We'll have to wait a couple of years to issue the final verdict on the six-year, $137.5 million contract that Johan Santana signed with the Mets before the 2008 season. Last Friday night, however, you couldn't find anyone in Queens who didn't think the deal was a bargain. In the 8,020th game in franchise history, Santana did what Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and every other previous Mets hurler couldn't: He threw a no-hitter. In just his 11th start after shoulder surgery cost him the entire 2011 season, Santana threw a career-high 134 pitches against the Cardinals, striking out eight, walking five and creating a million memories for Mets fans.
The no-no confirms that the two-time Cy Young Award winner, despite the lost year, is the same great pitcher he was before he got hurt. The shutout lowered his ERA this season to 2.38. He also has 68 strikeouts against 21 walks (an excellent 3.24 K/BB ratio) and a 25.1% strikeout rate. Those numbers compare very favorably with Santana's preinjury performance: From 2008 through '10 he had a 2.85 ERA, a 3.02 K/BB ratio and a 20.0% strikeout rate.
We've become accustomed to seeing pitchers undergo Tommy John surgery and return to their former performance levels. But for Santana to return from surgery on the anterior capsule in his left shoulder is another thing entirely. Doctors don't have nearly the success repairing shoulders that they have with elbows.
Santana has lost something, however. A pitcher who once threw 93 mph is averaging 88 mph with his fastball this season. What Santana has managed to do, however, is modulate his changeup accordingly. The sweet spot for a pitcher is a 10-mph gap between his fastball and change. Santana, who at his peak paired his 93-mph heater with an 82-mph change, is now throwing his changeup at 78. For a fastball-changeup pitcher (four of every five deliveries from Santana are one or the other), velocity matters less than speed differentials, and Santana changes speeds just as effectively as he did when he was the best pitcher in baseball.
He may not get back to that level, largely because he can't carry a 220-inning workload, and major league hitters will make life hard on occasion for pitchers who work in the high 80s. However, Santana has come through surgery with both the physical ability and the skill adjustments to be the Mets' ace for the rest of his time in New York.