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The Mighty Fall of Angels Pitcher Ervin Santana

August 10, 2009 BY ALEX EISENBERG 7 Comments

*Edited on 8-12-09 – Looks like Santana regained his 2008 form last night. I’ll be interested in seeing the adjustments made by Santana — if any were made at all. I’ll also be interested in seeing his quotes about how he was able to find last year’s form.

*Edited on 8-13-09 – See Is Ervin Santana Back?

It’s no secret Ervin Santana is a struggling pitcher. It’s also no secret that injuries have certainly played a major part in those struggles. But is there something mechanically that’s changed since last year?

The first thing to determine is if Santana’s stuff has diminished. Here is Santana’s fastball velocity over the past three years, courtesy of fangraphs

2007 – 93.1 mph
2008 – 94.8 mph
2009 – 91.8 mph

Making things worse, Santana’s slider velocity has also dropped off and his change-up is actually faster than it was a year ago.

Santana’s stuff was absolutely electric last year. The ball would explode out of his hand and his arm action was whip-like, a key ingredient for a high velocity pitcher. He looks like he’s pushing the ball this year, which I would attribute to the lack of strength in his elbow, something he’s battled the entire season.

We know that Santana refined his mechanics prior to the 2008 season and the changes helped Santana’s stuff move into elite status. From the Los Angeles Times in April, 2008:

The right-hander refined his hip turn in the Dominican winter league and grew more comfortable with his delivery this spring.

Visually, here are the changes made by Santana from 2007 (left) to 2008 (right). The 08′ fastball is 97 mph, while the 07′ fastball clocks in at 93.

ervin-santanaervin-santana-2008
*Credit to MLB Advanced Media

Posture – In 2007, Santana’s torso is leaning a little further back and his hands are slightly lower compared to 2008. Santana possesses a higher leg kick in 2008. The significance of this is deals with…

TEMPO…the clips are synchronized to release. Santana in 2007 is further along in his delivery yet the 2008 version still releases the ball at the same time. This means the 2008 Santana has a faster tempo and a faster tempo is correlated with better velocity.

Now you see both versions come together around the core just as the front leg begins to lower. Two things to notice:

1. The action of the torso and…

2. The action of the front leg

First, notice how in 2008 Santana’s torso bends forward at the waist, while in 2007 he is much more upright.

Second, watch how the front leg straightens out. This is the “hip turn” adjustment the LA Times article is referring to. The front leg kicks out, which jump starts an aggressive rotation of the hips.

The torso then springs back up and created is a tremendous amount of separation between Santana’s torso and hips.

His mechanics are faster, more aggressive, more athletic in 2008 than in 2007. The arm action is more whip-like. And his overall timing is simply better.

Now, that is how Santana transformed himself into an elite pitcher from 2007 to 2008. What has caused Santana to regress in 2009? Here are all three versions of Santana, in order — 2007 through 2009 — from left to right. The 2009 fastball is clocked at 91 mph.

ervin-santanaervin-santana-2008ervin-santana-2009
*Credit to MLB Advanced Media

The most noticeable change is in the back leg. Look how far Santana drops down and bends that back leg. That in itself wouldn’t be cause for a loss in velocity, but small changes can disrupt a pitcher’s timing and timing problems could certainly result in a velocity loss.

Here is what Angels manager Mike Scioscia said about Santana on July 3rd, from Bill Plunkett of the OC Register:

“The first thing is how his mechanics are which will bring him to the velocity and command he needs,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of what he will be looking for tonight.

“If he’s in his mechanics a couple things will happen. He’ll be pitch efficient and that will allow him to get a point in the game. … If he has that good hip turn generating velocity without throwing just with his arm — if he does that, I’ll think you’ll see the kind of (stat) line from him we need.”

Comparing just the 08′ (left) and 09′ (right) versions below, we can see the kick out Santana used in 2008 is gone:

ervin-santana-mechanics-08ervin-santana-mechanics-09
*Credit to MLB Advanced Media

Another problem for Santana this year has been that his command has gone downhill as well. His BB% has increased from 4.8% in 08′ up to just under 9% this year. A couple things may help account for this. First, it appears Santana is over-rotating in 2009. Does it look like he’s landing further on the left side of the mound than in 2008? It might just be the angles playing mind tricks on me, but I look at the back leg at the time the front leg lands and you can clearly see it’s angled differently than in 2009. I pause the animation below at the point in which Santana appears to land.

ervin-santana-command-08ervin-santana-command-09
*Credit to MLB Advanced Media

The second thing I notice is the head movement is much more pronounced in 09′ than 08′. In 2008, Santana’s head is much more stable and on target. It’s possible the extra head movement by Santana in 09′ make it harder for him to locate his pitches in the spots he wants.

I’m pretty confident Santana’s elbow injury and the change to his mechanics are somewhat related. To what extent, I’m not sure. But it’s clear Santana is a far cry away from what he was in 2008.

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  • 7 Comments »

    • Baseballbriefs.com said:

      Baseballbriefs.com tracking back The Mighty Fall of Angels Pitcher Ervin Santana…

      Baseballbriefs.com tracking back The Mighty Fall of Angels Pitcher Ervin Santana…

    • RZ said:

      Very nice article. Hard to find those subtle mechanic changes but they seem like to be huge mechanic changes.

      Is the bent knee making his hips open up just a tad bit faster?

      I guess that would be the timing problem.

    • Nate said:

      Man, he’s just totally out of synch this year. I think the difference is unbelievable, mentally and physically. Worries me that he’s sitting on that back leg so much; I had thought he was staying back over the rubber longer this year, this article confirms my suspicion. Didn’t catch the over-rotating, but now that you’ve brought that up….woah! That’s freaking huge.

      Would love to know how many frames per second his delivery is taking (compared to last year). Seems like he’s slower loading up after hand-break and that’s messing up his foot-plant and rotation.

      Great article, man!

    • Alex Eisenberg (author) said:

      RZ, thank you for the kind words. Any change to a pitcher’s mechanics can be significant, even the most subtle ones. A pitcher’s timing must be precise to maximize their results. I’m not sure if the bent knee is causing his hips to open up sooner, but I do know that it’s harder to get that kick out he had going earlier when the back leg is so bent.

      These types of articles are my favorite ones to write. You’ll be interested in knowing I’m in the process of working on a Scott Kazmir breakdown.

    • Alex Eisenberg (author) said:

      Nate, definitely agree he’s extremely out of sync this year. It sounds like you’re asking what his tempo is. The tempo of both versions is actually the same, coming out around 24 frames. Each version also breaks their hands at roughly the same point. But the difference is that his timing was soooo much better in 2008.

      One reason for the over-rotating is posture wise, his weight is somewhat shifted toward the first base side. In 2008, he displayed much better balance. It also looks like his front shoulder might be opening up a tad early in 2009.

    • RZ said:

      looking forward to the Kazmir article.

    • And That Happened said:

      [...] 6, Rays 0: Yesterday I read this story entitled “The Mighty Fall of Angels Pitcher Ervin Santana.” Ervin Santana apparently [...]