It’s Hall of Fame voting season: the time each year when hundreds of baseball writers each use their own subjective method to decide which players get a plaque with an approximation of their likeness in bronze into a big room in Upstate New York. Wow, when you say it that way, it doesn’t sounds that glamorous…
Nobody can agree on what a Hall of Famer is, and after an argument over a specific player, almost nobody walks away happy. It is horrible and frustrating, but we still love it.
Johan Santana was the most dominant lefty of the 2000’s, and his peak performance is comparable to many Hall of Fame members. From 2003-2009, Santana won two Cy Young awards and averaged 215 strikeouts, a 2.88 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and 6.1 WAR. If some stranger at a party had told me 10 years ago that Johan Santana would be an afterthought during his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, I would have very politely disagreed, taken a sip of my delicious Red Bull and Southern Comfort (I had a refined palate in my early 20’s), and then searched for someone else to talk to.
But here we are.
Detractors of Johan’s Hall of Fame bid claim that his period of dominance was too brief, due in part to his early career struggles and a litany of injuries toward the end of his 12-year career. During his appearance on Orange and Blue Thing last week, Newsday’s Marc Carig explained his reasoning for excluding Johan from his ballot:
“At no point when he was playing, personally, for me, did I go, ‘Man, I’m watching a Hall of Fame player.’”
All of these are fair points, but just as I said I would have at that theoretical house party 10 years ago, I very politely disagreed with Carig’s assessment.
Still, despite my objections, Santana isn’t going to make the Hall of Fame, and he’s probably going to drop off the ballot after just one year. But most can agree that there is one thing about him that is Hall of Fame-worthy: his filthy, physics-defying change-up.
The change-up is a pitch that relies heavily on deception and less so on movement. When thrown correctly, the arm speed and angle are identical to that of a fastball, but the pitch travels significantly slower, causing the batter to mistime his swing. It's often the first of the secondary pitches that are taught to young hurlers, due to its relatively low torque on the elbow compared to that of a curveball or a slider.
However, it is an incredibly difficult pitch to master. The pitch's unique grip requires the ball to be held closer to the palm of the hand, unlike most pitches that are held in the fingers. Additionally, mimicking the arm movement and angle of a fastball while holding the ball differently can lead to issues with control. Once players are old enough to throw a curve or slider, many forego the difficult change-up and rely on these pitches as off-speed options. As Santana showed over his career, mastering and showcasing your change up can pay huge dividends.
Santana, however, perfected this pitch. His arm speed and angle was identical to that of his fastball, which made his 80 MPH change look like it was going to come in around 92 MPH. The variation he employed on the pitch, known as the circle change-up, also caused the ball to drift down and away from right-handed hitters. This, along with his slider, gave Santana pitches that broke in both directions, which made him equally formidable against both right-handed and left-handed batters.
The way that pitch freeze-framed in front of the plate, enticing batters to awkwardly swing through it was poetry in motion. It made even the best hitters twist themselves into knots, as they tried to stay back on it. Santana’s change-up was the cornerstone of his six years of dominance in the majors, and brought off-speed enthusiasts endless joy during that time.
Santana misses his low and away target by a significant margin, placing an offspeed pitch right in the wheelhouse of one of the league’s best hitters at the time, Prince Fielder.
For most pitchers, that ball is sent several rows deep into the right field seats. A pitch like that is a treasure for hitters. Santana’s, however, just dangles there, waits for Fielder’s bat to pass harmlessly in front of it, and settles into the catcher’s glove.
As more Hall of Fame ballots are revealed and Santana’s name remains unchecked on them, change-up enthusiasts such as myself will just need to be satisfied with Pedro Martinez’s recent enshrinement. However, in my imaginary “Pitch Hall of Fame”, where the walls are lined with animated GIFs of knee-buckling breaking balls and batters flailing helplessly at pitches out of the zone, and the voting is equally as subjective and maddening, Johan’s change-up is a first ballot shoo-in. It has a spot on the wall already cleared out.