Twins lefthander Hector Santiago was slated to make his fifth start for Minnesota on Friday in Toronto before a bruised thumb changed that plan. Given that the Blue Jays are second in MLB in home runs with 180 and have a preponderance of power hitting right handed batters, it might be a blessing.
Those first four starts with the Twins since Santiago was dealt at the deadline for Ricky Nolasco and Alex Meyer? They’ve been bad enough to be considered a disaster. What looked three weeks ago like a trade that was not only addition by subtraction but genuinely intriguing given Santiago’s career arc instead has some fans pining for the days of Ricky. That’s hard to do, but Santiago — in giving up 32 hits, 23 earned runs and seven home runs in just 19 innings over those four Twins starts — has made it possible.
Those numbers stand in contrast to a body of work that consisted of at least decent results for Santiago in more than 100 career starts. They stand in stark contrast to his work for the Angels in July, when he was 6-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA before the trade.
So, really: what’s going on here? There are a few possibilities I’ll list here, and really countless other things could be going on.
1) This is a natural regression to the mean within a small sample. Santiago, after all, had an outlier month of July in which he was exceptionally good. Most of the rest of his career, he’s been a bottom of the rotation guy — solid, career ERA of 3.88, with a tendency to give up walks and home runs while also getting his fair share of strikeouts. If you had sprinkled in four bad starts with the six good ones he had in July instead of stacking them on top of one another and adding a trade to the mix, few people likely would have noticed. String a bunch of bad starts together for a new team, and people notice.
2) But there appears to be more going on here than Santiago simply joining a new team. He also is apparently trying to pitch differently than he did with the Angels. Per La Velle E. Neal III’s postgame blog after Santiago’s latest poor outing:
Santiago has joined the Twins and has since decided to address the number of batters he’s been walking. He was leading the league in walks at the time of the trade. He’s altered his delivery with the goal of improving his command. It seems to have altered his mental approach as well. “That aggressive mentality where I let it fly and kind attack the hitters, I have a little blockage in there right now where I’m trying to control the zone and make everything over the plate,” he said. “It’s kind of put me in a spot where I’m worried about throwing more strikes and not worried about getting guys to chase or making some pitches where they have to come to me.”
What’s not entirely clear is how much of this is the Twins’ influence and how much is Santiago’s own tinkering, though one would think that a pitcher coming off such a hot July wouldn’t try too hard to mess with a good thing.
I’m not enough of an expert to see a ton of difference between Santiago’s delivery in his last start and Santiago during a mid-July start with the Angels in which he went seven scoreless innings, but he does appear to be more in attack mode with the July pitch.
Regardless, we could be witnessing a temporary blip as Santiago works to find the balance between pitching with more control while also having sharpness with his pitches. In that case, these could be growing pains for a greater good — tinkering during a lost season.
3) Or … in an attempt to get even more, perhaps Santiago will actually give even less. He’s only walked three guys in 19 innings with the Twins, including none in his last two starts. But he’s also only struck out 12 batters in that time and has been getting knocked around.
He might be an “as is” commodity, whereby he and the Twins will need to live with wildness as the means by which Santiago is effective. If that’s the case, one would hope everyone has the good sense to stop the tinkering at some point — and that Santiago can still find whatever he had going in July.