Weary batters stand in against Johan Santana like dazed prizefighters-off balance, knowing that the knockout punch is on its way. No one ever knows a thing about the final blow, except that it will come from the left with Johan’s signature on it. Will it be the exploding two-seam fastball, tailing away from the batter’s reach? How about the biting slider bearing in on his hands? Or, could it be the mocking change-up that floats across the plate at a tantalizing 75 mph? Whatever pitch drops over the plate, chances are it will send the batter back to the dug out, finished off by the nastiest pitcher in baseball. Take a seat.
Things have improved for Johan Santana since his first experience on the diamond. Despite his talent, potential and enthusiasm, the young pitcher was sent packing from his first baseball practice in his home town of Tovar, Merida State, Venezuela. “I was just a kid who wanted to play baseball,” Johan recalls. “That was the very first time I walked onto a baseball field. I decided to go with a friend, but I wasn’t wearing any kind of baseball uniform— just shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and no socks or hat. The coach sent me home right away, telling me that if I wanted to play baseball, I had to look like a baseball player. I felt bad, but I still had hope.”
The following day, Johan put his baseball dreams back on track with the help of his father, a semi-pro baseball player. “I went back home and started looking for the smallest jersey I could find in my dad’s uniform collection,” Johan says. “Even though it was way too big, because I was only 11 years old, I wore it the next day. It’s funny how everything started for me.” Once the coach realized who his father was, he immediately changed how he treated Johan.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Johan took to shortstop. “I used to watch my dad play and practice at shortstop,” Johan says. “My brother and I would go up to the baseball field with him, and I wanted to be just like him, because he was my idol. I used to wear his glove and try to do things just like him. Since I was using his glove, I was throwing righty. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was much easier for me to throw with my left hand.” This revelation, coupled with his pure athleticism, made Johan a mainstay in centerfield for his little league team. However, Johan’s raw throwing power couldn’t be ignored; it eventually made him a natural selection for the mound.
“At first, it was all about my arm strength, but then I started learning the mechanics of pitching and put in a lot of hard work,” Johan says “I was patient with myself, my training and practice, so I could become a better player.”
Johan didn’t pitch in his first organized game until his early teens. But when he finally took to the rubber, his ability and improvements were undeniable. His team, the Chiquilines, played in Venezuela’s national baseball tournament each year, providing Johan the opportunity to show people his pitching prowess. Soon, Major League scouts were making the treacherous 10-hour drive through the Andes Mountains to watch the Venezuelan strikeout artist.
“It was a great feeling to have all of those scouts interested and coming to watch me play—and I was surprised by it,” Johan says. “I didn’t even know what a scout looked like at the time. I always had that dream and thought about it. But at the same time, I thought it might be out of reach, because there weren’t many baseball players from where I grew up, mostly soccer players. But the things scouts were saying to me made me think, ‘Wow, I can do this.’”
One particular scout, the Astros’ Andres Reiner, knew immediately that Johan had Major League-caliber talent, and he brought the word back to the organization. Soon thereafter, Johan signed with Houston and spent the ’99 season in their minor league system. However, by not including Johan on their 40-man roster at the end of the year, the Astros gave the Marlins an opportunity to snag him in the Rule 5 Draft. An immediate player swap then sent him to the Twins. The young, raw pitcher had found the perfect place to grow and develop.
During the ’00 season, Johan went from Rule 5 selection to bullpen specialist for the Twins. That July, he received a bit of vindication. Johan earned his first Big League victory against the team that had let him go. “That was a very memorable moment for me,” he says “My first win happened to come against Houston—the team I never got to play for in the Majors, because they released me. It was special, so I framed the scorecard and hung it on the wall at my mother’s house. It’s still there.”
In 2002, his third season in the Majors, Johan made it clear that such a sweet payback was only the beginning of bigger things to come. His workmanlike contribution helped the Twins go from likely contraction casualty to pennant contender. He put together a record of 8-6 with a 2.99 ERA; but more impressive were Johan’s 137 Ks in just 100 innings, mowhich helped him realize how dominating he could become and fueled his intense desire to crack the Twins’ starting rotation.
Johan finally got his wish in July of ’03. “Man, that was great—finally being able to go out and start,” he says. “All the hard work over the years paid off, and I was able to show everyone what I could do.” Johan demonstrated this in historic fashion. He went a perfect 8-0 down the stretch for a final record of 12-3, with a 3.07 ERA and 169 Ks. The Twins had found their ace.
Some analysts expected Johan’s steady improvement to plateau, but the 25-year-old’s game was just coming around. In 2004, he put together one of the best seasons by a pitcher on record. Routinely, he made the best hitters look silly at the plate by setting them up with one pitch and finishing them off with another. Johan was nailing his spots—better than any other pitcher in baseball. His fastball was no longer just 95 mph down the middle; its natural movement found the edges of the plate, making it even more lethal. He also gained more control of his slider and more confidence in his change-up, as Johan learned to deliver it identical to his fastball, even though it was crossing the plate 20 mph slower. Most pitchers can only hope for a 10- to 12-mph difference. Johan says: “I want [all of my pitches] to look the same, with the same delivery and release point, so the hitter will think it’s the same pitch every time—even though it will have a different velocity or spin.”
