Take notes: Santiago's guide to stardom

Angels hurler ironed out his delivery in offseason, wrote down observations

Take notes: Santiago's guide to stardom

ANAHEIM -- The White Sox told Hector Santiago he would be their closer just before the start of the 2012 season, and then they asked him what he wanted to be.

"I want to start," Santiago told them. "I want to be a starting pitcher."

Santiago has spent his entire professional career resisting a push to the bullpen, from his early Minor League days to his three-year stint with the White Sox to his time with the Angels. Others saw a tireless arm, a knack for stranding baserunners and an inconsistent delivery and felt Santiago was meant to be a hybrid reliever -- part long man, occasional spot starter, emergency closer.

Santiago continued to believe he could blossom into a full-season, every-five-day Major League starting pitcher. Now, he's proving it.

Nineteen starts in, Santiago is an All-Star and statistically the best starter on an Angels team that leads its division on the strength of its rotation. His 2.43 ERA is the fifth lowest in the American League, and his once-crippling walk rate is way down, from 4.3 per nine innings his first three years to 2.9 this season.

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"I always said, 'You're not going to stop me from becoming a starter,'" Santiago said. "I think last year was the first time in the offseason that I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to be a starter.'"

If Santiago was going to entrench himself in the Angels' rotation, he needed to repeat his delivery, he needed to command all five of his pitches to both sides of the plate and he needed to develop some structure over the offseason.

A little black book -- purchased eight months ago and now nearly half full, with reminders of everything that has allowed Santiago to break out in 2015 -- would be his guide.

"It's really important," Santiago said. "I used to never have anything like that. I didn't have a routine, nothing. I would just come in and play baseball."

The first note: Get good extension, throw through your target.

Santiago began to long toss in December and noticed his ball continually tailed away from his target. He set up a garbage can on the left-handed batter's box in a makeshift bullpen on the side of his Arizona home, and he continued to hit it on its side, unable to locate fastballs on the inner half of the plate. It was all a product of not getting proper extension.

So Santiago called T.J. Harrington, the Angels' strength and conditioning coach, for tips on how to get his legs "exploding through home plate." And he sent Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher slow-motion video from the first of roughly 20 offseason bullpen sessions and was told to "stay over the rubber a little bit longer."

"By the time I got to spring, I was missing the garbage can," Santiago said. "I was throwing down and in to left-handers, down and away to right-handers, and the fastball was traveling through. It wasn't just getting there; it was traveling through."

The first checkpoint in Santiago's complex, herky-jerky delivery is making sure his left heel stays planted on the dirt during his leg kick. Sometimes he'll get in the habit of throwing off his tippy-toes, which takes a little bit off his pitches.

It happened against the Red Sox last Monday, when Santiago gave up eight hits in five innings of one-run ball. So he went back to his book and found one note written more frequently than any other: Keep your back foot down.

Another frequent entry in Santiago's book: Front shoulder in line with the catcher's mitt.

"There's so many times when I'm trying to throw in," Santiago said, "and then I'll miss over the middle of the plate."

That's what happens when Santiago's front shoulder flares out. It plagued him a lot early in 2014, when he went 0-6 with a 5.19 ERA and ultimately got sent to the Minor Leagues. Santiago returned in early June and turned his season around, posting a 3.30 ERA while starting 17 of 21 games.

But Santiago only had full command of his fastball and changeup. His curveball, slider and cutter were waste pitches, the type he couldn't trust in hitters' counts. So Santiago began to write down the exact placement of his fingers every time he felt good with a particular pitch.

Cutter: Across the four seams, middle finger on the "s" of "Rawlings."

Slider: Across the two seams and over the top of the Major League Baseball logo.

Curveball: Inside the horseshoe, middle finger on the seam.

Having a precise grip has allowed Santiago to limit opposing hitters to a .209 batting average on his fastball, .263 on his changeup, .267 on his cutter, .222 on his slider and .160 on his curveball.

But it matters little if Santiago doesn't abide by the most important note in his book: Stay in your lane.

Before every inning, Santiago uses his glove to draw lines towards home plate from each side of the pitching rubber. During a start against the Rangers on Jackie Robinson Day, he shaved a straight line down the middle of his head. And over the offseason, Santiago built himself a narrow mound only 3 1/2 feet wide.

These are the tricks Santiago uses to keep his momentum driving toward home plate, rather than swaying to the first-base side and "recoiling" upon release of the ball. It allows him to locate where he wants without sacrificing movement or late life.

It's a big reason -- one of many -- for Santiago's ascension.

"This guy worked his butt off over the offseason," Butcher said. "It's nice to see those kinds of things come to fruition."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.