On Thursday, former Braves right-hander and joy to follow on Twitter, Ervin Santana, agreed to a four year contract with the Minnesota Twins. He will earn $55M with the possibility of getting another $14M as part of a conditional vesting option for a fifth season. It’s a strange continuation of what we have seen this offseason. Only a few years ago, pitchers like Santana (good innings eaters, but not anchors of the rotation) would be closer to $8-$10M annually, but current market value with inflation pushes that total closer and closer to $15M. To put that in highly uninformative perspective, the 1991 Braves had an estimated payroll of $18M.
Back to Santana, the Braves appeared to have long ago accepted that he was a goner. Interestingly, they flirted with the idea of signing Jon Lester and were attached at one point to Justin Masterson so it’s not like the Braves weren’t interested in spending money on a free agent starter. That starter simply wasn’t going to be Santana, though.
It took a series of steps for Santana to even be a Brave in the first place. First, he had to post a good, but not great year with the Royals in 2013. Check. The Royals would have to extend a qualifying offer his way and watch Santana decline in hopes of a longer term contract. Check. Teams would have to sour on Santana’s demands and move on. Several times a check. The Braves would need their pitching depth to disappear in the wake of a series of injuries. Check (and check). Frank Wren and John Schuerholz would need to get permission to increase the budget to bring Santana aboard. That final check was worth $14.1M, or essentially what Santana would have gotten had he accepted the Royals’ qualifying offer in the first place.
Santana slotted into the Braves staff and performed even better than expected. He struck out 179 batters, the second most of his career, and saw his HR/FB rate fall under 9% for the first time since 2008. He basically pitched as well as he had in 2008, his breakout season for the Angels. Except in a pitching saturated market, that season was a six WAR season while this year was slightly less than three WAR. His success with the Braves was despite a higher than normal BABIP of .319, which probably aided to a 1.31 when his other metrics looked much better.
One key change for Santana in 2014 was the usage of his change-up, a rarely used secondary offering before last year. He went to it 14% of the time, double what he did the two years before, and for the first time since his rookie year, he was a true three-pitch pitcher. That upped his ability to get swings and misses, especially on “pitcher’s pitches” (Outside the Zone Swing% up & Outside the Zone Contact%, Contact%, and Pitches inside the Zone% down). That’s a great development for a pitcher known entirely for his ability to be durable.
Last winter, Santana bet on himself. It was a dangerous position because certain factors were considerably working against him (qualifying offer, a 2012 abysmal season). But in the end, he gained nothing and lost nothing as he got the same total he would have settled for to begin with. It was a gamble and it paid off as he entered free agency this year coming off a pair of consecutive solid seasons that made his 2012 year look like simply a down season. The Braves, like the Royals last winter, extended a qualifying offer. This time, it had little affect as the Twins were immediately interested.
The Braves ultimately lost nothing, too. They surrendered the 26th overall pick last spring to sign Santana. The Red Sox used that pick to grab Georgia-native Michael Chavis, though the Braves may have still gone with Braxton Davidson, who they picked with the 32nd overall selection. Now, the Braves will gain a compensation draft choice in the 2015 draft to go with their first round pick.
In the end, the Ervin Santana signing worked out well for both sides. He was given the chance to pitch in a ballpark that is kind to flyball pitchers and pitch in a league that doesn’t include the DH. The Braves were able to remain competitive until their offensive woes became too overwhelming. And we were also unintentionally given the gift of a hilarious hash tag. Everybody wins!