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Luis Santos can pitch in the majors

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Rays newcomer Santos would have been the answer last April, but can he crack the roster in 2019?

MLB: Game Two-Toronto Blue Jays at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When the Rays announced five additions to their spring training roster, I headed over to FanGraphs and Texas Leaguers to see who these new guys were and what they had. One name jumped off the graph, and it was probably the one I least expected: Luis Santos.

You might remember Santos’ brief stint as a Blue Jays reliever, you might not. He wasn’t much ballyhooed when he came up, and he wasn’t able to stick in 2017 or 2018 with our rivals in Toronto.

But despite being acquired for practically nothing (on a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp), Santos makes this organization better, and the Rays coaches and staff will be taking a good long look at him this Spring.

But to tell you why I like Luis Santos, I need to talk about Wilmer Font (previewed here), who the Rays also got for “free.” Font is the type of player who isn’t supposed to be available like that. Big and athletic, with minor league success, and with a repertoire of pitches that looks like a middle-rotation starter. Everybody needs those, all of the time. Other than some weird ball-in-play results, there’s just nothing wrong with Font to have brought his value so low as all that.

Luis Santos is not another Wilmer Font. Let’s get that out of the way right now.

But he will also be in Rays camp, he cost about the the same, and he’s not a nothing. Unlike Font, his value is dependent on his role and situation, and the Rays have worked very hard over the past few years to figure out how to get the best out of guys like Luis Santos.

So let’s talk about him.

Who is Luis Santos?

Luis Santos pitched 16.2 innings for the Blue Jays in 2017, and 20.0 innings for them in 2018. He carries a career 5.15 ERA in the majors, with a matching 5.04 FIP. He’s been hurt by a high HR/FB over that span, but his xFIP (which uses a league average HR/FB rate) sits at a pretty unexciting 4.45.

What’s mildly interesting, for a stat-geek like me, is that some of the more advanced metrics think he was better than that 4.45 xFIP would indicate. His career SIERA is 3.78 and his career DRA is 3.62. This isn’t very meaningful in a 36-inning sample, but these metrics generally track closer with xFIP than Santos’ gap, so it’s statistically interesting. That’s all I’m saying.

The 42.2 innings he pitched last year in Triple-A (age 27), though, do seem to be the best he’s performed as a pro dating back to his time as a control artist in the very low minors, way back in 2014. That’s also mildly interesting, if you’re looking for corners that might have been turned.*

*Looking on Brooks Baseball for a difference between 2017 and 2018, based on those limited MLB performances, I notice that he threw 21 sinking fastballs in 2018 and none in 2017. This may or may not be a new pitch for him. It’s impossible to really say without having watched in the minors or found scouting reports from people who did. It’s just interesting.

Let’s get to that stuff. Here’s 2018:

Luis Santos, 2018, movement due to spin, from catcher’s perspective

The fastball averaged 93.5 mph, the small number of sinkers, 93.1 mph. The changeup came in at 86.3 mph, with the curve at 83.0 mph.

Now’s where we can see that we’re not talking about Font.

The fastball doesn’t sit comfortably in the mid 90s, and it doesn’t have that impressive four-seam rise. The curve sits astride the x axis, rather than dropping far below it. I don’t look at this chart and giggle. But there are some things to like.

Thing To Like Number One: Luis Santos has a serious changeup—that clump of purple dots on the left side of the graph, touching the x axis. Using the Brooks Baseball numbers, Santos’s changeup has both a full standard deviation more armside tailing action than the average, and a standard deviation more drop, and when looking granularly, you can see that, when Santos manages to throw his best changeup, the action is quite a bit better than that.

This is the type of changeup that darts away from lefties, or under the bat of righties. With good location, you can throw this pitch early in the count. You can throw it three times in a row. Think James Shields with the bases loaded when he needs a strikeout. Think Fernando Rodney. What, Santos doesn’t have a 98 mph fastball, you say? Well, yes. Think Erasmo Ramirez. Hold onto that one.

Thing To Like Number Two: This one is a bit sneakier. That curve, which doesn’t really move that much, is actually pretty hard for a curve, at 83 mph. Back to Brooks, it has one and a half standard deviations less drop than the average, but also one and half standard deviations more speed. Breaking ball effectiveness comes from a combination of movement and speed, and the range in speeds are wider than the range in speeds for fastballs or changeups—it’s a truly three dimensional pitch shape, which makes them difficult to evaluate. A mid-80s curve is going to look very different than a mid-70s curve. Erasmo Ramirez’s slider averaged 83 mph, but was, obviously, a slider. This breaking ball is better than that. The pitch will play.

So Not A Font, But Maybe An Erasmo?

When Erasmo pitched with the Rays, he threw his fastball in the low 90s, with similar movement to what Santos gets overall but with a little bit more rise on his four-seam. They’re not quite the same pitch, but they’re comparable. Santos has shown a little bit more velocity, but that came mostly in a relief role.

