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Johan Santana’s Hall of Fame case

Santana hasn’t been getting many votes, but the argument could be made that he deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

St Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The BBWAA voting process for the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame induction has been underway for over a month now, and there’s a number of former Mets on this year’s ballot with interesting Hall of Fame cases. Gary Sheffield and Billy Wagner are on the ballot, and there’s an argument to be made for both of them to be voted in. Jason Isringhausen is on the ballot, too, but he’ll probably be lucky to recieve a vote. And while I could sit here and write a satiating article about Livan Hernandez all day long, the former Met on the ballot most worth discussing right now is Johan Santana.

This is Santana’s first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, having last appeared in the big leagues in 2012. Unfortunately, the former Mets ace hasn’t been getting much love from the voters so far. According to Ryan Thibodaux, who does a fantastic job tracking all public Hall of Fame ballots every year, Santana has only received two votes out of 118 public ballots submitted as of this writing, which is a measly 1.7%. Players need at least 75% of the vote in order to be inducted into Cooperstown and need to receive at least 5% in order to stay on the ballot for the next year. There’s a very good chance that Santana, one of the most iconic pitchers of his time, falls off the ballot in his first year. That would be a real shame.

To be fair, all voters have a 10-player limit, and it’s tough to argue that Santana is one of the ten most deserving players on this year’s ballot. But most would probably agree that he at least deserves more consideration than he’s receiving. Plus, a serious argument could be made that Santana does deserve to be in the Hall of Fame all-together.

While the case for his enshrinement has been made before, it bears repeating with the votes continuing to come in every day without Santana’s name checked off. The popular argument often made for Santana to be voted in is his very close comparison to Sandy Koufax, one of the all-time greats. And it’s a salient argument to make. Koufax only threw 299 more career innings (2324) than Santana did (2025), so both had comparable career lengths, meaning we can safely compare their rate stats with a good degree of reliability. And the rate stats are very, very close.

Santana and Koufax

Statistic Sandy Koufax Johan Santana
Statistic Sandy Koufax Johan Santana
K-BB% 16.60% 17.20%
ERA 2.76 3.2
WHIP 1.11 1.13
FIP 2.69 3.44
ERA- 75 74
FIP- 75 81
AVG. Against 0.202 0.225
bWAR 53.2 50.7

The argument could be made that if Koufax is a Hall of Famer, then Santana is too. But there is still a case to be made for Santana that goes beyond just Koufax. Santana’s career ERA- of 74 is equal to that of Cy Young, and is superior to a number of legends like Randy Johnson, Rube Waddell, Roy Halladay, and Tom Seaver, just to name a few. Of course, all of those pitchers played far longer than Santana did, so they had longer periods of decline which, in turn, hurt their rate stats. But that should still say enough about Santana’s peak, and just how good he was at the top of his game.

And let’s talk about that peak some more. Lots of Hall of Fame voters like to value a player’s peak and how they stood out from their peers more than what they did over their entire career. And, well, Santana stood out quite a bit from his peers. From 2002 through 2010, no pitcher in all of baseball was better at preventing runs than Santana was. His ERA of 2.89 over that time was the best for a starting pitcher in all of baseball over those nine years, and his ERA- of 67 over that time is also first, edging out Halladay’s ERA- of 68; Halladay is very likely to make the Hall of Fame himself. Santana’s strikeout rate was also the sixth-best among all starting pitchers over that stretch. And beyond just the numbers, Santana’s two Cy Young Awards, four All-Star appearances, and triple crown tell quite the story just by themselves. Simply put, he was the best pitcher in baseball for nearly an entire decade.

Voters also like to talk about how a player “defines” his era. And it’s hard to talk about baseball in the 2000-2010 decade without mentioning Santana’s name. His changeup made him famous, and might have been up there with Mariano Rivera’s cutter as the most effective pitch of that era. The two Cy Youngs made him a household name, even when pitching in the obscure market of Minnesota. He was a phenom in that city, and was a phenom in New York, too. He was a must-see wherever he was.

