Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Fire up the way-back machine. We're going back to August 12, 2010, Johan Santana's last 10-strikeout game.
The lefty who will someday go down as the greatest Venezuelan pitcher to ever play the game was brilliant that day, stymieing the Colorado Rockies in a complete-game effort en route to a 4-0 Mets' victory. Colorado managed just four hits (all singles) and a couple of walks on that beautiful 74-degree afternoon in Queens. It was Santana's second shutout of the year.
Three versions of the iPhone, two seasons of American Idol and one devastating shoulder surgery later, here we are in April of 2012, with Santana trying to reclaim his spot as one of baseball's most dominating pitchers.
He seems well on his way.
Sure, Santana's record is 0-1 after his first two starts of this season, but that's nitpicking. With his shoulder now healed, Santana finally looks worthy of the $137 million New York sunk into him four years ago.
Just a little over a week into the new season, Santana is atop the league leaderboard in several pitching categories. His 0.90 earned run average is fourth-best amongst MLB pitchers who have made more than one start. His 13 strikeouts, eight of which were recorded in Wednesday's 4-0 loss to Washington, is good for ninth in MLB and fifth in the NL.
Fantasy owners (myself included) have been understandably skeptical towards Santana this season. The 33-year-old left-hander didn't throw a single pitch in the big leagues in 2011, and many were worried that Santana's rotator cuff problem would limit his velocity and effectiveness coming into this year.
For me, most of those worries went away after watching Santana throw against the Nationals.
Pre-surgery, Santana's repertoire included a 94-95 mph heater, an 86-87 mph slider and a high 70's changeup, with the latter being his bread-and-butter pitch. Santana's changeup before the shoulder operation may have been the best one we've seen since Pedro Martinez was in his prime.
Most of Santana's weapons were still there on Wednesday. His fastball hovered in the 86-90 mph zone (I think he hit 90 two or three times) and he seemed to show more confidence in it than he did in his previous start (66 percent of his pitches on Wednesday were fastballs, compared to just 59 percent in his start against Atlanta on Opening Day).
Santana's two best innings occurred when he relied on his fastball more heavily (91 percent of his pitches in the fourth inning and 73 percent in the fifth were fastballs). As the game went on, Santana went with his fastball more and more often and it didn't lose its effectiveness: his final pitch of the afternoon was still a healthy 89 mph.
He used that pitch to strike out Ryan Zimmerman twice, and Santana also induced several weak pop-ups that first baseman Ike Davis was able to track down in foul ground. Very few of Santana's pitches were hit hard, and those that were resulted in grounders through the hole. Nothing came close to the Citi Field's outfield fences.
In fact, in Santana's two starts, he has only allowed one extra base hit -- a double to the Braves' Matt Diaz on Opening Day.
Of Santana's 34 pitches against Washington that weren't fastballs, about two- thirds of them were changeups thrown in the 76-81 mph range. As evidenced by the knee-buckling softy Santana threw for a strikeout against Ian Desmond in the second inning, the changeup is still his out pitch.
All of Santana's pitches featured nice movement and the wise veteran didn't hang anything up in the zone to sluggers like Zimmerman or Jayson Werth, who can both give the ball a ride when they get the right pitch. Santana worked the corners as well as any pitcher we've seen so far this season.
It was a solid outing for Santana, but still not a flawless one. His control struggles early on in the game (two walks in his first two frames) led to a high pitch count (Santana was at 53 pitches through two innings), while his costly wild pitch to Desmond allowed a run to come across in the second inning.
Despite those shortcomings, fantasy owners should be impressed that Santana was able to recover and throw just 40 pitches in the third-through-fifth innings.
Others who are hesitant to pull the trigger on Santana cite the pitch limit that's being imposed on him by manager Terry Collins. While Jon Lester (223), Justin Verlander (209) and Roy Halladay (201) have all thrown over 200 pitches in their first two outings, Santana has only managed to throw 183. His limit on Wednesday was 95 pitches.
Still, it has to be a positive sign that Collins allowed Santana to start the sixth inning, even when he was already at 93 pitches. It shows that Collins might be willing to be a little more flexible with Santana's pitch limit going forward. If Santana is able to make it deeper into ball games, he'll have more opportunities to compile fantasy stats and will in a position to win more games.
Concerns that Santana's performance will tail off as the season goes on are also overblown. Historically, he has played his best baseball in the second half of the season, having gone 65-23 with a 2.75 ERA in the second half versus 68-47 with a 3.35 ERA in the first half. Santana's improvement is even more staggering when you juxtapose his career March/April stats (18-12, 3.37 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) with his September/October numbers (20-7, 2.58 ERA, 1.05 WHIP). If history repeats itself, the best is yet to come for Santana.
Santana is now owned in over 95 percent of leagues (last week he was owned in just 78 percent), so if you haven't picked him up yet, you are probably too late.
There will always be some mild injury concerns regarding the Mets ace, but if Santana stays healthy, he's a fantasy superstar.
If Apple wants to come out with a new product before Santana's next 10- strikeout game, they may have to hurry. He's pitching against the Braves on Tuesday.
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