Santos Believes "Sky Is The Limit" For Him

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

What exactly do the Blue Jays have in Sergio Santos?

What he was supposed to be was a big piece for the club -- as big as bullpen pieces get -- when Toronto acquired him from the White Sox before the 2012 season. He was supposed to be the club's closer of the future after a 30-save season in 2011 in which he struck out 92 batters over 63 1/3 frames -- good for a 35.4 percent strikeout rate (second in the American League among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings).

Since? Well, Santos has appeared in just 25 games, logging 22 innings, for the Blue Jays thanks to a pair of surgeries -- one to his shoulder, the other, his elbow -- that have mostly relegated him to the rehab room.

Santos -- whose contract includes three club options after the $3.75 million he will earn in 2014 -- is hungry to show Blue Jays fans, general manager Alex Anthopoulos and, more importantly, himself, that not only does he belong, but that he can still be one of the league's dominant relief arms.

"Without a doubt, it's a motivating factor," Santos said during Toronto's most recent homestand. "It's what is driving me. I want to be better than I ever was, and prove to myself that I can do it. To me, I feel because pitching is new, the sky is the limit for myself."

Is the sky really the limit for Santos? Can he be the pitcher he once was with Chicago, if not better?

"I think so," said Blue Jays bullpen coach Pat Hentgen. "He has the ability to strike people out, and the simpler he keeps it, the better off he will be in the long run.

"He's a great athlete, a converted player. He doesn't have a ton of innings or experience on the mound, either."

Santos couldn't hack it as a position player, but a strong arm allowed him to stay in the game by ditching shortstop for the bump. He has only been pitching since 2009, and needed just one year in the minors to hone his new craft before graduating to the major-league level.

The 30-year-old admitted the transition was a challenging time for him as he watched his dream flash before his eyes. But as difficult as it was to convert from shortstop to pitcher, he said it's nothing compared to what he has been through the last two years.

"Being hurt for two years in a row is extremely frustrating. It's one of those things that's really out of your control," Santos said. "Sitting in Florida, rehabbing, while these guys were playing, was pretty frustrating in itself. But I saw the light at the end of the tunnel where I knew I was going to get back."

He made it back this year, which is more than he can say about last season. Santos' 2012 year was done in April after five innings and six appearances, numbers he has more than tripled in 2013. And, so far, he has made the most of his time on the mound.

Santos' control, an area he struggled with during his days with the White Sox, has been very good. He has walked just 6.5 percent of the batters he has faced -- down from 11.1 and 11.2 percent in 2010 and '11, respectively -- and opposing hitters are batting just .155 against him. His 2.12 ERA, 2.63 FIP, and 14.6 swinging strike percentage would all be career highs. He's also getting batters to swing at more pitches outside of the strike zone than ever before, which is what he can get hitters to do when the slider is on.

Sure, the sample is small, but the results are encouraging, nonetheless.

"I have really been happy with the way he has been throwing, and I'm sure the front office and management is, too," Hentgen said.

The elbow and shoulder surgeries did not zap Santos' velocity, either. His average fastball, while just slightly down, is still 95-plus mph, and he's throwing his slider harder than he ever has. Santos is a fastball-slider guy and the latter is a real swing-and-miss offering. He missed bats 55.29 percent of the time a hitter swung at the pitch in 2010, 64 percent in 2011 -- the highest mark among AL relievers -- and is at 46 percent this season.

In 25 at-bats that have ended with his slider this year, Santos has allowed two hits and struck out 13. The slider remains his putaway pitch, as it was in 2011. Santos struck out 46.33 percent of the batters he faced when throwing his slider in two-strike counts that year, which was tops among AL relievers.

"I didn't even know that I had a slider, to tell you the truth," said Santos, when asked how the pitch became his main secondary offering. "I just kind of gripped it once and let it go and it came out pretty darn good. I said 'OK, I might be on to something here.'"

Rounding out his arsenal is a seldom-used changeup. It can be a solid pitch, though. In a recent game against the Yankees, Santos threw consecutive changeups to Curtis Granderson to retire him on strikes, and was very pleased with the result.

"I just feel like it's another weapon that, if I can get the feel for it and throw it consistently, it's just one more pitch in the arsenal I can use," Santos said. "It's just another wrinkle, something else I can put in the back of a hitter's mind."

Hentgen added, "it gives him a third option if he's struggling to get his slider over. It's a good pitch and it gets people out front. I encourage it."

Santos is a major injury risk, but he can be a dominant backend arm for the Blue Jays. He's closer material and time is still on his side to become the player Toronto thought he would be.

[h/t Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball for stats]

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