Their changeups are very comparable, as the pitch that makes them both major leaguers, and the pitch that the rest of their stuff must play off of.

Santos’s breaking ball is better.

So let’s say that Luis Santos can be approximately the same type of pitcher that Erasmo Ramirez was (maybe with a few more strikeouts and a few more walks, maybe not—it’s tough to conclude on such limited MLB time). What does that actually mean when you put him on the Rays?

Well, Erasmo Ramirez was a prototype. He succeeded as a starter in 2015 when injuries forced him into that role, and then when the roster dictated it, and because he was good-natured and willing to be moved, he shifted gears into relief (but remained ready to soak up a few innings when needed).

The Rays now have a name for that type of pitcher—”bulk guy”—and a better idea now of how to put them in positions to succeed.

There are some pitchers who have the complete package, who can chew up a major league lineup three and four times in a row. These are starters. There are other pitchers who have just one or two tricks, but who can use those at max effort to embarrass hitters for an inning or maybe two. These are relievers. Then there are other pitchers who have plenty of tricks, but who don’t quite make it in the league as a starter. What the Rays have found is that if you think carefully about the match-ups, limit their exposure against the hitters best able to hit off them, and don’t let an opponent see them too many times in a row, then this kind of “marginal” major league pitcher can still excel.

Because actually, they’re really good pitchers.

Protecting Santos

I’ve gone back and watched a fair amount of Santos’s innings from last year (you can see a couple at the beginning of this game that I think are fairly representative of what he can do).

The biggest liability is his fastball against lefties. Part of that comes from its generic four-seam movement and ho-hum low-90s velocity, but he does himself no favors with his delivery, either. Paraphrasing my colleague Homin Lee, with whom I talked this over, Santos plants his front foot in a closed position, and then rushes his delivery. The result is that he doesn’t get very much extension, and also that he’s pitching from an oddly low release point (but not the type that I generally think of as a lowered or three-quarters arm slot).

The final outcome of this jumble of angles and timings, as far as I can tell, is a lot of hard contact from lefties when he challenges them either inside, or up in the zone. Some of the hard contact I saw was pulled foul. Some of those noisy foul balls won’t stay foul anymore once the good MLB lefties get a few good looks.

At the same time, I saw him throw his fastball by righties, right down the middle of the zone, and I saw good hitters react late, like Brian Dozier here:

In total, the package still looks a lot like Erasmo Ramirez, but with a wider true-talent platoon split.

Like Erasmo, Santos needs to be able to find the bottom of the zone with both his fastball and his change-up to keep the left-handed hitters’ timing off, and to stay out of hitters’ counts. They cannot be allowed to know a fastball is coming, know where it’s coming, and then to tee off on it.

But Santos has some advantage over Erasmo when it comes to righties, if he’s able to surprise them with his fastball and put them away with his superior breaker.

Also like with Erasmo, the changeup will play to both hands.

To complete the Erasmo Ramirez comparison. Here’s a popup. ☝️

If Santos is pitched behind an opener, and is given the opportunity to face more righties than lefties, and is limited to two or so times through the order, he could surprise some people. He’s the kind of pitcher The Opener was built for.

But does Santos fit the 2019 Rays?

Now this is where it gets tricky.

In 2018, the Rays rotation was destroyed by injury. Nathan Eovaldi missed the first third of the season, Brent Honeywell and Jose de Leon were knocked out before they had a chance, Anthony Banda managed to pitch only a few games, Yonny Chirinos did the same (although he was able to return late in the season), Jacob Faria missed time and then struggled when he returned, and the aforementioned Wilmer Font survived only two games at a starters’ workload.

In response, the Rays pioneered The Opener pitching strategy, leaned on a stable of bullpen arms to go multiple innings, and in the process got a fantastic rookie season out of Ryan Yarbrough. It would have been pretty handy to have Luis Santos last year, and I imagine his career would have been well served.

This year, the Rays hope, will be different.

They have Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow penciled into traditional starter roles, and they hope all of those guys—who have amazing stuff—will be able to eat up plenty of innings. Top prospect Brent Honeywell should join that group at some point, depending on his recovery timetable from Tommy John, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Font break out and establish himself as a true starter as well.

Then there’s Yarbrough, Faria, Chirinos, and Jalen Beeks, all of whom have already put forward their resumes on the field for Tampa Bay, either as a “starter” or as a “bulk guy.”

It’s a crowded pool, and Santos is the new guy on a minor league contract.

I hope the Rays can keep him, and that he has the opportunity to showcase the best version of himself, because that version is a major league pitcher. I also hope we don’t see Santos in a Rays uniform on opening day, because that will mean that Spring has gone very badly for at least a few other guys who also deserve their shot.

But if there’s one lesson that 2018 taught, it’s that you can never have too many good pitchers.