Sergio Santos' latest blown save could put him at a crossroads for the 2011 season. The right-hander needs to find his slider and changeup to regain his dominant form after the worst stretch of his career.
The White Sox's 7-5 loss to Oakland Friday started out the same way it ended: with a pitcher who could only throw fastballs. Graham Godfrey, making the first major-league start of his career, had no semblance of an offspeed pitch through the first few innings. Eight innings later, Sergio Santos was transformed into a one-pitch pitcher when his slider and changeup failed him—just as they did Wednesday night against Seattle.
Santos allowed four runs in 0.2 innings in what was the worst outing of his season. He's only allowed a run in three of his 25 appearances, but after giving up three runs against Seattle Wednesday, Santos has now allowed runs in back-to-back games. This stretch beats out last September's back-to-back-to-back appearances with two runs allowed as the worst in Santos' career.
But the more significant difference is that Santos allowed these runs in high-leverage situations.
The leverage indices of Santos' two-run outings Sept. 15, 18 and 19 of 2010 were 0.29, 1.53 and 2.27, respectively. Santos was burned in the second game when, after being pulled following a pair of two-out hits, Chris Sale coughed up a three-run home run to none other than Scott Sizemore, who played with Detroit at the time.
Santos took the mound again the next day and once again retired the first two batters he faced in a tie game, this time in the top of the ninth. He even struck out the third batter he faced, but A.J. Pierzynski bungled the play and Inge ended up at third on a dropped third strike and two-base error by the White Sox catcher. After Brennan Boesch was intentionally walked, Santos gave up an RBI single to Gerald Laird and an RBI double to Austin Jackson.
I'm not going to excuse Santos from blame in those games last September, but it all wasn't his fault. In these last two games in 2011, it has been all Santos' fault.
According to Brooks Baseball's pitch f/x tool, Santos has thrown 61 pitches in his last two appearances. Of those, 46 (75.4 percent) were fastballs, nine (14.7 percent) were sliders and six (9.8 percent) were changeups. Santos' season averages for those three pitches—61.9 percent, 25.9 percent and 12.2 percent—reveal the obvious: the White Sox closer hasn't had a feel for his offpseed pitches lately.
Only one of Santos' offspeed pitches was in the strike zone Friday night. It's not surprising how the ninth inning progressed, as the A's quickly figured out Santos could only throw his fastball for a strike. It doesn't take a hitting savant to realize Santos couldn't throw his slider or changeup for a strike, so nearly every time Santos threw an offspeed pitch Oakland laid off.
The good news is that the roughest stretch of Santos' career has a fairly easy fix: if the offspeed pitches return, so will Santos' success. The bad news is that it's a lot more complicated than that.
This is the first time Santos has failed in back-to-back games as a closer. After the game, he seemed to deal with it fine in talking to the media—well, at least as "fine" as he could be. Santos still had a "deer in headlights" look to him, which is par for the course at this juncture in a young closer's career.
How Santos responds in his next two or three appearances could be key for the rest of his season. A few more implosions could have disastrous effects for a guy who only has pitched for the last three seasons. But a few scoreless innings could put him right back on the dominant track he was on only a handful of days ago.