Johan Santana: The King of Minnesota
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Back in the mid 2000s, during the waning years of baseball’s controversial Steroid Era, you would be hard pressed to find a more exciting young pitcher than Minnesota Twins ace, Johan Santana. From 2004 to 2006, the southpaw dominated the Major Leagues thanks to his utilizing one of the best pitch repertoires of that time, which included his brilliant circle change and slider combination. He was one of those pitchers who could make even the best hitters look downright silly on any given night. During his reign on top, Santana would win 55 games, sport a phenomenal 23.5 bWAR, earn 2 Cy Young Awards, and complete the 35th Pitchers’ Triple Crown in baseball history.
Unfortunately, nowadays we hardly hear anything about the Twin City wizard, and that’s mostly due to him never reaching those same astronomical heights ever again, barring that one night in Queens of course.
It's almost as if all of us who witnessed Johan's brilliance either in-person or on SportsCenter every morning were all suffering some sort of collective mirage. Think about this for a second, could you name another 2-time Cy Young winner that is as forgotten or ignored, except for maybe Tim Lincecum? Sure, there have been scores, maybe hundreds, of fantastic throwers to have taken a backseat to history, but to me at least, there was something so dynamic and special about the Venezuelan that I've always remembered.
The last time I remember seeing Santana’s name in the news was back in 2018 when the Twins rightfully inducted him into their team’s Hall of Fame. It was in August of that year, and only a few months after he had failed to receive enough votes to earn a plaque inside Major League Baseball’s own fabled Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. To make matters worse, he didn’t even get enough votes to make it to the next year’s ballot and was dropped.
To put into perspective just how bad his showing on the ballot was in 2018, of all the retired pitchers to have won multiple CY Young Awards, only four are not enshrined in Cooperstown as of April 2020, and only one other player, Bret Saberhagen, got kicked off after only one ballot.
But with all due respect to Mr. Saberhagen, he couldn't hold a candle to what the Twins legend was able to do during such a short period of time. And while I'm not trying to argue that a player having 3 spectacular seasons in a row is necessarily good enough for a spot in Cooperstown, we should at least take a moment or 2 to appreciate just how special Johan Santana truly was.
But before we get into all of that, I think it's important to first explain why I'm only going to look at his career from 2004 to 2006, because it does bear an explanation. The first is that I want to set some boundaries for myself. I could conceivably go into detail about his 2003 season when he finished the year by going on a dominant 8-game win streak, but as we'll soon figure out, this turned out to be only an appetizer to what would come later. I could also highlight his next few years after 2006 when he almost won 2 more Cy Young Awards, including 1 with the Mets. But I would rather highlight Johan when he was at the peak of his powers as I remember it. No offense to Mets fans.
The second reason is because doing this exercise also gives me the perfect opportunity to introduce the uninitiated to what was my favorite time to be a baseball fan, the mid-2000s. Forgetting for a moment that I was a young teenager when all this was happening so of course I would have a blind nostalgia to the past, there was something so memorable about this short era. I think the biggest thing that makes this time so unforgettable simply goes down to the staggering star power that graced our television screens every night. Just off the top of my head we had Derek Jeter, Ichiro, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero Sr., Omar Vizquel, Todd Helton, David Wright, "Large and In Charge" Bartolo Colon, and so many more that I could list.
This era was also ripe with guys who had career peaks that were even shorter than Santana. There were so many people who joined the league, dominated for a season or two, and then faded away into obscurity. Guys like Dontrelle Willis, Wily Mo Peña, Mark Prior, Carlos Quentin, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and of course, Rick Ankiel all fit this description. Maybe someday I'll highlight one of these guys.
Easily one of the most fun teams to watch during this time had to be the Minnesota Twins. It may be easy to forget because they never won anything of any importance, but this team was filled to the brim with impressive players. They had the best hitting catcher of his generation in Joe Mauer, an MVP winner in Justin Morneau, the most exciting defensive center fielder of my lifetime in Torii Hunter, and one of the most underrated closers in Joe Nathan. They also had some interesting side pieces like Michael Cuddyer, Shannon Stewart, Brad Radke, and a young Francisco Lariano. But I think it's fair to say that the real king of the Twin Cities was clearly their ace, Johan Santana. Up until the start of 2004, Santana had proven himself to be the club's premier starter, and fans from Minneapolis to Duluth were ready to see more.
Talking about Johan's 2004 season is actually really exciting for me as a stathead because you can easily pinpoint the exact moment he went from being a pretty average hurler who struggled to make much of a positive difference for his club to the most dominant starter in the entire league.
On July 11th, Santana had in all accounts an excellent final start before the All Star Break. He threw 8 strong innings, gave up only 2 runs on 2 hits, and struck out 11 against a Detroit Tigers team that didn't pack much firepower on offense. After his 8th inning, he was replaced and was to forced to sit in the dugout as his team failed to put any runs on the board. The Twins would lose 2-0 and Johan would see his record drop to 7-6. By the midseason break, he sported a pretty good 3.78 ERA, an opponent OPS of around .660, and a BAbip, which is a metric used to show how effective a defense is in getting outs, of .273.
