GIF Breakdown: Understanding Ervin Santana’s Hot Start To 2017

Looking at ESPN’s player rater for starting pitchers reveals a shocking name: Ervin Santana. At the time of this writing, he’s sitting well above Clayton Kershaw for the #1 spot,...

Looking at ESPN’s player rater for starting pitchers reveals a shocking name: Ervin Santana. At the time of this writing, he’s sitting well above Clayton Kershaw for the #1 spot, boasting a 0.77 ERA and 0.66 WHIP through his first five starts of the season. After a career of being known as good-but-not-great, it’s shocking to see Santana seemingly peak in his 13th season on the hill and I wanted to dive into what he was doing to make it work. Santana gave us yet another superb outing on Tuesday night when he faced the Texas Rangers and I sat down to dissect how he did it. Here’s the GIF Breakdown of that start featuring 18 HD GIFs.

To start all GIF Breakdowns, we look at the pitcher’s strikezone plot:

It’s a very interesting plot. Santana loves throwing his heater high-and-tight to left-handers and we’ll bring it up often. He also has a good skill of keeping his Slider over the the lower third of the plate when he wants to, as well as burying it in the dirt on command. The Biggest wild card was his Changeup, which worked well at some points and other times had a mind of its own.

This year, I’m going to be doing my breakdowns a little differently. Instead of focusing on a starter’s arsenal pitch-by-pitch, I’m going work through the game at hand, showing how they work through batters and traveling through the innings. Let’s get to it.

First inning – 15 Pitches, 12 Strikes, 1 Hit, 0 Runs

Right from the beginning, we see Santana’s plan of attack for the night: Nail the high-and-inside corner to left-handed batters. The plan got him to 1-2 before allowing a heater to tail back to the middle of the plate. In the following GIF to Shin-Soo Choo notice the location of the previous pitches – all Fastballs – before Choo is able to sneak the ball into right-field for a single:

Get used to this because one common theme through the evening was Ranger batters failing to get lift on Santana’s heater, hitting plenty of groundballs on pitches that found the middle of the plate. Whether we can call this luck for Santana or an attribute of ability is another question, but it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow during the course of this outing and carry some belief that he’ll get punished in future outings.

Carlos Gomez stepped up to the plate next and was quickly met with Santana’s best pitch, his Slider. Great movement here and Santana leaned heavily on his breaking ball against right-handers, using them to start at-bats and as he prefered putaway pitch in deep counts:

We’re going to talk about this a lot, but for now, let’s move on after Gomez tried to bunt for a hit and was barely thrown out via a great play by Miguel Sano.

As with Choo, Santana stuck with his gameplan against Nomar Mazara nailing a pair of Fastballs high-and-tight to get to 0-2:

Santana really did a great job of preventing batters from getting their arms extended on his pitches. Mazara is clearly struggling to assess if these pitches were strikes and the best he could do was foul it off weakly down the right-field line.

Before the at-bat ended, Choo made a poor decision on the basepaths leading to a easy caught-stealing for the Twins and emptying the bases. With two outs now, Santana induced this groundout on a 3-2 heater located in a spot that you’d think would render a different result:

Santana had a bit of luck go his way this game – three total baserunning blunders and a good amount of mistake pitchers that went unpunished – and I wouldn’t call this a good first inning despite facing the minimum batters.

Second Inning – 11 Pitches, 7 Strikes, 0 Hits, 0 Runs

Santana impressed me to start the second inning. Sure, he missed with his first two pitches to Mike Napoligetting behind 2-0 quickly, but he came back and earned a pop-up with a nice 2-0 Slider followed by a great heater inside that badly jammed Napoli:

With left-handers, Santana mixes both his Changeup and Slider, though the former needs a bit more polish. Against the second batter of the inning, Santana threw a total of three Changeups to Rougned Odor. The first two were pretty atrocious – the first falling well outside the zone followed by a mistake down the middle at 2-0 that Odor lined just foul. The third, however, wasn’t where Santana wanted it, but it was perfect as it started in the zone and fell out in a hurry to induce a whiff and strikeout of the Rangers’ second basemen:

Next up was Elvis Andrus who was met with a Fastball right down the middle of the plate that he was prepared for…and chopped to third base for an easy putout. It’s a bit of a head scratcher as not only was it poorly located but Andrus looked ready to attack it before it left Santana’s hand. I have to attribute a bit of luck here for Santana and it adds to the thought that Santana won’t get the same results on other evenings:

