Yes, it is crazy considering that by the end of August the fan base was ready to declare Santana’s signing a huge mistake. Over his first nine starts of the year, Santana owned a 5.53 ERA -- the sixth highest in baseball in that span. He had allowed 11 home runs -- tied for second-most in that time -- and he managed to strike out just 14% of batters he faced. In an instant, that all changed. Over the past 30 days Santana has the second lowest ERA (1.47) falling just behind the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (0.37), who has been pitching out of his mind this season.
In a matter of a few weeks, Santana has gone from a pariah to a savior. How did that happen?
Allen's choice of drills -- specifically the shortstop-ground ball drill -- appeared designed to help a problem with Santana’s struggles while pitching from the stretch. Prior to the session, Santana struggled mightily when throwing with runners on base, allowing seven home runs with runners on base. Essentially, he made every bad situation worse. However, after that session, Santana has limited the hard hit contact and has missed more bats.
While there is little evidence of Santana’s vertical release point (height) changing much, PitchF/X data shows one major change he has made to his approach -- his horizontal release point is drastically different. Turns out, Santana has shifted from the third base side of the rubber to the first base side of the slab.
While the narrative surrounding Santana has been focused on the bullpen session where Neil Allen taught him all the secrets of throwing good, the fact that Santana has made a tangible change in his approach has been wholly ignored or overlooked by the local media and hired baseball pundits. Meanwhile,GammonsDaily.com’s Alec Dopp astutely picked up on Santana’s mound changes and posted about them on September 15, showing visual stills of his new release and their implications. By BrooksBaseball.net’s database, as Dopp showed, Santana began throwing from the first base side of the rubber for his August 19 start in New York -- or about a week before his magical bullpen session with Allen.
Does repositioning on the mound really give a pitcher that much of an advantage?
Even adjusting a few inches on the pitching rubber can supply an entirely new angle for a the same old pitch -- it adds an element of deception, says Washington Nationals’ starter Doug Fister.
“Whether it’s my height, where I stand on the rubber, the sinker I throw, whatever it may be. Trying to deceive a hitter is what I’m trying to do, keep him off-balance,” Fister told the Washington Times. “So, if moving over a little bit can help just a fraction of an inch, then hey, I’m going to try to take as much benefit out of it as I can.”
Since repositioning towards the first base side of the rubber, Santana has seen an increase in swings-and-misses out of his slider, particularly on pitches located in the strike zone. His chase rate grew from 34% to 39%. His swinging strike rate on the pitch went from 17% to 22%. Opponents’ well-hit average went from .167 to .046. Perhaps the minor adjustment has added another element of difficulty to the pitch.
Then there is just a comfort level that moving a few steps over can provide to a pitcher. In Milwaukee, Brewers’ top prospect Taylor Jungmann cited his move from the first base side to the third base side in AA Nashville as one of the reasons he has had success in 2015.
“I can’t explain it but I started throwing more strikes. My mechanics were a little more fluid. I didn’t change a whole lot; I just moved to the other side of the rubber,” Jungmann told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It felt natural. It made it a little easier to be consistent with my (pitching) motion. The biggest thing was getting my breaking ball back.”
Of course, it doesn’t always work for everybody. Back in 2012, then-Orioles pitcher Jake Arrieta explained to the media his logic as to why he went back to the first base side of the rubber after a tryst with the third base side. Going back to the first base side "[m]ade the pitches more effective because I could command them better. And the comfort level was much greater, much better. You need to find a delivery that you can repeat on every pitch.” Fast forward to 2015 and Arrieta is now one of the game’s best pitchers and uses the extreme third base side of the rubber to do all of his hurling.
The Nationals’ pitching coach Steve McCatty downplayed the effects of that type of adjustment saying “Can it have a major impact where you say, ‘Oh my God, we landed on the Moon?’ Some guys it does. But most of the time, it’s not a big deal.”
Did the shift have some game-changing effect on Santana’s pitching or was it Allen’s tutelage that helped revive his season? The answer is likely both. Santana’s shift may provide him with a more deceptive angle and comfort on the mound while Allen’s drills helped correct his release point and helped him to not fall off towards first as much. Either way, there is no denying how markedly different Santana has been since the end of August.
Naturally, the biggest disappointment is that if Santana somehow leads the team to the postseason because of his PED usage, he would be unable to participate in any games. Still, no matter how the remainder of the season plays out, Santana has rebounded nicely in this season and has given the Twins front office some reassurance that he can be a key component in next year’s rotation.
More at TwinsDaily.com:
The Royals come to town for the final series. Are you going to be there?
John Bonnes files his Twins awards ballot.