Edgar Santana was one of the many arms that was shuffled in and out of the Atlanta Braves bullpen in 2021. He soaked up over 40 innings for Atlanta but ended the season on the Injured List and was released during their postseason run. He didn’t pitch particularly well, but like a lot of guys who hung around in the early part of the season, he arguably did enough to prevent the team and its record from falling into total disarray before reinforcements came on board.
Edgar Santana made his major league debut in 2017 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He put up good numbers out of the pen in 2018, posting a 3.26 ERA, 3.58 FIP, and 3.93 xFIP (good for 0.7 fWAR) while appearing in 69 games. He missed the 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and was then hit with an 80-game suspension in 2020 after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. The Braves acquired him on April 9 from the Pirates in exchange for cash considerations.
Throughout the early part of the season, Atlanta was searching for depth in a bullpen that struggled to begin the season. Santana wasn’t really expected to provide more than Quad-A shuttle-level production, but he at least offered an intriguing pitch in his “backwards” slider.
Santana made his Braves debut on April 30. He made a couple of trips to Gwinnett but ended up sticking on the roster through the end of the season. Santana appeared in 41 games, posting a 3.59 ERA and a 4.60 FIP in 42 2⁄3 innings. A somewhat inflated homer rate suggests he was unlucky — he had a 4.04 xFIP (95 xFIP-) while his FIP was much higher (109 FIP-). All of this added up to a replacement level, 0.0 fWAR season, in which he also somehow managed 0.00 WPA. His final appearance came on September 20 and he was placed on the Injured List October 1. Santana was released by Atlanta on October 27 to clear a 40-man roster spot for Tucker Davidson, who was replacing Charlie Morton on the World Series roster. Santana would have been arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason but would have also been seen as a non-tender candidate, as there are plenty of similar relievers out there for anyone who wants to dangle a minor league deal in front of them.
Edgar Santana 2021 Stats
What went right? What went wrong?
The addition of Santana was a win when compared to the likes of Carl Edwards Jr., Jesse Biddle and the other short term bullpen additions the Braves made throughout the early part of the season, in that Santana’s aggregate production was replacement level rather than worse. His strikeouts were down from his last MLB action in 2018, but his ERA was a full run lower than his FIP. He wasn’t relied upon in many high leverage situations and did a decent enough job of soaking up low leverage opportunities. You could say that what went right for Santana is that he was charged with considerably fewer runs than his peripherals would suggest he should have allowed (84 ERA-, 109 FIP-, 95 xFIP-), but what went wrong was the homer rate.
On a more granular basis, Santana is a sinker-slider guy in a world that’s very much moving away from sinkers; his slider has absolutely no consistency release point-wise and, correspondingly, its heat map is all over the place too. Santana did a good job pounding the zone, but couldn’t strike guys out at even a league-average rate because despite the funkiness of his slider and its ability to get silly-looking whiffs when thrown off the plate, he often threw it (or it ended up... since there wasn’t much slider command to speak of) where hitters could reach it. Santana probably should’ve thrown his slider way more often given that it had a whiff rate of over 40 percent and held hitters to a .246 xwOBA, but after a pretty effective June and July where he threw it a bunch (nearly half of his pitches were sliders in June), its usage and his overall effectiveness dipped sharply in August and September.
Road to the Title
As a low-leverage reliever whose contributions netted out to basically a straight zero of WPA in 2021 (at least on Fangraphs; Baseball-Reference uses a different WPA model and Santana had slightly positive WPA in that one), Santana did actually manage a positive cWPA on the year. His best outing by cWPA? A 1-2-3 fourth inning in relief of Ian Anderson on September 4, with the Braves down by a run and the leadoff man (Anderson’s last batter) on first base. Santana’s frame allowed the Braves to tie the game, but they later lost by a run anyway. There was also another pretty cool outing in the fourth inning for him, albeit not one quite as relevant — on June 24, with the Braves using a bullpen game, Santana relieved Tyler Matzek, who had walked both of the first two batters in the inning. Santana got a flyout and then struck out the opposing pitcher and then Jonathan India to escape the jam — but the Braves lost this game, too.
Anyway, here’s a cool video of Santana’s bizarre slider:
Outlook for 2022
Santana just turned 30 and will be looking to latch on with someone for another opportunity in the spring. He has some clear fixes or changes that can be implemented by a hopeful team right now, though whatever is going on with his slider release point might be a bigger hill to climb, and if fixing his release point stops the wackiness of his slider, it’s not clear if it’s even worth it.