During his Cy Young Award years with the Twins, Johan Santana was so good because he had an exploding fastball that reached 95-96 mph; a changeup with the exact same arm speed as his fastball; and a hard slider.
It wasn’t simply the differences in velocity and movement of the pitches, but that his delivery was identical and the eye levels of the hitters were so varied from high to low to low and inside or outside that they couldn’t risk guessing on what he was throwing but didn’t have much of a choice because by the time they waited to read the seams and react, they had to commit to swinging or the ball was by them.
The fastball seemed faster because of that changeup. The slider moved sharply in a downward, horizontal direction. The changeup looked like a fastball when he released it with a similar rotation, but wasn’t moving and dove into the dirt at the hitting zone.
Then if you add his control into the mix, you have a pitcher who won two Cy Young Awards for the Twins and finished in the top seven of the voting three other times.
Now, after surgery to repair his shoulder capsule, what do you have?
You have a pitcher who has created excitement with his first appearance in a big league game since September of 2010 and whose velocity (registered in some circles at around 87, others as high as 92) is stoking overenthusiasm for Mets’ fans.
That excitement needs to be tamped down.
That type of surgery doesn’t lend itself to a full return to a pitcher’s former self. There are going to be days in which he feels good and is able to hit 93-94 mph on the radar gun, but the hop on a fastball isn’t predicated on velocity alone. It has to do with his extension at release and how the ball jumps from his hand.
That’s gone forever and was only rarely seen in Santana’s time with the Mets even in 2008 when he finished 3rd in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
He hasn’t thrown his slider much at all as a Met.
It’s a show-me pitch now and when he throws it, it’s not the diving, darting pitch that looked like a fastball until the last second.
The changeup will be his salvation to be effective and while he’s not going to reduce himself to the lengths of tricking hitters and using savvy as Jamie Moyer has, nor is he going to get away with mistakes because of pure stuff.
If it’s easier for a hitter to guess on what Santana is throwing and easier to adjust if they guess wrong, it’s easier to hit him hard.
That was the key to his greatness with the Twins: the hitters couldn’t guess without paying the price.
Johan Santana can still be a good pitcher, but after a serious shoulder injury, expecting him to revert to what he was six or even four years ago is delusional.
In a multitude of ways, the hitters will tell you that that Santana is not the same—the most glaring of which will be in their reactions to the pitches that are no longer what they once were.
Just like Johan Santana.