Third Inning – 17 Pitches, 10 Strikes, 1 Hit, 0 Runs

The best at-bat of the entire game would be against Joey Gallo to lead off the game. Despite missing for the first two pitches, Santana kept with his gameplan, firing heater-after-heater up-and-in, adding in a Slider as well to earn his second strike. Then when finally ahead, he changed eye-level completely, burying a Slider in the dirt where Gallo wasn’t ready to properly assess the pitch given the new location. It’s a very interesting sequence as even going down 2-0 helped Santana in a way – having four pitches thrown in the same location makes the Slider that followed even more effective. As long as he can get the two strikes after, that third one is a near guarantee:

Funny enough, just after discussing how it’s not the worst thing ever to get down 2-0 to a batter, Jonathon Lucroy made Santana pay for a poorly placed 2-0 Fastball down the middle of the plate and laced it to center field. It really comes down to being able to not make those mistakes and continue nibbling as opposed to giving in to what the batter is looking for.

Just like with Napoli from before, Santana featured a good Slider down-and-away against a right-hander to get his first strike following it with a 1-1 Fastball under the hands for an out. If he can do this all the time, it should work, though that of course hinges on consistent command and having another option when they see it again next time through the lineup:

Santana stuck to the normal approach with Choo next, including a check-swing foul on a well spotted Fastball high-and-tight (I’ve used that phrase often for good reason). However, he struggled to put him away and turned to his Changeup to get the final out. While it technically worked, Choo smoked the pitch and its location deserved the hard contact. There’s a definite weakness here and I don’t expect it to go so smoothly in the future:

Fourth Inning – 18 Pitches, 10 Strikes, 0 Hits, 1 Walk, 0 Runs

The inning started with a quick 3-0 count to Carlos Gomez on outside pitches that Santana couldn’t nail the edge with – pitches that he’s been getting swings on against left-handers but not with right-handers. He climbed back 3-2 but followed with a Slider that floated well up and out of the zone for an easy take and a walk.

After Mazara fouled off a pair of heaters that he would love to have back – slightly elevated in the middle of the zone – Carlos Gomez tried to steal second base with a ball in the dirt and got thrown out making it the second time the Rangers ran themselves into an out. More great luck for Santana.

Back to Mazara. Now a 2-2 count following two poorly executed Sliders in the dirt, Santana turned to the Changeup, missing his spot outside, but still down and deceptive enough to induce a whiff from the struggling Mazara. It was a near carbon-copy of the pitch we saw against Odor earlier, miss-and-all:

With two outs, Santana got ahead of Mike Napoli quickly with a good Slider and high heater, but struggled to put him away. Finally a 2-2 Changeup did the deed via a groundball, though its location in the middle of the zone with lackluster movement screams mistake and Santana got away with another one:

Fifth Inning – 16 Pitches, 11 Strikes, 1 Hit, 1 Run

In the fifth, it looked like Santana wanted to change his approach a little bit, a wise move given he’s deep into the second turn of the lineup at this point. The first two pitches against the left-handed Odor here were supposed to be outsideand aimed for the away Fastball again at 2-1. Eventually, this 3-2 Fastball missed its spot and landed in the wheelhouse for Odor, but he rolled over it for an out. As you watch this GIF, check out the spray of pitches from this at-bat (all Fastballs). There were supposed to be four Fastballs away and two high-and-tight and clearly Santana is losing a step.

Santana picked it up in this at-bat with Andrus, sticking once again to the Slider for a strike + Fastball inside mentality that he loves so much against right-handers. After Andrus worked the count deep, Santana executed his best Changeup of the night – down in the zone and looking like a meatball Fastball out of the hand:

It’s a great pitch, just unfortunately not one that I believe Santana can execute at will. It worked here – he reluctantly used it after already throwing five pitches in the at-bat – but I think he himself understands that it’s close to a coin-flip if it’s going to come out well.

Another concerning area with Santana is about his overall stuff. While his arsenal isn’t bad in any way, it’s also not so overpowering that when his command isn’t spot on, he can be taken advantage of. Take for example this pitch to Joey Gallo that the slugger sent to the right-field seats:

It’s not necessarily a bad pitch – it wasn’t middle-middle and hit the inside corner – but heading inside against a lefty and not getting it elevated is a tough game to play against power lefties and Santana paid the price. Can’t really fault Santana too much for this, but it does emphasize the importance of jamming left-handers both up-and-in with his heater.

He rebounded against Jonathon Lucroy with – you guessed it – an 0-0 Slider for a strike followed by a Fastball in that jammed him for a quick out. There really is a system here for Santana that has been working.

