If all you knew about Ervin Santana was that he threw a no-hitter at some point in his career, you wouldn't guess he threw it in 2011.
Santana arrived in the major leagues in 2005. For the great majority of his career, he's been a good pitcher but not a great one; Santana entered Wednesday afternoon's start against the Indians with a 4.31 ERA, and he'd earned it. Santana has, for the great majority of his career, posted perfectly acceptable (read: unspectacular) strikeout-to-walk ratios while giving up slightly more home runs than you (or he) would like. Which is how you wind up with a 4.31 ERA, almost exactly league average.
Ervin Santana has, for the great majority of his career, been an innings-eater. Which is not a high compliment (though it's high paying).
Except for 2008.
In 2008, Ervin Santana was a different sort of pitcher. A no-hit sort of pitcher. Of course Santana didn't throw a no-hitter that season. Or a one-hitter, or a two-hitter. His best low-hit outing in 2008 was a three-hitter against the Tigers, in which he gave up a couple of runs. His best outing, overall, in 2008 was a four-hit shutout against the banjo-hitting Royals.
Santana was a truly excellent pitcher in 2008, though.
Here are comparisons vs. the rest of Santana's career:
K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9
2008 8.8 1.9 4.6 0.9
non-2008 6.9 3.0 2.3 1.2
Those are massive differences, obviously, and can't be simply explained.
That said, Santana apparently threw somewhat harder in 2008 than before, or since. That season, his fastball averaged 94.4 miles per hour, his slider nearly 84. In all the other seasons, his fastball's been a mile or two slower, his slider a mile or two (or three) slower. If you believe Baseball Info Solutions' data, anyway.
In 2008, Santana's slider was devastating; during the rest of Santana's career, it's been merely good.
Well, Santana's a fastball-slider pitcher. According to Brooks Baseball, in Santana's no-hitter he threw 105 pitches and 102 of them were four-seam fastballs or sliders. His fastballs averaged 93.3 miles an hour, his slider nearly 83. It would be a stretch to suggest that Santana, even Wednesday, is the pitcher that he was in 2008. That guy probably is gone, and isn't coming back. But quoting a wise man, "Once a player displays a skill, he owns it."
Or can rent it for nine innings, maybe. Wednesday afternoon in Cleveland, Ervin Santana was throwing 94 and 95 in the ninth inning, and his once-devastating slider was devastating once more. For nine innings, the skills were back.