At this moment, probably not good. Johan Santana had shoulder surgery today and, according to espn.com, will miss the entire season for the second time in three years. He is vowing to pitch again in the major leagues, but whether he actually does remains to be seen.
Santana’s claim to be a Hall of Famer rests on the fact that he was indisputably the best pitcher in major league baseball for the five year period from 2004 through 2008. During that span he led his league in wins, ERA, innings pitched or strike outs eight times, won two Cy Young Awards and could have, with a little more luck, won four Cy Young Awards. Santana was clearly a better pitcher than Bartolo Colon in 2005, and there was very little daylight between his and Tim Lincecum‘s numbers in 2008.
However, Santana’s career wins total is presently 139, and that’s awfully few for a Hall of Fame candidate.
The (relatively) recent pitcher whom Santana most closely resembles among the All-Time Greats is Sandy Koufax. Koufax finished his career with a record of 165-87 (.655 winning percentage), not a whole lot different from Santana’s 139-78 (.641 winning percentage). Both were left-handed strike out pitchers with excellent command.
Koufax was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972, his first year of eligibility. The problem for Santana, of course, is that Koufax’s last five seasons were clearly better than Santana’s best five. Koufax led the league in wins, winning percentage, ERA, IP and Ks 13 times his last five seasons. Using the newer metric, wins above replacement, which should take into account the facts Koufax’s days were a much better time to be a pitcher than Santana’s and the Dodgers of Koufax’s era were better than Santana’s Twins/Mets, Koufax’s last five lead Santana’s best five 40.8 t0 35.4 according to baseball reference’s formula and an even larger 43.3 to 31.6 using fangraphs’ formula.
The Dodgers won three pennants and two World Series in Koufax’s last five seasons, and Koufax also threw four no-hitters (compared to one for Santana) and a perfect game in his career and set what was at the time the single season strike out record and is still only one behind the all-time record.
Something else that will hurt Santana’s future Hall of Fame chances is that unlike Koufax, who walked away from the game at his peak, we’ve had to watch Santana battle arm problems for the last four years, which has made it easier for people to forget just how good Santana was when he was at the top of his game.
In my mind, the biggest knock on Santana as an all-time great is that he was never a pitcher who finished what he started. In his career, he has thrown only 15 complete games. In comparison, Koufax completed 27 games in each of his last two seasons.
The game has changed a lot, of course, since Koufax’s day, and it’s highly unlikely that any major league pitcher will ever again complete as many as 27 games over the course of two consecutive major league seasons, let alone one. Even so, Santana hasn’t completed a lot of games even by the standards of the current era. Santana is tied with the much younger Matt Cain for 14th place among active pitchers and is miles behind Roy Halladay (66) and CC Sabathia (35) the active leaders.
Although complete games are much rarer than they once were, they are still awfully important since bullpen fatigue is a much bigger problem now than it was in the days when starters regularly finished games and the last couple of guys in the bullpen didn’t pitch a whole lot. Aside from the fact that Roy Halladay’s wins total is much higher than Santana’s, his record of throwing complete games is going to make him a much more attractive candidate to Hall of Fame voters even if Halladay doesn’t do anything more in his career.
A number of Hall of Fame starting pitchers failed to win 200 games in their major league careers: Dizzy Dean (150-83; famously hurt his arm while pitching with a broken toe he suffered in the 1937 All Star Game), Addie Joss (160-97; he died two days after his 31st birthday of tubercular meningitis), Lefty Gomez (189-102; pitched on six Yankees’ teams that won the World Series), Dazzy Vance (197-140; established himself as a major league pitcher at age 31), Rube Waddell (193-143; led the AL in Ks six years in a row between 1902 and 1907), Big Ed Walsh (195-126; the last pitcher to win 40 games or throw 450+ innings in a season) and Happy Jack Chesbro (198-132; his 41 wins in 1904 is the most by any pitcher since the mound was moved back to 60 feet six inches in 1893).
What I take from this list is that Johan Santana will need to come back and match Dizzy Dean’s 150 career wins to have a serious shot at making the Hall of Fame.