What happened next was simply miraculous. After the All Star Break, Johan wouldn't lose a single game for the rest of the year. Over 15 starts from July to September, Santana won 13 games, had a transcendent ERA of 1.21, had an opponent OPS of .443, and had a BAbip of .221. I'd like to think that as the game's best were hanging out in Toronto for the All Star Game, Johan was going through some sort of Rocky Balboa training sequence somewhere around Lake Minnetonka. Just look at those stat changes, he was simply a different guy.
Thanks to his incredible efforts during the last 3 months of the season, Johan Santana ended the 2004 campaign either leading the league or finishing in the Top 5 in many key pitching categories including Wins (T2nd), Win Percentage (3rd), ERA (3rd), Strikeouts per 9 innings (3rd), ERA Plus (1st), and Pitching bWAR (1st). But most importantly, he also ended the year in style by becoming the 18th player in MLB history to win the Cy Young Award unanimously. Other guys who had done this up to this point included some of the greatest pitchers in history like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson.
Santana became the third Twins pitcher to win the prestigious award, following in the footsteps of team legends Jim Perry and Frank Viola. And he did so in a year when the runner up, Curt Schilling, finished the season by winning the World Series with the Boston Red Sox. Heading into the 2005 season, many people wondered if the Minnesota Missile could continue his strong form and potentially challenge for another Cy Young.
If you look at Johan’s 2005 season on Baseball Reference, you may fall into the same trap that I did when I first took a look. When I was researching this story, I was initially unimpressed with his numbers. His ERA rose from a 2.61 to a 2.87. His number of strikeouts decreased from 265 to 238. And his win total fell from an even 20 to 16. But to fully understand just how good this season was, I needed to rely on some of the deeper statistics, because while we all grew up looking at wins, ERA, and strikeouts as key numbers, there are sometimes better ways to track success in baseball.
Let’s take ERA+, or Adjusted ERA+, for example. To quote Major League Baseball itself, “ERA+ takes a player’s ERA and normalizes it across the league. It accounts for external factors like ballparks and opponents. It then adjusts, so a score of 100 is league average, and 150 is 50 percent better than the league average.”
In 2004, for instance, Johan Santana’s ERA+ was an astonishing 182, which meant that during that season he was 82 percent better than the average pitcher.
While he wasn’t able to reach that lofty mark in 2005, he did end the year with a 155, which led the American League and was 3rd highest in the entire Major Leagues behind only Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, both of whom were on the Astros. By the way, even though he would turn 43 during the season, Roger Clemens sported a mind-blowing 1.87 ERA and a 226 ERA+. He must have had a well-balanced breakfast.
One statistic that Johan did lead the entire league in was Fielding Independent Pitching. FIP is a stat that measures all the events that can happen during an at-bat, excluding times that the ball ends up in play. So that means FIP focuses on if the batter strikes out, get unintentionally walked, gets hit by a pitch, or hits a home run. It’s essentially the opposite of BAbip except it’s not scored like a batting average.
In 2004, Johan finished the season leading the league with a 2.92, but in 2005, he actually improved on that mark and finished with a league best 2.80.
Unfortunately for us, even though he did have by all accounts another special season on the mound, most of these analytical statistics weren't used, or even known about, by most people. Again, the categories most writers and fans cared about at that time were Win Total, ERA, and Strikeouts. So when voting ended for the AL's Cy Young Award and the winner was unveiled, it hardly surprised anyone that the league's leader in Wins had won. And who won, you may ask? Well it happened to be the greatest man to ever step foot on a diamond, the legendary Bartolo Colon.
Now with all due respect to "Big Sexy", he probably didn't deserve this award. But for the sake of research and checking facts, let's just compare and contrast here for a moment using both normal and advanced stats. I'll also include Chris Carpenter, who won the NL Cy Young, and Roger Clemens, because his numbers were dumb.
Bartolo Colon (2005): 21-8, 3.48 ERA, 157 Ks, 122 ERA+, 3.75 FIP, 4.0 bWAR
Johan Santana (2005): 16-7, 2.87 ERA, 238 Ks, 155 ERA+, 2.80 FIP, 7.2 bWAR
Chris Carpenter (2005): 21-5, 2.83 ERA, 213 Ks, 150 ERA+, 2.90 FIP, 5.8 bWAR
Roger Clemens (2005): 13-8, 1.87 ERA, 185 Ks, 226 ERA+, 2.87 FIP, 7.8 bWAR
(BOLD means they won Cy Young Award)
Now while I don't want to anger the baseball gods, I need to be honest here. Both Johan Santana in the AL and Roger Clemens in the NL should have been awarded the CYA in 2005. No disrespect to either of the winners, but the stats tell the whole story here. Colon may have notched 21 victories and his team reached the ALCS, but Santana had a lower ERA and FIP, more strikeouts, and a higher ERA+ and bWAR. I'm sorry, Bartolo, please don't smite me, but the numbers never lie.
Let's end this trip down memory lane with a look at Santana's 2006 season, where he took the disappointment from not winning the Cy Young and did something truly special and impossible to ignore. This was the culmination of at least 2 and a half years of buildup.
