 (when he won both his Cy Young awards) Santana racked up 748 strikeouts, issuing just 146 walks in the process, one intentionally. The common phrase for when a pitcher throws a changeup is that he’s “pulling the string.” Santana didn’t just pull it, he tied it in a knot and played it like a marionettist.

By shaping his hands into an OK sign on the ball (often called a circle change), Santana was able to create the twin deceptions of speed and movement. This fooled batters on a regular basis. He was not just the ace of the Twins staff; he was arguably one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Off the field, though, tension had begun to grow between Johan and the Twins front office. When negotiations on a new contract stymied, Santana requested that he be traded in the offseason. The Twins sent their ace to pitch for the New York Mets, and Santana promptly signed a contract worthy of his accomplishments: an eye-popping six year, 137 million dollar deal. All eyes were on the Mets’s newly acquired star, and he did not disappoint. He had another banner year, pitching 234 innings and striking out over 200 batters. He also won his third ERA title, but ultimately, he will be remembered in the Big Apple for one big game:

He did what Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, and Nolan Ryan never did. He threw the first no-hitter in Mets history, taking a Herculean 134 pitches to do so.

It would be his signature moment, like a conductor bringing the orchestra to a crescendo peak. On June 1, 2012, Johan triumphantly morphed into “No-Han.”

So What Happened?

Well, all crescendos must decay, and unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to his body. Santana was no stranger to injury, having missed the entire 2011 season after surgery on his dominant shoulder. He recovered from that, obviously, and continued to pitch effectively, but unfortunately he re-tore the same shoulder capsule and was again set to miss an entire season. The Mets elected to buy out his contract, and he took a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles the next season. He seemed primed for a comeback, but a torn Achilles tendon stopped those plans in their tracks. He continued to attempt to come back to the Majors but could never get past his own body’s perpetual breakdowns.

He was a star that shone bright but slowly imploded, betrayed by the very body that gave him his gift.

Looking back, it wasn’t obvious that this flashy young outfielder would turn into one of the most interesting pitchers of his time, especially if you were in the Florida Marlins front office.

So ya know, it seemed like a good deal at the time.

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