Johan’s breakout performance resulted in the best pitching numbers in the Majors, effectively proving he was the finest pitcher in the world. In the second half of the season, he went 13-0 with an ethereal ERA of 1.18. Coming through in the clutch, Johan was especially hot in the always-important month of August, when he gave up only 10 earned runs and struck out 52. His stellar play and season record of 20-6 propelled the Twins to the AL Central Championship by a nine-game margin. Garnering all 28 first-place votes, Johan won the American League’s Cy Young Award.
Johan’s outstanding numbers and success have continued over the past two seasons. In ’06, he took home another Cy Young and won the Triple Crown of pitching by leading the Majors in ERA, strikeouts and wins—the first pitcher to do so since Dwight Gooden in ’85 and Sandy Koufax in ’66 before that. No end is in sight for Johan’s domination. And while most Major League pitchers are known for one, or at most two, trademark pitches, Johan continues to refine his control and perfect his mastery over three untouchable variations. Added to his physical ability are Johan’s confidence and attacking strategy on the mound. “I’m very aggressive even though I might not look like it when I’m pitching,” he says. “I’m not scared to throw my pitches and go out there and do my job.”
“This is hurting me, Diablo! You are crazy!” This is the third time in an hour that Johan has called Twins strength and conditioning coordinator Perry Castellano El Diablo. “He calls me that quite often. Sometimes he’ll call me Mr. Perry if we‘re not working him this hard,“ Castellano says.
Although Johan’s feeling some serious muscle burn, he recognizes the humor and irony behind his comment. Castellano and his training are not hurting him; in fact, they are keeping Johan healthy. “I must protect the starting pitcher. That is the number one goal with Johan,” Castellano says. “Out of every 170 guys that a team signs, only seven get a cup of coffee in the Big Leagues. So a guy like Santana, to do the things he’s doing, he has a gift. And it’s my job to protect that gift.”
Johan echoes Castellano’s sentiment. “My main focus is to remain healthy throughout the entire season,” he says. “I know that if I’m healthy, I will have a great chance to perform very well. That is why everything I do is based around keeping my body healthy. You can tell right away when things start to break down, because it really affects your pitching.”
Pat Johan on the back or shake his hand, and you immediately notice his “gift.” Castellano says, “He’s got incredible natural shoulder size and tremendous strength on the left side of his body. You can feel how developed he is right away. At six-feet tall, he really shouldn’t be able to throw as hard as he can. Most pitchers at this level are well over that height with very long levers. He can produce that velocity because he’s so strong through his core and powerful in his legs.”
To protect Johan and provide a safe environment for his gift, Castellano has created a program that steers clear of size-based improvements. Instead, he uses ground-based exercises to help Johan develop his flexibility, strength, balance, and core strength and stability. “Power and strength are not size,” Castellano says. “And putting on size would only hurt Johan. We want to improve his low back and ab strength, and condition his lower body to overcome fatigue. When a pitcher loses his legs, everything begins to break down, which puts a lot of stress on his shoulder.”
Since working with Castellano, Johan’s game has experienced positive effects. “You have to be strong to pitch—and stay that way throughout the year,” says Johan. “Because of this training, I can feel my strength in the middle of the season, even at the end.”
A starting pitcher’s training is the most clear-cut and defined in baseball, because everyone knows when he has to perform on the mound. Given the Twins’ five-day rotation, Castellano plans Johan’s workout for his four non-pitching days. Since Johan is at a level where he knows exactly what his body needs, he is given some flexibility as to how to get the work done.
Day 1: Lower body strength
Day 2: Bullpen power day, jump rope and upper body strength
Day 3: Bullpen touch and feel, lower body circuit and balance drills
Day 4: Med ball abs, conditioning [Johan chooses to shag fly balls during BP]
Day 1 is Johan’s most intense day, and it’s when the most progress occurs. The following exercises comprise the Cy Young winner’s Day 1 training.
SciFit Pro II Warm Up
• Perform upper body and lower body rotations on SciFit Pro II machine
• Alternate 15 seconds of intense speed with 15 seconds of slower speed. Change direction of movement every 60 seconds
Alternative: Elliptical machine // Duration : 4 minutes
Castellano: This is a total-body warm-up to get his blood flowing before we move onto weights and other exercises.
Perform the following exercises over five consecutive hurdles.
Benefits: Improved balance, hip flexibility and coordination
Castellano: This is also like the pitching motion. Because much of the pitching motion is on one leg, balance is necessary. This works hip flexibility with balance as an added component.
