Ervin Santana: the No. 1 pitcher with the 5.16 ERA

Leon Halip

The Kansas City Royals needed to improve their pitching rotation this winter. But does trading for the Angels' Ervin Santana help?

"Coming into this offseason, our vision is very clear," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "We want to do everything we can possible to upgrade our starting rotation and Ervin Santana clearly does that."

This season, Royals' starting pitchers ranked 26th in the major leagues with a 5.01 ERA.

It's impossible to argue that 5.01 isn't a problem.

It's possible to argue that trading for a pitcher with a 5.16 ERA last season won't fix that problem.

Ervin Santana started 30 games for the Angels, and posted a 5.16 ERA. In 2012, 36 pitchers threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA crown. If Santana had been with the Royals, their top starters would have ranked 32nd (Bruce Chen), 33rd (Santana) and 35th (Luke Hochevar) among those 36. So based purely on ERA, it's not at all clear that Santana clearly upgrades the Royals' starting rotation.

About that 5.16 ERA, though ... perhaps there were extenuating circumstances?

"We wanted to get guys who have the mind-set of a No. 1 starter and the ability to pitch innings," Moore said. "Ervin certainly has that."

While Santana struggled last season, finishing 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA and a major-league-worst 39 home runs allowed, he turned things around after a rough start. On July 21, he was 4-10 with a 6.00 ERA, but over the next 10 starts, Santana was 5-2 with a 3.92 ERA as the Angels made a playoff push.

"I didn't have any physical problems (last season)," Santana said in a conference call. "Everything was good. I just had bad luck. I was pitching good, and then I didn't have any opportunity to win a lot of games."

The "mind-set of a No. 1 starter and the ability to pitch innings" sounds like ... well, I suppose gobbledygook would be a kind description. The former is psychobabble, and the latter means that he's usually healthy enough to pitch six innings every five days, and there's some value in that but Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar and Jeremy Guthrie also have the ability to pitch innings and nobody's paying them $13 million next year.

Basically, Dayton Moore's full of it. Here's what Moore said , almost exactly a year ago, after trading Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez:

We felt like we needed to move forward before this deal vanished. Because it does improve our rotation, and gives us a lot of opportunity to add a lot of power. Certainly, Jonathan Sanchez has proven that he's one of the top strikeout pitchers in the game, and he's still young. He still has youth on his side, and we feel like he'll continue to get better.

When you look at this guy's strikeout rates, his swing-and-miss ability, it's amongst the very best in the game. And that's something for us to build on, and we're excited to make him a part of our rotation. You know, he's a very dynamic left-hand pitcher. His hit rates are very low, his strikeout rates are obviously very high. Walks are, you know, something that we're not over-excited about, but at the same time he improves our rotation. He's very young, and somebody that our scouts feel is a breakout candidate, you know, moving forward into 2012.

Dayton Moore's extensive track record, going back some years now, suggests that he has no clue when it comes to improving the rotation. In his six full seasons as general manager, the Royals' starting pitchers have ranked 11th, 10th, 10th, 14th, 13th, and 11th in the American League in ERA. In all those years, there were 14 teams in the league.

So, yeah. When Dayton Moore says he's improved the rotation, hide the children and pass the ammunition.

I will say this: When Moore was looking around the majors last summer for a pitcher to replace Sanchez, and actually convinced the Rockies to take Sanchez for Jeremy Guthrie, he scored big. Granted, the Rockies might have been the only team willing to take Sanchez. But credit where it's due.

Let's go back to something Santana said ... "I didn't have any physical problems (last season) ... Everything was good. I just had bad luck."

I don't know about Santana's mind-set (and neither does Dayton Moore). But Santana hasn't pitched like a No. 1 starter since 2008, when he went 16-7 and picked up some Cy Young support. That season, he routinely threw 94 miles an hour.

He hasn't done that since. But last season was consistent with 2009-2011 in a number of ways. He threw the same pitches with roughly the same frequency, at roughly the same speeds. His strikeout and walk rates have been stable for four seasons running. So was his 5.16 ERA last season all about bad luck, as he suggests?

Obviously, the big problem was those 39 home runs. And yes, that was unlucky. Santana didn't give up more fly balls than usual. But where he'd historically given up home runs on roughly 10 percent of his fly balls, last season the percentage nearly doubled. That's just a fluke, and won't be repeated.

Oddly, though, Santana was lucky in another area: batting average on balls in play. He entered last season with a career .292 BABiP allowed, which is a perfectly normal figure. But in 2012 it was just .242, the second lowest in the majors.

So Santana was both terribly unlucky, and brilliantly lucky.

But the bad luck probably outweighed the good luck, and so that 5.16 ERA is probably not a fair representation of Santana's skills at this point. The 2008 version of Ervin Santana is almost certainly gone for good. He's a decent bet for 30-odd starts and a 4.50 ERA.

Which might actually mean that everyone's literally correct: Ervin Santana might actually be the Royals' best (No. 1!) starter. Is this No. 1 starter worth the $12 million the Royals are going to pay him? When your No. 1 starter has a 4.50 ERA, are you good enough to win 88-92 games?

The real problem isn't that Ervin Santana is a terrible pitcher, because he's not. The real problem is that it's foolish to spend $12 million for one year of a pitcher who won't still be around when the rest of your team is talented enough to actually contend for the playoffs. And so once more, I'm reminded of Gil Meche...

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