But you don’t just have to value peak performance to view Santana as a Hall-of-Famer, either. He may have made only 284 starts in his career, but his 50.7 career bWAR would rank above 10 pitchers in currently the Hall of Fame who made at least 284 starts in their careers as well. This includes names like Burleigh Grimes (497 starts), Lefty Gomez (320 starts), Bob Lemon (350 starts), and the recently-inducted Jack Morris (527 starts).

And let’s zoom in on Morris, because if he’s a Hall-of-Famer, then there’s no argument to be made that Santana isn’t as well. Morris fell off the BBWAA ballot himself, but was voted in by the Modern Era Committee earlier this month. Not only does he only have 43.8 bWAR himself, but there is not a single viable rate stat in which Morris is superior to Santana.

Santana and Morris

Statistic Jack Morris Johan Santana
Statistic Jack Morris Johan Santana
K/9 5.83 8.83
BB/9 3.27 2.52
K/BB% 1.78 3.51
ERA 3.9 3.2
WHIP 1.3 1.13
FIP 3.94 3.44
ERA- 95 74
FIP- 95 81
AVG. Against 0.243 0.225

It’s not like Morris was ever particularly outsanding either. His lowest career ERA- was 80, which he accomplished twice, in 1985 with the Tigers and 1991 with the Twins. Santana had nine seasons below an ERA- of 80, and only three seasons above that. So even when Morris was at his best, he couldn’t touch Santana. The difference, obviously, is that Morris did it for longer, but the fact that Santana has a higher bWAR than him means there’s an argument that Santana’s nine years of dominance were more valuable than Morris’s 17 years of mere quality.

Now, it’s hard to be naive to the fact that Morris was voted in mostly because of his big game heroics, namely his MVP performance in that incredible 1991 World Series, and particularly his that 10-inning shutout in Game 7. And while Santana was never fortunate enough to pitch in many big games himself, it’s not like he came up small in the big games he did pitch. In the 2004 ALDS, Santana tossed a total of 12 innings over two starts for Minnesota, and gave up only one earned run in the two games. Then in 2006, he pitched a gutsy eight innings in Game 1 of the ALDS, allowing two runs on five hits with eight punchouts, but took the loss as the Twins offense had a bad night.

But Mets fans will remember probably the clutchest performance of Santana’s career, which came in September 2008. It was one of the best pitching performances in franchise history, and one of the most vigorous displays of grit in recent memory. The Mets’ playoff hopes were on the line with three days left in the season, with the team one loss away from elimination. Santana, four days after throwing a career-high 125 pitches, and on just three days rest, demanded to take the ball with his team’s hopes in the balance. He got the short-rest start and delivered a 117-pitch, three-hit, complete-game shutout to save the Mets’ season.

And if that wasn’t enough, Santana again displayed his incredible toughness when he threw the first no-hitter in Mets history. Just three months into his return from anterior capsule surgery, Santana demanded Terry Collins leave him in for 134 pitches—far beyond his limit—while he dominated the Cardinals and never allowed a hit.

So while the mainstream media may not remember it because he was never fortunate enough to do it on a national stage, Santana was just as much of a “gamer” as anybody. If Morris deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for being “tough-nosed,” “gritty,” or whatever else, then Santana does too.

Finally, for those who believe in the BBWAA character clause, there may not be a player who can better exemplify what the character clause is all about than Santana. He’s been devoted to helping his home country through the Johan Santana Foundation ever since he was on the Twins, and even once donated $10,000 to Hispanic families impacted by 9/11. On top of that, Santana was also well-known for being a clubhouse leader and a great mentor to young players.

So while he may not be a shoo-in for Cooperstown, it’s unfortunate Santana is probably going to fall off the ballot in his first year of elligibility. It’s likely a product of a ballot that’s simply too stacked, coupled with the brevity of his career clouding how good it actually was. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Santana never actually officially retired, so a comeback for the now-38-year-old would re-start his elligibility clock. And though it may be extremely unlikely, if there’s a guy who could do it, it’s probably Santana. And it would be really, really cool.