Johan's Mets tenure one of wistful feelings
NEW YORK -- Baseball is not a game that lends itself to absolute statements, but from June 1, 2002, through May 15, 2009, Johan Santana may have been the best pitcher in the game.
Consider this: Over that span of seven years, one month and three weeks, Santana ranked first among Major League starting pitchers with a 2.78 ERA. He struck out 1,549 batters; no other pitcher fanned more than 1,366. He also ranked third with 110 wins, five behind Roy Halladay.
Though most of that greatness occurred in Minnesota, some of it dripped into Santana's early tenure with the Mets -- which is perhaps what made last week's news all the more disappointing. Santana graced the Mets with the tail end of his prime before multiple surgeries accelerated what otherwise might have been a more gentle decline.
Now 34 years old, Santana on Tuesday underwent the latest of those operations, a successful left shoulder capsule surgery that will almost certainly end his time with the Mets. Santana will remain in the hospital overnight, and even if he recovers enough to return to the big leagues in the coming years, it is unlikely he will return to elite form.
"It hits everybody in here hard," said third baseman David Wright, Santana's teammate throughout his time in Flushing.
Most people around the organization point to the penultimate game of the 2008 season as Santana's best performance in a Mets uniform -- better even than his no-hitter last June. Though Santana's velocity began to decline in '08, the left-hander's first year in New York, he was still largely the same pitcher he had been over six dominant summers in Minnesota. That November, he ranked third in a National League Cy Young Award vote that he had a legitimate chance to win.
What made his final start of 2008 so significant was both its excellence and its circumstances. In the midst of a pennant race, the Mets needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Santana responded with a shutout against the Marlins, striking out nine batters and allowing three hits.
Only days later did the Mets reveal that he did it all with a torn ligament in his right knee, his push-off knee.
"He said he was finishing the season no matter what," one of Santana's agents, Chris Leible, said at the time. "'The only way they'll get me to a hospital is in an ambulance.'"
When Santana returned the next spring following knee surgery, common sense seemed to reveal that his career was in decline. His fastball velocity, which had begun diminishing in 2008, was down even more in '09. But Santana still won four of his first seven starts, striking out more than a batter per inning with a 0.78 ERA.
In mid-May, he stood by his locker in the Dodger Stadium visitors' clubhouse and considered what he might need to gain entrance into Cooperstown. At age 30, Santana began the season with only 109 victories, but he was pitching so well that anything seemed plausible.
"I might have a chance to make something special," Santana said.
In retrospect, that summer instead marked the beginning of a rapid decline for Santana, whose body quickly betrayed him. Elbow surgery reared its head at the end of 2009, followed by the left shoulder capsule surgery that devastated his career in September 2010. He made it back for one brief flicker of success in '12, posting a 2.38 ERA over his first 11 starts, striking out a batter per inning and capping it all with the first no-hitter in franchise history.
But he ended the year on the disabled list, experienced shoulder fatigue this spring and underwent a second capsule surgery on Tuesday. From May 16, 2009, through his last start last season, Santana went 26-25 with a 3.77 ERA, tied for 147th among qualified Major League pitchers.
From a sheer statistical standpoint, those numbers may suggest that the record six-year, $137.5 million contract Santana signed in January 2008 was not worth it for the Mets. But from an anecdotal standpoint, perhaps it was. Santana, after all, won two of the most significant games in franchise history and established himself as one of the most talented pitchers the Mets have employed, right up there with Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and so many others.
As it turns out, his run of greatness was simply too brief.