“The best pitcher in baseball,” according to Sports Illustrated’s May 4 cover story, is Kansas City’s Zack Greinke, who is 6-0 and leading the major leagues with a 0.40 ERA.
SI is wrong. They might have changed their minds had they been at the game last night, where Johan Santana threw seven shutout innings, allowed two hits and struck out 10 against the world champion Phillies to extend his record to 4-1 and a National League-leading ERA of 0.91.
Greinke is a fine pitcher, who is currently performing way over his head. With luck, he will be touted at the end of the season as a candidate for the American League’s Cy Young Award. Santana is on the verge of nailing down a plaque at the Hall of Fame.
If Johan had been luckier last season, everyone would already understand that he’s headed for Cooperstown, or at least if he’d been lucky enough to have J. J. Putz as his set-up man and Francisco Rodriguez as his closer. Thanks to those two, the Mets are currently leading the National League in bullpen ERA at 2.94; K-Rod, as we go to press, has an ERA of 1.42 with eight saves.
Santana has already led his league in earned run average three times in nine previous seasons (2004 and 2006 with Minnesota and 2008 with the Mets) and won two Cy Young awards. Last season the Mets’ bullpen cost Santana a third Cy Young Award—that’s my opinion, anyway. Seven times he left the mound with a lead only to have the relievers blow it. He wound up third in the Cy Young voting behind San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum and Arizona’s Brandon Webb. How much did those blown saves hurt Johan? Let’s compare the NL’s three best pitchers last season:
W-L ERA Starts IP Hits SO-BB
Lincecum 18-5 2.62 33 227 182 265-84
Webb 22-7 3.30 34 226.2 206 183-65
Santana 16-7 2.53 34 234.1 206 206-63
Santana and Lincecum were neck-and-neck in just about every statistic; Lincecum gets the edge in win-loss percentage and gave up 24 fewer hits, while Santana had a slightly lower ERA, pitched a few more innings, and had a lower strikeouts-to-walks ratio. You can make a good argument for either man’s credentials. But note that Webb, who did not have a better season than Santana, finished second in the voting to Johan’s third. That’s because he was 22-7 to Santana’s 16-7, which is, unfortunately, the first thing that Cy Young voters look at.
If Mets relievers had held on to the lead those seven times Santana presented them with it—or, let’s say it a different way: If the Mets had had K-Rod as a closer last year and he held on to all seven leads (he’s 8 out of 8 this year)—then Santana would have been 23-7 and finished ahead of Lincecum in the voting just as Webb finished ahead of Santana.
And if that had happened, Johan Santana would currently be regarded, correctly, as someone who is on the fast track for the HOF, as nobody with three Cy Youngs has ever been left out of Cooperstown. Blown saves or no in 2008, Santana won’t be left out, either. Look for him to nail it down once and for all down this year’s pennant stretch.
That’s if the Mets have a pennant stretch. As of Wednesday morning, the Mets were 13-13; Santana had won three of four decisions while the rest of the Mets staff was a combined 9-12. Unlike last year, when the bullpen collapsed, the team’s problem this year is that the starters behind Santana can’t hold the lead long enough to hand it to the relievers. Right now, the Mets are looking like a ship that plugs a leak only to see a bigger one spring open somewhere else.
When the Mets made Santana the richest pitcher in baseball with a $137.5 million, six-year contract—the Yankees, of course, topped that with C.C. Sabathia’s seven-year, $161 million deal—it was to “Erase the disgrace,” as one homemade sign seen at Shea last year implored. That it didn’t work out that way was hardly Santana’s fault. Now, after the 2008 ending, he’s got two disgraces to help erase.
At a press conference shortly after he arrived in Port St. Lucie in the spring of 2008, he told reporters, “I’m not going to go out there and try to be a hero. I’m just going to be myself, and, hopefully, with my help we can make everyone forget what happened last year.” But that “with my help” stuff isn’t enough, and no one knows it better than Santana. If the Mets win the pennant, he—not David Wright or Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran—will have been the biggest reason.
Two years ago Jeff Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune told me, “Johan didn’t just go to New York for the money. At this point in his career, he’d have chosen New York over Minnesota even if the Twins had found a way to match the money.” What did he want? “He wants more run support,” said Souhan. “He wants to build his credentials for the Hall of Fame, and he wants to perform in front of a large Latin community. He wants the national spotlight.”
He’s entitled, of course, to all those things. And if the rest of the Mets rotation can pull itself together, he’ll get them. And in return, Santana will give the Mets a very good shot at erasing those disgraces.