If the Braves signed Ervin Santana to a multi-year contract, many would be up in arms. There's a reason it took this long for Santana to sign a deal. Major League Baseball teams simply didn't want to commit long-term.
Instead, the Braves signed him to one year worth $14.1 million Wednesday. The fact that it's just one year is OK for the Braves.
Santana is coming off one of his best seasons in which he had a 3.24 ERA and 3.93 FIP in 211 innings. His 18.7 strikeout percentage is in line with his career average, and his 6 percent walk rate is below his career norm. He limited home runs and kept the ball on the ground at a career-best 46 percent. He generated weak contact that produced a .267 batting average on balls in play (career .282 BABIP, so it's not so out of the norm for him).
The fact that Santana is coming off one of his best seasons and is 31 years old doesn't sit well with teams deciding whether to ink him long-term. It's a fact of life that pitchers decline in their 30s. An arm with only three seasons of 3+ fWAR in nine total years isn't going to be that valuable down the road.
But, for one year, it's not a bad move to shore up a rotation with Santana. If he stays healthy, he should provide an ERA between 3.50-4.50 with a strikeout rate above 15 percent, and that's good as a 3 or 4. With Atlanta's current situation, a 3 or 4 suddenly got a lot more valuable.
And it's obviously a reactionary move. Kris Medlen and the Braves are bracing for possibly Medlen's second Tommy John surgery, and Brandon Beachy is so touch and go right now he can't be counted on to make the opening day roster. With Gavin Floyd still working toward a May return, the Braves need capable arms. Santana can fill one of those holes with above-average production at a decent enough price without the Braves getting tied down to a long-term commitment.
Going back to Santana's batted-ball profile for a moment, let's look at his ground ball rates over the years:
36.6%, 38.4, 35.6, 38.8, 38.2, 35.2, 43.5, 43.2, 46.2
The right-hander is getting more ground balls as he ages. Looking at the data, it's the result of a fastball that is generating more sinking action. His fastball's ground ball rate has increased dramatically since he broke into the league in 2005.
He's not throwing more fastballs, and the velocity of the four-seamer hasn't changed much. What has changed is a two-seamer that has become an effective offering. Early in his career, batters could sit on Santana's two-pitch mix because his four-seamer was straight and he didn't have anything to throw off the slider. Lately, he has worked a two-seamer that is slightly slower than the four-seamer and with more movement, producing an increase in ground balls.
For a pitcher who allowed nearly two home runs per nine innings in 2012, more ground balls is a welcomed sight. (Although he generated a good amount of ground balls in 2012, his home run rate was off the charts. This was likely the result of not mastering the two-seamer. The velo was still relatively close to the four-seamer and without the needed movement.)
This sort of trend is good for Santana. He doesn't sit 94 with a knockout slider anymore, and he needs something to keep hitters off the two-pitch mix. It's called adapting. Pitchers must do it to survive in their 30s, and Santana is making an adjustment.