Step over first hurdle with left leg; then in one movement, bring right leg over first and second hurdles. Continue pattern.
Stand with row of hurdles to left. Step over first hurdle with left leg, then right leg. Continue pattern. Repeat in opposite direction.
With row of hurdles to your right and slightly in front of you, kick right leg over first hurdle, then left leg. Continue pattern. Repeat in opposite direction.
Stand with row of alternating high and low hurdles to your right. Step over first low hurdle with left leg, then right leg. Then step under and through second hurdle with right leg as you squat down; step left leg through second hurdle. Repeat over under pattern down length of hurdles.
Movement Prep Ankle Band Routine
Attach small band around ankles, then assume athletic stance. Perform the following drills for 10 paces with each leg.
Benefits: Glute, hip and leg strength and endurance
Castellano: These exercises strengthen the hip flexors and core, including the low back, which is necessary for baseball. We build from the ground up by working the triple extension of the ankle, knee and hip, which is just like a pitcher’s movement when he stands tall and then pushes off with one leg. I liken this and the pitching motion to getting out of a car; you get upright then push out all at once. A lot of things have to happen simultaneously.
Johan: I hate this. Look at me; I can barely walk when I’m done.
Step forward and 45 degrees right with right foot; repeat with left foot, but step left. Repeat set backwards.
Move laterally left by raising left leg up, over and out. Bring right leg up and over, then set it down next to left foot. Repeat set in opposite direction.
Perform Carioca by crossing trail foot in front, then behind lead foot. Repeat set in opposite direction.
Perform Straight Ahead movement; but after each pace, bring feet to even stance, squat down, then reach to ground like you are fielding a ball. Repeat backwards.
MB Core Routine
Perform the following exercises with an eight pound med ball.
Castellano: We start simple, then get more complex with each exercise in this routine. We work the entire core—including the lower back—in every direction, especially with rotational movements. I like to have Johan standing in a weight-bearing position, because that’s how he pitches.
Johan: I hate the Russian Twist; it’s the hardest. But I like the Rotation Throws, because I get to throw the ball back at Mr. Perry very hard.
Med Ball Sit-Up with Toss
• As partner tosses ball to you, perform Sit-Up and throw ball back to him
Russian Twist with Toss
• Sit on ground, cross ankles and elevate feet
• When partner tosses ball, catch it, and rotate right, then left so ball touches ground just outside of hips
• Throw ball back to partner
Split-Stance Rotational Med Ball Throw
• Stand with split stance, left foot forward
• As partner throws ball from left, catch it, rotate left and throw it back
• Repeat with left leg forward and partner on right, then right leg forward with partner on right, then right leg forward with partner on left.
Sets/Reps: 1×12 each way
Reactive Med Ball Sit-Ups
• With partner in front of you and placing his hands at different locations above you, perform Sit-Ups and touch med ball to his hands
• Assume position on Leg Press machine with feet slightly wider than hip distance and toes pointing out slightly
• Lower weight sled with control until knees are bent 90 degrees
• Drive weight up by extending legs to start position
Sets/Reps/Recovery: 3×10/45 seconds
Benefits: Lower body strength and power
Castellano: Growing up in Venezuela, Johan didn’t have the proper equipment to squat . So I don’t want to load his back up with a bar, which is why we avoid squating.
• Assume position on Leg Curl machine
• Contract hamstrings to bring heels to butt
• Lower weight with control; repeat
Sets/Reps/Recovery: 2×10/45 seconds
Benefits: Hamstring strength and muscle balance
Castellano: The Leg Curl and Extension are how we make sure muscles in the lower body, above the knee joint, are balanced.
• Assume position on Leg Extension machine
• Raise weight until legs are fully extended
• Lower weight with control until knees are bent almost 90 degrees; repeat
Sets/Reps/Recovery: 2×10/45 seconds
Benefits: Quad strength/muscle balance
Seated Calf Raise
• Assume position on Seated Calf Raise machine
• Drive weight up by extending ankles
Sets/Reps/Recovery: 2×10/45 seconds
Benefits: Lower leg strength and improved push off the mound
Castellano: This is one of the few times we isolate a muscle.
Have partner bring each of the following stretches to point of tension, then hold for 10 seconds.
Castellano: A partner can get you to a point you can’t get to yourself. I can feel right away if Johan is tight in one muscle or on one side, so there is a benefit to having someone stretch you.
A Constant Cycle
Castellano’s protective philosophy doesn’t just govern weight room work on Johan’s non-pitching days. It’s a full-time mindset. “The moment Johan comes out of a game, he starts getting his body ready for the next start,” Castellano says. “He does a cool down activity immediately for about 10 to 12 minutes with a stationary bike or a slide board. This helps him get some fresh blood moving; and then he ices.” Johan adds, “I do everything possible to take care of myself and recover, beginning the moment after I pitch.”