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May 7, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Hector Santiago (53) throws a pitch against the New York Mets during the fourth inning of a game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Cult of Santiago

An article of such a title could simply be referring to the Twitter drumbeat for Hector Santiago’s eventual and retrospectively inevitable rise to the starting rotation, but that’s only part of it.

As the confluence of Gavin Floyd’s surgery and John Danks’ continued rehab pushed Santiago into the opportunity to gleefully whip his fastball by people for multiple trips through the lineup, I couldn’t help but notice what a particularly advantageous situation Hector had worked himself into, at least in terms of public perception. He’s put himself in a position where it’s hard for him to do any wrong, or do anything but clear expectations. Consequently, that would make him the opposite of Gavin Floyd, which is also a mighty unfortunate denouement for Floyd’s White Sox career.

There can be no real, grounded performance expectations for Santiago. His path to his current stature is just too bizarre to track its next bend. 2011 began as Santiago’s third year stuck in High-A Winst0n-Salem. An unexpected velocity jump during the beginning of that year and an even more unexpected cup of coffee with the Sox in the middle put him on the radar for the first time. Yet even then, this attention was marked with curiosity over whether Santiago stick around as a major leaguer at all.

He was able to emerge from his failed stint as the closer–something that typically turns fans against players permanently–of the 2012 team both because the experiment was mercifully ended quickly and because it was too much of a reach to be blamed on Santiago anyway. Even Hector’s existence as a streaky long reliever was an unqualified success given that it was a three-level jump from the previous season

Those beginnings are not just humble-seeming because Santiago lacked prospect status, but also the unremarkable manner in which he was acquired. As a 30th round draft pick, he was neither traded, nor given a huge or even a recognizable bonus that would ever give fans the notion of being owed, or deserving some return in their investment in Santiago.

For example, even though no reasonable person expects Nestor Molina to come up some day head up the rotation anymore, he’ll remained burdened by expectations he should be worth the cost of Sergio Santos–or at least what Sergio Santos is remembered as being–even though it has nothing to do with him as a player. Gavin Floyd had double duty, shouldering the moniker of being a former fourth overall draft pick as well as the trade return of Freddy Garcia, or even the next generation of White Sox starters as the core of the 2005 group slowly dissipated. Even the last year of salary ($9.5M) on Floyd’s exceedingly team-friendly deal earned him extra scrutiny.

While Santiago already belongs in the conversation of “Greatest 30th round draft picks of all-time,” that Floyd character really never caught a break.

Yes, everything good that Hector does on the mound is basically found money for an organization that needs to start spotting balled-up $20 bills in its couch badly. His rise, and continued progression to a strikeout-crazed starter, carries no promises with it. If anything, given his pedigree and minor league scouting reports, Hector Santiago should blatantly not be able to cut through major league lineups the way he did Tuesday night. To buy-in to his ability, it’s not a matter of trusting his resume anymore because he’s gone beyond that, it’s just a question of “Do you believe in Hector Santiago?”

Underdogs and “next big things” are exciting, so the temptation to answer ‘yes’ is already enormous, but some of the pull for fans to support has to be about Hector himself. Conflating player personalities with performance is a poor practice, but even if the public was as vigilant about avoiding that as they should be, there aren’t many players who have gotten out ahead of the news cycle in establishing their public image like Santiago has.

Almost every player can boast sizable charitable involvement. Gavin Floyd once gave a man new prosthetic legs in an episode that never really got lasting attention, possibly due to Floyd’s personal nature, but Santiago’s work in Newtown dropped him in the middle of a national story and made him the subject of long, loving ESPN profile.

Moreover, tons of players have Twitter accounts, but most keep a distinct distance from the followers and fans that would otherwise leap upon an opportunity to have a direct line of communication with them. Santiago’s account is different. Very different. It can’t even be said that he has an account like a normal person, because that’s just as inaccurate, if not moreso.

For the longest time, Matt Adams and I have debated whether or not Santiago’s account was possibly even fake. He follows more people than he has followers, and follows seemingly everyone that asks him, to the point where Twitter blocked him from following any more, and his timeline is a constant stream of his unguarded conversations with fans.

How such interaction can be sustainable or remain as friendly as Santiago’s profile rises as well as the stakes of his performances, but for now it makes him as knowable as any member of the team. We’re all rooting for laundry, but it’s hard to resist rooting for someone who has friendly interactions with you on the internet. It’s likely Santiago realizes that, as he’s put “here for the fans” in his bio, but that would presuppose that his motivations are easily understood.

Not that it’s Hector’s fault or anything, but it’s all a perfect storm to rush Gavin Floyd out of White Sox memories without proper reverence. Here departs a good but unknowable pitcher who imparted the difficulties of pitching to us all by periodically displaying the gulf between talent and process, and desired results. In his stead comes a youngster who has advanced light years over the course of two-plus seasons, never has inspired the drudgery of a contract or trade value discussion and will laugh at your Twitter jokes from time to time.

I see where the appeal comes from.

 

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan

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