One of the best players and success stories to ever come out of the Rule 5 draft, Johan Santana, was up for the Hall of Fame for the first—and only—time in 2018 after 12 seasons in Major League Baseball.
Beginning his career in 2000, Santana jumped between the Twins’ starting rotation and bullpen for portions of his first three seasons before transitioning to a full-time, dominant starting pitcher for the Twins and Mets over the next 10 years. His final season was in 2012, which meant that he was Hall of Fame eligible starting in 2018. That initial ballot year, of the 422 ballots cast, he only received 10 (TEN!) votes for the Hall of Fame. This meant that he was well short of the 5% needed to stay on the ballot in future years, and his candidacy for the Hall of Fame came to an end.
Not Prominent, but Dominant
It may be easy to forget how great he was because he played largely for the Twins and only a few seasons for New York. Not the New York team known for Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, or Costanza, but the New York team that has won two World Series titles ever and none since 1986. As easy as it might be to forget, Johan was the most dominant starting pitcher in all of baseball for the better part of a decade. He didn’t start pitching largely as a starter until 2003, and until he missed the 2011 season due to injury, he owned MLB hitters.
For fun, let’s do a blind comparison of averaged seasons for that 2003-2010 stretch:
Which pitcher would you rather have, A or B? Was it close? Did you have to think about it? Even a little? Because if you did, Santana should be in the Hall of Fame or, at the very least, a strong candidate.
Player B is Johan Santana. Player A is the Cy Young Award winner for each season from 2003-2010 in the league that Santana pitched (AL or NL), with the exception of 2004 and 2006 when Santana won the AL Cy Young. For those seasons, I chose the runner-up.
Those weren’t just eight random pitchers he was compared to either. That list was comprised of two of the three best seasons in the career of Hall of Famer Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum’s two amazing seasons, prime Bartolo Colon, prime CC Sabathia, Curt Schilling’s bloody sock season, and the definitive Chien-Ming Wang season. Okay, maybe the Wang season was a random pitcher, but the rest are either Hall of Fame pitchers or names that are part of that conversation who were pitching at their best.
Santana won the AL Cy Young Award in 2004 and 2006. No pitcher has ever won the award three times in a row in the American League, but he should have been the first. In 2005 Santana was voted third behind Mariano Rivera and Bartolo Colon. Here are Colon and Santana’s lines for that season:
*Lead the league
Would being the only pitcher in the history of the American League to have won three-consecutive Cy Young awards have changed peoples’ minds? Probably some, but maybe not everyone. Would playing for a team like the Yankees have changed his perception in other writers’ minds? Almost certainly.
12 Rounds Can Go the Distance
Arguably the biggest knock against Santana’s case for the Hall of Fame is that he only played 12 MLB seasons before injuries ended his career. He was only 33-years-old when he pitched his final season for the New York Mets. A season that in his 11th start saw him throw the only no-hitter in Mets history. In that game, he threw a controversial 134 pitches 11 starts after coming back from a complete missed 2011 season due to injury, and lowered his ERA to 2.38 on the season with a WHIP of 1.03. For the rest of the season after that 134 pitch outing, he would make 10 more starts with each start seemingly worse than the one before it. His ERA of 8.27 and WHIP of 1.76 for that final 10-start stretch would be the final of his career and ruin what could have been another possible Cy Young season.
The length of a player’s tenure in MLB plays a huge role in the National Baseball Hall of Fame voting. Of the players that are eligible for the Hall this season who aren’t on the ballot for the first time, the shortest MLB tenure is Billy Wagner at 16 seasons, so Santana’s 12 seasons surely stick out like a sore thumb. There are Hall of Fame pitchers who pitched less than 12 seasons, but most of those are from the early 1900s. More recent examples of pitchers in Santana’s range are Sandy Koufax and Bruce Sutter, each with 12 MLB seasons, so there is precedence for pitchers with only 12 big league seasons under their belt.
It’s hard to compare Santana to Koufax or Sutter due to Santana and Koufax being in different eras and Sutter being a relief pitcher. However, I think it’s worthwhile to look at, and while Koufax is a no-doubt legend, not all of his stats run away from Santana’s as one might expect over their respective 12-year careers.
