Given that the Braves signed veteran right-hander Ervin Santana to a one-year deal and did so on March 12, it might seem he's a bit of an afterthought. Indeed, Santana wouldn't be a Brave if not for the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Given those injuries, though, Santana is not only a Brave, but he's also a core Brave.
In light of all that, consider Santana's Braves debut to be a roundly successful one. Against the Mets in Atlanta on Wednesday night, Santana, despite an abbreviated spring, twirled eight shutout innings, and along the way struck out eight without walking a batter. As well, he spotted 65 of 88 total pitches for strikes and recorded 11 ground-outs against just two fly-outs. He was efficient, he showed command, and he kept the ball on the ground.
Need more? As MLB.com's Mark Bowman notes, Santana began the game with 20 consecutive strikes, didn't run a three-ball count until the fourth inning and retired the final 10 batsmen he faced.
In 2013, Santana rebounded in large part because he exhibited better control and ramped up his groundball percentage (and thus kept the ball in the park). As the above numbers show, that's precisely what he did against the Mets on Wednesday.
Another good sign? Increased use of the changeup against left-handed batters. The changeup, of course, is the preferred secondary pitch versus the opposite side, and for much of his career, Santana didn't have a good one. That's, well, changed. Against the Mets, he threw the changeup 16.7 percent of the time versus lefties (a count of seven), which is a significant increase over 2013 rates (and any season of his career). As well, he got whiffs on two of those changeups, which is a nice percentage, especially relative to his established levels.
Santana last season also enjoyed a bit of a velocity rebound, as his average fastball jumped from 92.36 mph in 2012 to 93.23 last year (source: Brooks Baseball). Against the Mets, Santana's four-seamer checked in at 93.0 mph with a max of 94.6, which is in line with 2013. Also, keep in mind that April velocities tend to be lower. So there's good news on that front, as well.
Obviously, we're talking about one start, and the sample size is vanishingly small. Still, Santana against the Mets showed some of the skills and trends that contributed heavily to his success in 2013. That's precisely what the thinned-out Braves rotation needs moving forward.
So far, so (very) good for Santana.