To start things off, Johan's first half of the season was easily his best up to this point. As mentioned before, he largely struggled to make much of an impact in 2004, starting the season with a 7-6 record and a 3.76 ERA. He continued this trend in 2005 by holding a 7-5 record with a 3.98 ERA by the time the All Star Game was held. When the first half in 2006 had concluded, he had his highest win total and lowest ERA up until that point.
With that being said, Johan started the 2006 season in horrific fashion. He would lose 3 of his first 4 starts and didn't get his first win until start number 5 on April 27th against the hapless Kansas City Royals, a team that would lose 100 games that year. Before his appearance against the Royals, his strikeouts per 9 innings always drifted between the high 9s/low 10s, that mark had since cascaded down to around 7.3. His total strikeouts by then was a tiny 18, while his walk total was 9. He had also given up 27 hits over only 24 1/3 innings, including 3 home runs.
Luckily for Twins fans, it seemed that his 1st win finally woke him up because starting in May, he would post an 8-1 record over his next 12 starts. His ERA, which was a 4.45 after April collapsed to a 2.59 by the start of July. He would enter the All Star Break with a 9-5 record, a 2.95 ERA, 138 strikeouts, and his second invitation to the All Star Game.
After the midseason festivities, Santana went right back to work, just as he had in previous seasons. While his second half stat line wasn't as impressive compared to his 2004 run, it was still peerless to anyone else in the league. He would end up with a 10-1 record, a 2.54 ERA, 107 strikeouts, and a .262 BAbip.
He would dominate teams on a weekly basis. In fact, during one absolutely insane 3-game run in August and September, he would allow 1 run in 21 1/3 innings, strike out 34, and earn wins over Royals, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the soon to be American League champions, the Detroit Tigers.
And on his final start of the season, Santana played against the Royals yet again, the team that had kickstarted his phenomenal year in late April. He had played the Royals 3 other times between then and now and had absolutely dominated them. On this day, he pitched 8 innings, gave up only 2 runs on 7 hits, and struck out 5. He left the game after the 8th and watched his team score 1 more run to clinch a victory, his 19th of the season.
With that win, Santana was tied for the lead with Yankees' one-season wonder Chien-Ming Yang. Elsewhere on the stat sheet, he padded his league leads in ERA with a 2.77 and in strikeouts, with 245. With all that having stood by the final day of the season, he had captured something that only 23 other guys had been able to do in their own careers, that is to clinch a Pitcher's Triple Crown. He etched his name with some of the greatest to do ever do it like Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, and Cy Young himself. And it goes without saying that he also won the Cy Young Award by unanimous vote for the 2nd time.
Johan Santana would continue to have strong seasons for the next 2 years or so. In 2007, he finished 5th in the AL's Cy Young vote even though he finished the year not leading the league in any important categories except for home runs allowed. He did, however, get voted to his 3rd All Star team and won his only Gold Glove.
Before the 2008 season, he was traded by the Minnesota Twins for 4 players to the New York Mets. While he wouldn't get voted to the All Star Game that year, he did finish his first season in Queens leading the entire league in ERA for the second time in his career and struck out at least 200 hitters for the 5th consecutive time. He also earned his 100th career victory. He finished 3rd in the NL's Cy Young vote, only losing out to Diamondbacks flash-in-the-pan Brandon Webb and future blog post subject Tim Lincecum. In early October, he received surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Unfortunately, his health would continue to cause him more issues as the years kept passing. In August 2009, after having a solid year up until the point, he was shut down to have surgery to clear bone chips in his throwing elbow. He would then have to get another surgery to repair his left shoulder in September 2010 and was forced to sit out the entirety of the 2011 season.
He would return to the front page of the sports section one last time in 2012 when he famously completed the first ever no-hitter in Mets history. I vividly remember watching the final few innings of that game after I got a text from a friend telling me what was going on. Once he got his final out and his teammates were rushing him on the mound, I remember celebrating it like I was witnessing my own team win the World Series. Johan Santana was my favorite starting pitcher for a number of years, and it was genuinely moving to see him back on the top of the heap once again.
It's just too bad that he would pitch the final game of his career less than 3 months later.
In late July, Santana was once again placed on the Mets' 15-day DL after spraining his ankle. After returning in August, it didn't take but 2 weeks for him to be placed back on the DL after complaining about inflammation to his back. Johan was soon shut down, and we never saw him pitch again. It wasn't until he was placed into the Twins' Hall of Fame that most of us ever saw him again period. Sure he tried to come back, first with the Mets, then with the Orioles, and finally with the Blue Jays, but none of those destinations worked out because of rampant injury problems.
With all that being said, I choose to remember the Johan I tried to highlight in this overly long story. I choose to remember the guy who struck out hitters by the dozen. I choose to remember the guy who had the nicest circle change I've ever seen. And I choose to remember the guy who should've won 3 consecutive Cy Young Awards.
Here's hoping that one day the Veterans' Committee decides to maybe lower their lofty Hall of Fame expectations by just a little bit and they allow Johan Santana into Cooperstown. But if that never happens, that's okay, because when you're that good, it doesn't take much to be remembered by fans forever. I know I will.