Sixth Inning – 16 Pitches, 10 Strikes, 1 Hit, 0 Runs

Rua got the message Santana has been sending – first pitch Sliders to right-handers – and started the inning with a smoked line drive down the left-field line on the first pitch. But again, fortunate favored Santana as Rua was thrown out by a mile heading to second as the ball caromed right back to the left-fielder for an easy strike to second. The luck continues.

Nothing new with Choo, outside of a poorly thrown CH right in the middle of the zone that Choo didn’t capitalize on and connected for a weak foul ball. Otherwise it was your standard at-bat, albeit ending with a walk as Santana just missed the lower part of the zone with a 3-2 Fastball.

Slider away for strike one, Fastball in for strike two against Carlos GomezShocking. An overthrown Slider in the dirt put the free swinger away, but it’s nothing to write home about.

The final pitch of the sixth was one of the more interesting pitches of the game. Nomar Mazara had a nice 2-1 count and was expecting your standard high-and-tight heater from Santana. He got it, gave a mighty swing despite being well off the plate inside, and sent the ball for a ride:

Some might see that as fortunate, after all it was almost a HR. I see that as a shock this wasn’t a 3-1 count risking walking another batter making it a jam in the sixth and possibly getting pulled a batter later as his pitch count sits in the mid 90s. Instead, he gets out of the sixth and sees the seventh. That’s just how 2017 has been going for Santana.

Seventh Inning – 9 Pitches, 7 Strikes, 0 Hits, 0 Runs

Santana was able to sneak a first pitch Fastball for a strike to Napoli as the slugger expected a Slider, but on the 1-1 pitch Santana threw a terrible heater right down the middle and Napoli lined it…right to Miguel Sano. Talk about being in favor of the Baseball Gods:

Next up was a strikeout to Rougned Odor that doesn’t deserve your attention. Odor went chasing a heater up and out of the zone on a clear mistake pitch from Santana. So it goes.

The final batter of Santana’s start was Elvis Andruswho took a first pitch Slider for a strike (the man is clockwork) then popped up the next one when Santana doubled down on the pitch:

Final line – 7.0 IP, 1 ER, 4 Hits, 2 BBs, 6 Ks. 64-102 strikes, 17/24 First Pitch Strikes

I have mixed feelings about this outing from Ervin SantanaOn one hand, he displayed what we want to see from a finesse pitcher: a gameplan against both left-handers and right-handers that was consistent and effective. He didn’t miss his locations too often with his Fastballs and when he did, it was more often inside and off the plate that allowed for foul balls or easy outs. On the other hand, Santana’s stuff isn’t overpowering enough to make me believe he can get away with the mistakes he made tonight on a consistent basis. His Changeup is polarizing and got a few strikeouts on poor executions, while his Slider was used more to get ahead in counts that act as a major weapon. Santana’s success truly comes down to the command of his heater on a given night and if his game plan is adapted to during the game. Santana’s approach through this game doesn’t scream elite finesse pitcher like his current stats indicate, but an above-average pitcher with enough to eat through innings when the game is going his way. He doesn’t have the deep repertoire to be able to change up his approach (jam Fastballs inside to left-handers with ocassional Changeups + dealing with right-handers via a Slider for a strike followed by Fastballs under the hands) when batters are either more patient or anticipate his pitch sequencing.

All-in-all I think what we have is a pitcher who can be productive through the year, though there will be plenty of bumps in the road ahead when he gets figured out and doesn’t have the depth nor overpowering weapons to escape tough situations. This isn’t something brand new that Santana is bringing to the table and it will be very interesting to see if Santana hits the wall this season or if he can continue to coast by with the arsenal he’s had for a near decade in the majors.

Nick Pollack

Founder of Pitcher List. Creator of CSW, The List, and SP Roundup. Worked with MSG, FanGraphs, CBS Sports, and Washington Post. Former college pitcher, travel coach, pitching coach, and Brandeis alum. Wants every pitcher to be dope.

One response to “GIF Breakdown: Understanding Ervin Santana’s Hot Start To 2017”

  1. FENAM says:

    Hey Nick, thanks for the article! Great read.

    I do think you are discounting the change a little too much. He’s throwing it 5% more than last season. Has a .409 OPS with it this season. No dingers. 58.8% GB. 10.9% SwTr% (is that good?). He’s throwing it harder than ever by about 1 MPH more than his career velocity. His pitching coach is Neil Allen. Changeup lover, Neil Allen.

    If when he’s missing, it’s down out of the zone — isn’t that idea and technically executing the pitch?

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