On this day in 1979, power pitcher Johan Santana is born in Tovar Merida, Venezuela. He went on to become the dominant left-handed pitcher in baseball from 2003 to 2006 and won the coveted Cy Young Award as the American League’s top pitcher following the 2004 season and again in a unanimous vote in 2006. This made him both the first and the second Venezuelan player to win the Cy Young.
The first Venezuelan baseball player in the major leagues was Alejandro “Alex” Carrasquel, who pitched himself to a 50-39 career record and respectable 3.73 ERA for the Washington Senators from 1939 to 1949. But it was Luis Aparicio, a slick-fielding shortstop who played for the Chicago White Sox (twice), Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox between 1956 and 1973, who would put Venezuelan players on the map. Aparicio was the first Venezuelan inducted into the Hall of Fame. By the 1990s, a number of Venezuelans were perennial All-Stars, including Santana, outfielder Bobby Abreu, third basemen Miguel Cabrera and Melvin Mora, pitcher Carlos Zambrano and catcher Victor Martinez.
Santana entered the league in 1999 as an unheralded prospect. He was originally signed by the Houston Astros, who allowed him to be selected by the Florida Marlins in the Rule 5 draft. In spite of impressive minor league numbers, the Minnesota Twins, under General Manager Terry Ryan, were able to acquire him that same day for Jared Camp, another minor league pitcher. After the requisite year a Rule 5 pick must spend with the big league club, the Twins sent Santana to the minors to learn a pitch to pair with his overpowering fastball. Santana returned with a changeup that routinely made hitters look foolish and was considered the single best pitch in baseball. Hitters talked about how he would “pull the string” on the ball, giving it backspin instead of forward spin. Leaving his hand, the pitch appeared to be a fastball, and hitters would routinely swing through the pitch before it reached the catcher’s mitt.
Johan Santana is truly a pitcher of a new generation: He is said to prepare for each of his starts by playing a video baseball game on his PSP (PlayStation Portable), a hand-held gaming device. Santana plays himself, pitching for the Twins, and faces off against the opponents he will pitch against that night, analyzing the hitters’ style and tendencies virtually before facing them in reality.