Who's the best pitcher in the National League East?
"Santana ... simple."
That was the response from Mets ace Johan Santana today at spring training, per Marty Noble of mlb.com.
But is he right? There's no question that Roy Halladay and Santana are among a handful of pitchers who can make the case as the best in the game. One right-handed, one left-handed. Both with Cy Young awards to their credit (though Santana has two to Halladay's one). And both proven workhorses. They were two of the best American League pitchers of the last decade, and now they're both in the NL East.
But who is the better ace?
Halladay broke into the Blue Jays' rotation in 2002, and in his first year as a full-time starter was named to the All-Star team, while throwing a league-leading 239.1 innings. Whoa.
In his second year, Halladay won the Cy Young after starting 36 games, winning 22 of them and leading the league in innings pitched again (266).
Santana's first full year in the Twins' rotation was 2004, and he led the league in ERA, strikeouts and WHIP on his way to winning the Cy Young award. Double-whoa.
So they both started strong, but 2004 was a long time ago (was Cole Hamels even born yet?). Let's look at their stats the last five years (2005-2009):
In those five years, Halladay led his league in innings pitched once, while Santana did it twice. Santana led in ERA twice, while Halladay doesn't have any ERA crowns. Santana also led his league in strikeouts twice and WHIP three times, with Halladay leading in WHIP once over that stretch.
Halladay had 34 complete games though, compared to eight by Santana.
Santana had a lower ERA and WHIP, more strikeouts and more innings pitched. These stats don't take into account level of competition, however. While Santana was beating up on the AL Central, Halladay had to face the Yankees and Red Sox 8-to-10 times a year.
Then again, Santana pitched extemely well in the postseason for the Twins, going 1-1 with a 1.35 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 20 innings, while Halladay has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs.
It's still basically a tossup, but I guess I would take Santana's dominating strikeout totals and postseason experience over Halladay's complete games and tough competition.
The right fits
Santana is much more of a strikeout pitcher than Halladay, but he is also much more vulnerable to the long ball. Over that five-year stretch, he averaged 1.0 HR/9 innings, while Halladay did a much better job keeping the ball in the park, averaging just 0.7 HR/9 innings. Santana even led his league in homers allowed in 2007. He's a fly-ball pitcher (0.67 career ground ball/fly ball ratio), while Halladay is, as they say, a worm-killer (1.21 career GB/FB).
This makes Santana a good fit in the power-depressed Citi Field, and Halladay a good fit in the more homer-prone Citizens Bank Park. If I was Omar Minaya, I'd want Santana. If I was Ruben Amaro Jr., I'd want Halladay.
It takes a lot to make $60 million look like a bargain, but the Phillies did it when they signed Halladay to a three-year contract extension. Santana, on the other hand, signed what was at the time the richest-ever contract for a pitcher -- $137.5 million over six years. Santana is two years younger, but Halladay has shown no signs of slowing down as he enters his mid-30s. Halladay is a bargain, and Santana is pitching up to his contract.
Over the next few years, this could turn into the best pitching rivalry in baseball, especially if the Mets find a way to be competitive again. Santana has pitched great for New York, but Halladay has the better supporting cast.
So I've laid out the arguments. Now it's your turn. Who is the better ace?
Dave Merrell is a web producer at Philly.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.