Professional baseball player
B orn March 13, 1979, in Tovar, Venezuela; son ofJesus (a power company repairman) and Hilda; married to Yasmile; children: Jasmily, Jasmine.
Addresses: Office—Minnesota Twins, Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, 900 South 5th St., Minneapolis, MN 55415.
P itcher for minor-league teams in the Houston Astros organization, 1996-99; pitcher for Minnesota Twins, 2000-02, 2003—; pitcher for minor-league Edmonton Trappers, 2002.
Awards: CyYoungAward for bestAmerican League pitcher, Baseball Writers’ Association of America, 2004 and 2006; Best American League pitcher, Sports Illustrated players’ poll, 2005.
J ohan Santana, arguably the premier baseballpitcher of his generation, a hero in his native Venezuela, dominated American League hitters in the mid2000s. In 2004 and 2006, he unanimously won the Cy Young Award, acknowledging him as the best pitcher in the American League. He had learned to tame his sometimes wild, erratic pitching and had developed three pitches that baffled hitters: a speedy fastball, a low-hanging slider, and a deceptive change-up. In 2005, Sports Illustrated’s S. L. Price wrote that Santana was “becoming increasingly known as the best pitcher in the world.”
Santana grew up in Tovar, a town of 33,000 people in Merida, the mountainous, rural region of Venezuela that the rest of the country often considers a backwater. His Venezuelan nickname is El Gocho, a reference to people from the Merida area that means either cowboy or hillbilly, depending on how the word is translated or used. His father, Jesus, was a gifted baseball infielder on teams in the Andean mountains, but he never played professionally; he worked as a repairman for Venezuela’s national power company.
Santana began playing baseball as a kid with his older brother, Franklin. In 1994, when Santana was 15, a baseball scout saw him play outfield in the national championship and, impressed with his speed, invited him to the Houston Astros’ baseball academy in Guacara, Venezuela. Santana enrolled at the academy in January of 1995 and quickly converted to pitching after coaches noticed his strong throwing.
Santana spent four years with the Houston Astros’ minor league teams, developing a reputation as a powerful but erratic pitcher. The Astros left him unprotected in a 1999 draft, and the Minnesota Twins picked him up in a draft-and-trade deal. The team brought him to the major leagues for the 2000 season, but his pitching was mediocre; he earned a 5.34 earned run average in 25 relief appearances and a 9.82 ERA in five starts. He posted a 4.74 ERA in 2001, but only pitched 15 times because of an elbow injury.
When the 2002 season began, the Twins sent San-tana to Edmonton, the Twins’ triple-A club, so he could work with pitching coach Bobby Cuellar on perfecting a change-up pitch and converting from a relief pitcher to a starting pitcher. “Bobby told me about throwing different pitches as a starter and having confidence in your changeup,” Santana told Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter. The conversion worked. Santana excelled at Edmonton, posting a 3.14 ERA, and he was called up to the Twins in May. There, alternating between starter and reliever, he posted an 8-6 record and a 2.99 ERA. However, in Game 5 of that year’s American League Championship Series, Santana gave up a key home run to Adam Kennedy, putting the Anaheim Angels ahead 6-5 on the way to a blowout that sent the Angels to the World Series.
Santana came into the 2003 season expecting to be a starter, but the Twins signed veteran starter Kenny Rogers, so Santana found himself in the bullpen again. Furious at first, Santana channeled his frustration into strong pitching, compiling a 2.41 era by the end of June. The Twins added him to the starting rotation in July, and he finished the year with a 12-3 record. With 96 walks and 21 wild pitches between 2002 and 2003, he had not quite shaken his reputation as powerful but erratic. “I used to be hyper, throw crazy, and not think about what I wanted to do with each pitch,” he told Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated, His performance in the 2003 playoffs was disappointing: He left his first game after four innings with leg cramps, posting a 7.04 ERA in two appearances.
In 2004, Santana established himself as a star. Though he started the year slowly because of elbow surgery, he ended up winning 20 games against only 6 losses and struck out 265 batters. After the All-Star break, he was nearly perfect: He went 13-0 with an astonishing 1.21 ERA. He led the Twins to the AL Central title, nine games ahead of second-place Chicago. At the end of the season, by a unanimous vote of the baseball writer’s association, Santana won the American League Cy Young Award for best pitcher. His opponents agreed: In August of 2005, major-league players polled by Sports Illustrated also chose Santana as the league’s best pitcher.
“He’s unhittable,” Rondell White of the Detroit Tigers told Sports Illustrated’s Price. “I mean, no one is unhittable, but he’s pretty close.” Santana regularly threw three overpowering pitches for strikes, Price explained: “A 95-mph fastball, a knee-buckling slider, and the changeup that, because it is delivered with exactly the same motion as his fastball but travels 15 mph slower, is breathtaking.” Santana also revealed an unusual habit that he said contributed to his success: Before his starts, he looks at the lineup of the team he will face, then turns to his PlayStation Portable game and pitches against virtual versions of his opponents. “Believe it or not, sometimes I see things in video games that will come true,” Santana told Price. “It gives you ideas. I see the scouting reports, though I don’t go by that, and in these video games you can see what the hitters have, how to approach them. It’s pretty cool.”
In 2005, Santana signed a four-year, $40million contract, the most the Twins had ever paid a player. Fans waved Venezuelan flags in the stands when he pitched, his starts were regularly shown on Venezuelan television, and television crews from Venezuela followed him around most of the year. He won 17 straight games during 2005, almost reaching Roger Clemens’ American League record of 18 straight. He finished the year with a 16-7 record and a 2.87 ERA. In 2006, he led the Twins to their fourth AL Central title in five years while leading the major leagues with 19 wins, 245 strikeouts, and a 2.77 ERA. He won his second Cy Young award, again by a unanimous vote, only the fourth pitcher in baseball history to win multiple CyYoungs unanimously. “Last time, after winning the Cy Young, I was trying to prove that what happened in 2004 wasn’t a fluke,” Santana told reporters, as quoted by Dave Sheinin in the Washington Post.
As usual, Santana started off the 2007 season slowly, with a 6-6 record. By now, baseball fans expected Santana to heat up in the second half of the year, and he did. He compiled a 1.29 ERA between June 19 and July 16, and by mid-August he had a 12-9 record. However, the Twins were stuck in third place, behind the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, and Santana’s future with the team was uncertain. He broke off contract negotiations with the Twins in April and said he would not talk with them again until he became a free agent at the end of 2008. The Twins had reportedly offered him a contract extension of two or three years, fewer years than comparable players had signed to as free agents. The press speculated that Santana would leave the Twins after 2008, becoming the most sought-after player in the free agent market.
Sports Illustrated, October 21, 2002, p. 50; July 14, 2003, p. 119; August 30, 2004, p. 103; May 23, 2005, p. 42; August 22, 2005, p. 37; April 16, 2007, p. 70; July 16, 2007, p. 26.
Sports Illustrated for Kids, July 2007, p. 20.
Washington Post, November 17, 2006, p. E10.
“MLB: Johan Santana Player Page,” SI.com; http://www.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/players/6441/ (August 18, 2007).