Ervin “El Magic” Santana was at his best Thursday night against the Chicago White Sox. In seven innings, Santana allowed seven hits and three walks, striking out six and surrendering just one unearned run. His stuff gave AL homer leader Paul Konerko fits all evening (0-for-3 off Ervin with two K’s, and 0-for-5 with three K’s on the night).

In his last two starts, Santana seems to be getting on a roll. Over those two starts, he has beaten Oakland and Chicago. The right-hander has tossed 13 innings, giving up a total of two earned runs (1.38 ERA), walking six and striking out 12 (a high walk total, but a good K-to-BB ratio of 2:1). Both those starts, as you would imagine, were wins for Santana. Overall for the season, he now sits at 3-3, with a 3.75 ERA.  

So now, here’s the question: has “El Magic” really turned the corner and gotten on a roll? Looking closely at the numbers, some concerns begin to surface.

Santana’s 2009 season was a tough one, primarily because of injury troubles that kept his velocity down. He was limited to just 139.2 innings, and posted an 8-8 record with a 5.03 ERA and 1.48 WHIP… nothing to write home about.

However, some of his magic resurfaced in the postseason. Placed in the bullpen for the Angels’ ALCS showdown with New York, Ervin was outstanding. In four relief appearances he posted a 1.59 ERA and whiffed five Yankees in 5.2 innings pitched. Certainly with that rebound in the postseason, the Angels entered 2010 with high hopes for a return to dominance from Ervin Santana.

The returns so far in 2010 have been mixed (seems like that could be written for every facet of the team so far, doesn’t it?). Santana got off to a slow start this season, posting an April that looked more 2009 struggles were on the horizon: 1-2, 4.59 ERA, six HR in just 33.1 innings. When May came along, however, Santana turned the record around. In May so far, Ervin is 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA and just three HR in 26.2 innings.

One could say that those May numbers are proof: Ervin is back! However, there are other numbers to consider. While it is true that Santana’s April was a losing month with a pedestrian ERA, he did post a pretty strong WHIP ratio of 1.23 in the season’s first month. Perhaps he was a little unlucky in April?

On the other hand, his improved May record and ERA come with a surprising (and somewhat alarming) companion stat: a 1.54 WHIP ratio in the month. To put that in perspective, most quality major league starters need to have a WHIP of roughly 1.20 to have sustained success. 1.54 means essentially that for every two innings a pitcher works, he will have a total of three baserunners.

To say that Ervin Santana has been much more lucky in May than in April is an understatement. Bear in mind also that defensive miscues do not factor into WHIP: this ratio strictly counts walks and hits (events over which Santana holds more control). There is some cause for concern in Halo Country if Santana continues to give up baserunners at his May clip.

There is another angle to consider as well. Taking a look at Santana’s nine starts this season, one can see five Quality Starts (at least six IP and three ER or less). Those five quality starts have been against Toronto, Cleveland, Boston, Oakland and Chicago. These five teams have combined for an overall W-L record of 98-108, with only two—Toronto and Boston—with records above .500. These teams also have, with the exception of Toronto and Boston again, poor team offensive numbers:

Toronto: .242/.310/.459– 769 team OPS
Cleveland: .246/.331/.357– 688 team OPS
Boston: .270/.348/.455– 803 team OPS
Oakland: .252/.316/.363– 679 team OPS
Chicago (AL): .233/.314/.384– 698 team OPS

So Santana’s quality starts have essentially come against under-performing teams (remember that Boston has only recently started to heat up, and Toronto’s team offensive numbers look very different if you remove Vernon Wells’ incredible start to 2010).

What about his four starts that were not Quality Starts? They came against Minnesota, New York, New York again and Seattle. Their overall combined record is 64-59 (Seattle skews that, the Twins and Yankees are 49-33). While Seattle has been a terrible offensive ball club so far (648 team OPS, worst in the AL), the Twins and Yankees are in the upper tier offensively. The Twins sport a 769 OPS, while New York is at 818.

So what do all these numbers really mean? Santana was unlucky in April, and has been lucky in May. He has beaten up on the lower-eschelon teams, while the better-hitting teams have gotten the better of him. Overall, the numbers are still pretty good.

The 3-3 record and 3.75 ERA are solid; while his overall WHIP of 1.37 is not spectacular, it places him in the AL’s top 40 (tied for 29th with Minnesota’s Scott Baker). His strikeout-to-walk ratio sits at 2.60, and his strikeouts-per-nine innings is currently 7.8. There are certainly encouraging numbers to go with the numbers that are not as impressive (opponents are batting .270 off Ervin, a rather high number).    

There is no question that Santana has electric stuff—quite possibly the best in the Angels’ rotation. There also is no question that Ervin is an enigma. He can look absolutely brilliant one night, then get knocked around his next time out.

Ervin Santana needs to take the next step in his development and become the elite pitcher he can be. At 27 years old, he is entering his prime—posting numbers like his 2008 season (16-7, 3.49 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 214 K’s) should not be unreasonable. If Ervin can come close to those 2008 numbers again, the Angels have a 1-2 punch in Weaver and Santana that can stand up against any team.

Here’s hoping that “El Magic’s” last two performances are truly the sign of great things to come, and not just predictable dominance of two of the league’s
worst-hitting teams. 

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