Claim to fame: Fresh off the first no-hitter in the 8,000+ game history of the New York Mets, Johan Santana appears fully recovered from the shoulder surgery that cost him the 2011 season. Santana’s historic performance and his strong output through 11 starts this season suggest that the lefty’s career is far from finished and that the dominant pitcher we saw in Minnesota and Queens during an incredible five-year stretch — when he never finished out of the top-five in Cy Young voting — is back and ready to continue his path to Cooperstown.
Through 12 whole or partial Major League seasons, Santana has accomplished much, earning three ERA titles, three strikeout titles, a pitching triple crown, and two Cy Young awards while posting an ERA+ that currently ranks tied for 11th all-time (min. 1,000 innings pitched) and a WHIP that stands 20th among modern era hurlers. His 50.0 WAR is certainly impressive for such a (so far) brief career by Hall of Fame standards but would place him among the lower tier of Hall of Famers in that category.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Santana will be eligible for the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot five years after he retires, which doesn’t look to be all that soon.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? There are two questions to be answered here: Would Santana be a Hall of Famer right now, and will he be one when he retires? The latter defends somewhat on his health. The lefty is borderline Hall-worthy as is, but a few more productive seasons would seal his induction. If Santana’s early-2012 success is no aberration and he’s back to vintage-Johan, he shouldn’t have a problem approaching 200 wins, 2,500 strikeouts, and 60 WAR, totals respectable enough to garner Hall of Fame support when paired with multiple Cy Young awards during a fantastic peak.
More interesting, to me at least, is the question of whether Santana is already Cooperstown-qualified. To those who instinctively reject the idea that after less than a decade as a starting pitcher Johan is already a Hall of Famer, consider these blind résumés:
Pitcher A: 12 seasons, 371 G, 275 GS, 1,981.2 IP, 3.10 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.118 WHIP, 3.55 SO/BB, 50.0 WAR, four all-star games, two Cy Young awards, three ERA titles (three ERA+ titles).
Pitcher B: 12 seasons, 397 G, 314 GS, 2,324.1 IP, 2.76 ERA, 131 ERA+, 1.106 WHIP, 2.93 K/BB, 50.3 WAR, six all-star games, three Cy Young awards, one MVP, five ERA titles (two ERA+ titles).
Pretty close, right? Almost identical really. Comparing raw numbers, Pitcher B might get the edge, but there’s good reason his ERA+ (which adjusts ERA according to league average ERA as well as a pitcher’s home ballpark; 100 is average, higher is better) is 10 points worse than Pitcher A’s despite Pitcher B’s lower ERA. Pitcher B, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, pitched in an extreme pitcher-friendly era and in a cavernous home park. Pitcher B boasts a slightly larger body of work, but Baseball-reference.com’s WAR formula asserts that this only cancels out Pitcher A’s superior production relative to his contemporaries.
If you haven’t yet guessed, Pitcher A is Johan Santana, and Pitcher B is Sandy Koufax, and, disregarding preconceptions, the two are extremely comparable. Both left-handers enjoyed relatively brief careers as starting pitchers but also substantial stints as the consensus best pitcher in the world, during which they each won multiple Cy Young awards and finished among the top votegetters for the award in several other seasons. Koufax’s legend is inflated by his strikingly low ERA numbers, which, again, are a product of when he pitched, the offense-starved 1960s, and where he pitched, deep-fenced Dodger Stadium. Santana’s first 12 seasons have been just as productive as Koufax’s dozen-year career with just as strong of a peak.
Johan is still three no-hitters short of Sandy’s career total, but by almost all other measures the two are near-equals. Santana may or may not already be deserving of a Hall of Fame plaque, but if you argue he’s not, you’re arguing against Koufax as well.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.
Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Albert Pujols, Allie Reynolds, Andy Pettitte, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Bill King, Billy Martin, Billy Pierce, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Craig Biggio, Curt Flood, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe,Dwight Evans, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Gus Greenlee, Harold Baines, Harry Dalton, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Johnny Murphy, Jose Canseco, J.R. Richard, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Kevin Brown, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Omar Vizquel, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito,Roger Maris, Ron Cey, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Sammy Sosa, Sean Forman, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey,Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Tony Oliva, Vince Coleman, Will Clark