Even with the limited length of Santana’s career he still compiled four seasons with a WAR of at least 7.1 according to Baseball-Reference. Since 1900, only 12 pitchers have more than four career seasons with a WAR of at least 7.1 for their entire career, and that list drops to 6 players since 1950.
|Player||7.1 WAR Seasons||Total Seasons Played||HoF Status|
|Randy Johnson||7||22||Hall of Famer|
|Greg Maddux||5||23||Hall of Famer|
|Pedro Martinez||5||18||Hall of Famer|
|Robin Roberts||5||19||Hall of Famer|
|Tom Seaver||5||20||Hall of Famer|
|Johan Santana||4||12||Got 2.4% of HoF Vote|
|Fergie Jenkins||4||19||Hall of Famer|
|Gaylord Perry||4||22||Hall of Famer|
|Juan Marichal||4||16||Hall of Famer|
|Justin Verlander||4||16||Active Player|
|Phil Niekro||4||24||Hall of Famer|
|Roy Halladay||4||16||Hall of Famer|
|Sandy Koufax||4||12||Hall of Famer|
There is no denying the company that Santana has on that list. The only pitchers to have at least four seasons with a WAR of 7.1 or greater and not make the Hall of Fame are Justin Verlander, who is still playing, and Roger Clemens, who is only held out of the Hall due to steroid use. Santana and Sandy Koufax are also the only players who played fewer than 16 seasons to accomplish that feat. So, would four average to below-average seasons have guaranteed him a place in the Hall of Fame? Would those four additional seasons that actually hurt his career statistics get him more than 2.4% of the vote? Sadly, I am certain that it would.
Santana’s regular-season career plays out similarly to Pedro Martinez. Each played three seasons before they became fixtures in a starting rotation. Throwing out his eight-inning cup of coffee in 1992, Martinez pitched 17 seasons. In his final four seasons, he had a combined WAR of 1.9 over 313.2 innings-pitched. Had Martinez not pitched for the Mets or Phillies would anyone think less of his 12-year career? Heck no. He’d still be a guaranteed Hall of Famer.
Now, there are multiple issues with this argument when compared to Santana. Pedro was even more dominant than Santana, maybe more than anyone ever. He also had great playoff success. Through no fault of his own, Santana was never able to go deep into the playoffs and get the chance to have the success that Pedro did. In fact, he only got to start five playoff games in his career and never made it back to the playoffs after the Twins got swept in 2006 (a series that Santana pitched 12 innings and allowed only one run). His biggest playoff accomplishment is that he is currently the last Twins pitcher to win a playoff game.
However, Johan Santana was THE starting pitcher of the 2000s. He helped lead the Twins from a decade in the cellar to four division titles in five years. He was a four-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young Award winner. He threw the only no-hitter in Mets history. In his career, he led the league in ERA (3x), WHIP (4x), strikeouts (3x), innings (3x), and K/9 (4x). Most importantly, Bert Blyleven once bet Santana that Blyleven would shave his head if Santana could throw a complete game shutout that night vs the 2007 New York Mets and Santana delivered—his only shutout of the season. He had an amazing, if not underappreciated career.
While I personally believe Santana is a Hall of Fame pitcher, it does not bother me so much that he will not be in the Hall because I can see and understand that argument. What does get me is how a man can put up borderline-historic numbers and only get half the insignificant amount of vote needed to even stay on the Hall of Fame ballot for more than one season.
Going forward, I would like to see the committee take a look at the body of work and implement a batting title line of thinking. If Santana were to pitch for four more average or even below-average seasons, would he suddenly become a much more eligible player in the eyes of the voters because he pitched for 16 MLB seasons instead of 12? He made his 12 seasons count. It’s one thing to not vote him in, but to not even come close to making the cut—to stay on the ballot after one year of voting and only receive 10 out of 422 votes—feels too dismissive to me for the career he had.
(Photo by eviltomthai Wikimedia Commons/flickr) | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)