Johan Santana vs Cliff Lee

I’m going to be perfectly honest: I typically stay away from Johan Santana. I’ve only drafted Johan once in my life, and then I flipped him for Brandon Webb and Michael Young, and dominated my league. Another disclaimer – I’m a Mariners fan, so I’m in love with Cliff Lee at this point, as I’m sure many Phillies fans were last season.

This year, Johan and Lee have some extra intrigue surrounding each of them, and are being drafted relatively close to each other. Johan is coming off September elbow surgery, and Lee is in a new (old) league again with a new squad. Johan is currently the seventh pitcher off the board (41), with Lee being the ninth pitcher being drafted (51). But should Lee be going before Santana?

Johan has posted two nice seasons since going to New York. In 2008 he pitched a career high 234.1 innings, won 16 games and had an ERA of 2.53. I would call that a more than superb fantasy season, but a 1.15 WHIP and 7.91 K/9 dropped him down a bit. Last season, before his injury woes, Santana pitched 166.2 innings, won 13 games and had an ERA of 3.13. Once again, however, a 7.88 K/9 and 1.21 WHIP made that season less valuable. I find it strange that no one is talking about Johan’s drop in strikeout rate since he entered the NL. From 2002-2007, he never struck out less than a batter an inning, and now he is doing so consistently. CHONE projects his strikeout rate to be at 8.11, with fan and Marcel projects hovering around the same mark. But what proof do we have that his strikeout rate should rise back towards his career average (even if it is only a slight bump)?

Lee has been fabulous since his return to the bigs late in 2007. In ’08 he posted a 2.54 ERA (3.57 xFIP) and struck out 170 batters in 223 innings. Splitting time with the Indians and Phillies in ’09, Lee struck out 181 batters in 231.2 innings, earning himself a 3.22 ERA (3.69 xFIP). Looking at his 2009 as a whole, his strikeout rate was an improvement from 2008, but in reality it may not have been. His strikeout rate in the AL was worse than 2008, coming in at 6.34 per nine. The defense behind him and the spacious Safeco field will only help his ERA and WHIP next year, and Fans may have it right by projecting a 1.06 WHIP and 3.16 ERA.

Doing a quick comparison, which starter would you rather have? The pitcher that’s coming off surgery and has Jason Bay as their left fielder, or the pitcher with an outstanding defense and ballpark around him? I’d rather have Lee, but that’s not to say he’s being drafted too low. I think switching him and Santana in the draft order would be best, but in the end Santana just needs to move down below Lee on draft day.

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Zach is the creator and co-author of RotoGraphs' Roto Riteup series, and RotoGraphs' second-longest tenured writer. You can follow him on twitter.

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Not a Mets fan
Not a Mets fan

True Johan’s H/9, BB/9 and WHIP have gone up 5 years in a row. However, before Lee went to Philly, he was pretty average in 09.

22 Starts
3.14 ERA
1.30 WHIP
6.3 K/9
9.8 H/9
2.0 BB/9

The walk rate was still outstanding, but its not like Johan is walking the park with a 2.5 BB/9 in 09 . Lee cant touch Johan’s hit rate though ( Lee is always around a hit per inning ). Lets say Johan continues his downward trend of increased h/9 + bb/9 while his K/9 drops slightly ( 7.9 in both years since coming to the Mets ). We would have something along the lines of.

3.25 ERA ( would be his 2nd worst year since becoming a full time starter )
1.25 WHIP ( would be his worst WHIP since becoming a full time starter )
210 IP ( before being shut down last year, would be his lowest IP since becoming a full time starter )
180 K ( 7.7 K/9 would be his worst K/9 since becoming a full time starter )

Thats pretty much a floor for Johan. Remember, his surgery was performed over the summer and it was just bone chip removal. Id rather take a shot on Johan besting those numbers above since he’s been a stud his entire career. I cant say the same about Lee who’s had a roller coaster ride over his career. I think Johan’s floor is Lee’s ceiling. No way he K’s that many guys and the ERA and WHIP should be about where he finishes ( Lee is a career 3.97 ERA and 1.30 WHIP ). As far as “outstanding ballpark around him”..last I checked, Citi field is even more of a pitchers park than Safeco, so you can hardly claim that is an advantage for Lee. Both guys are 30, push. Johan pitches in the NL, while Lee goes back to the AL, advantage Johan. Johan was shut down early in 09 while Lee pitched in the WS, advantage Johan. I think the only advantages you can list for Lee are his defense, which IS outstanding; that he’s in a contract year and that he’s going to be the #2 instead of the ace. I think its safe to say that Lee’s 08 was a career year, ( 2.54 ERA – 1.11 WHIP ) Johan has had those type of years several times. Is Lee the safer pick? Probably, but Johan still has much more upside. If both are at their best, Johan is a clear cut fantasy #1, Lee is more of a #2. Still great, but you need to separate your M’s love from fantasy.


Well, I AM a Mets fan, but I agree 100% with you, NAMF. As you said, Johan’s floor is Lee’s ceiling. I would also point out that the Mets’ defense, once Beltran returns, figures to be much improved from last year with Reyes back at ss… assuming they manage to stay healthy.

Matt B.

I disagree Johan’s floor is Lee’s ceiling. His Cy Young year (Lee) was an amazing year and his time with the Phillies (reg and playoffs) was as good as it gets – outside of K’s. I think Lee has just as good of a chance to be a dominating force in 2010 as Johan, all things factored in.


It’s not the park as much as defense. With or without Beltran, The Mariners have a tremendous defense and is leagues better than the mets.

Look at Seattles team UZR last year. It is suggested it could be the best defense of all time.

I also really like Boston’s defense for next year, but that’s another story.