Moving a Player Like Carlos Santana

We’ve already written about Carlos Santana‘s third-base transition once. Mike Petriello jumped on that story almost as soon as it came out, and he figured it was worth a winter attempt. What’s the harm, right? It was all good and it was all worth doing, and it was all nearly forgotten about as the holidays came around and as the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes kicked off. Santana, though, kept on playing third base, and now this is more than just a creative idea. Now Santana considers himself a third baseman. Observers have been impressed, and while Santana isn’t forgetting about catching entirely, he believes he’s capable of playing third in the majors. In short, this is a thing to be taken real seriously.

Which is kind of surprising, because this is kind of a weird and unfamiliar endeavor. It isn’t often at all that you see a team convert a catcher to third base, and Santana in particular has never been thought of as a Gold Glove candidate. But then, that could be part of the point, and there’s also the matter of the Indians having Yan Gomes, who is real good. And while you don’t usually think about a catcher playing some third, how strange is that, really? Just how jarring is that kind of 90-foot adjustment?

Let’s begin right away with why this is rare: teams have always valued catchers highly, so there’s been little reason to move one elsewhere if he can actually handle himself behind the plate. Later, when the knees start to go, the catcher can stand up and go to first or DH. It isn’t often a team has a situation like the Indians do, and the Indians themselves probably didn’t anticipate this. But right there, people take for granted that catchers can move down to first. There’s a bigger difference there than the difference between first and third. Once you’re looking at the batter from the front, it’s all shades of the same thing.

Santana, himself, actually has some history of playing third in the minors, but let’s ignore that for now. He’s played some first in the majors, for almost a thousand innings. When you picture Carlos Santana, you don’t picture a capable third baseman. But, here are a couple examples of Santana making plays in the field:

Those videos alone should make it easier. Santana isn’t literally incapable of snaring a line drive. He isn’t literally incapable of diving and grabbing a hot-shot grounder. Third basemen have to do similar things. But now think generally about the necessary skills. What do third basemen have to be able to do? What’s the overlap between that and being a catcher? Let’s grant that lateral range is most important up the middle. Up the middle, there’s the most ground to cover.

Third basemen need to have quick instincts. Good first steps. The ball often gets on them in a hurry, and even for the quicker guys, it’s not like they get many opportunities to sprint. So much is about reaction time, and just getting yourself going in the right direction as fast as possible, and this applies to catchers as well. Catchers don’t run. Catchers react to things happening instantly. For Carlos Santana, nothing about third base would be more difficult than catching Trevor Bauer.

Third basemen need to be able to knock balls down and keep them in front of their bodies. Ideally, they need to be able to snare balls in the gloves. Sometimes these are balls in play flying off the bat at 90-100 miles per hour. Catchers, of course, are responsible for preventing passed balls and wild pitches, and they spend all game getting balls thrown in the direction of their chests and heads. It’s not perfect overlap, but the idea’s the same: sacrifice the body to block the ball.

The biggest difference between third base and first base is that third basemen need to have strong and accurate arms to whip the ball all the way across the diamond. And they don’t just need strong arms — they need to be able to throw the ball well without getting much time to set up. Catchers have to be able to throw to bases accurately, quickly and without advance warning, and in doing so they have to throw around the batter in the box, with a mask on their heads. Some catchers have stronger arms than others, but no catchers have weak arms, really.

The catching position is selective for certain skills that carry over to playing third base, at least so long as you’re talking about guys who catch regularly. They have to be able to throw well, they have to be able to react well, and they have to be able to block well. Santana hasn’t been a tremendous catcher, but he’s been a passable one, one who could still cut it as a backstop for a team without Yan Gomes. So it stands to reason he could probably play a fine third base given enough reps, reps which he’s already gotten a lot of. He’ll only get more in the weeks and months ahead.

Other guys have played third somewhat recently after spending time behind the plate. The Rockies didn’t really care for what they got from Jordan Pacheco, and Jake Fox never turned into an asset. But Pablo Sandoval became a more than acceptable defensive third baseman. Josh Donaldson is currently one of the better third basemen in baseball. Brandon Inge didn’t hit enough, but for a time he was tremendous in the field at the hot corner, racking up a +49 UZR and a +72 DRS. His first year was the roughest; after that, he was outstanding.

It’s a rare transition, but it’s a sensible one, the more you think about it and the more you think about the skills a player needs to succeed. The Indians still haven’t made a final decision and they might opt to give a lot of playing time to Lonnie Chisenhall. Maybe the way this turns out is Santana chips in at first, third, catcher, and DH. He has the bat to play every day, and right now he’s improving his own versatility. But if Santana were to play third exclusively, it could very easily go quite well, once he got himself sufficiently comfortable. We can only wait to see what the Indians decide, but if they like Santana’s work and select him as a useful third baseman, chances are he will have made himself into something. It wouldn’t be weird because it’s unlikely — it would be weird only because it’s unusual.



Print This Post



Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
AC of DC
Guest
AC of DC
2 years 6 months ago

Doubtless there are others, but the first historical example that springs to my mind is Joe Torre, who logged time at C and 1B throughout the first part of his career (as guys often did back in the olden days, men being manlier and gods being godlier and the world being cast in glowing soft focus), and who was in my understanding considered to be pretty good behind the plate, before being shifted to third for most of his Cardinal days, where while not stupendous he was passable.

Granted, that began in his age 30 season, but it wasn’t so much a matter of health (even though medicine was pure barbarism back then — we played with wooden fingers!) as having better catchers already there. In any event, it’s another case of a good-hitting Catcher moving to 3B and eventually performing well enough not to constitute a disaster. And now you’re older and yet no wiser.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 6 months ago

I’m pretty sure Bill James called Torre rather ‘meh’ behind the plate, and plain lousy at 3rd. My understanding is that is how he was perceived. For what my understanding or such perceptions are worth.

Ivan Grushenko
Guest
Ivan Grushenko
2 years 6 months ago

It isn’t exactly common to move catchers to 3B but it’s not unheard of. Mostly it’s not done much because catchers aren’t typically viewed as good enough hitters to make the transition worthwhile. Deacon White did it in the 1870s and Todd Zeile did it more recently. I’m guessing if Sano weren’t in the system the Twins might consider moving Mauer to 3B instead of 1B.

Steven
Guest
Steven
2 years 6 months ago

Sano is likely to end up at first base anyway. Some people were surprised they didn’t take advantage and move Mauer to third and Sano to first so he can get acclimated there before the majors.

LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU
2 years 6 months ago

Probably a value thing? Mauer isn’t likely to be traded, while with Sano there’s at least a reasonable possibility of that a few years down the road. A young 3B would yield a better trade than a young 1B.

Jon L.
Guest
Jon L.
2 years 6 months ago

I would think the biggest different third base and catching is snaring ground balls that can take multiple hops with wicked spin, and then also quickly positioning yourself to make a long throw. I understand that you’re pointing out how some of the skills do translate – reacting to fast-moving baseballs, making strong throws – but I wouldn’t want to underplay the most crucial skills that might not normally translate from catching to third base.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
2 years 6 months ago

There is no relationship between the two positions except in attitude. They each require an extra dose of desire and tenacity. To have physical skills, like Beltre, is always desirable but even formerly great middle infielders are often not up to the challenge of playing third. There are moments of physical intimidation which other positions cannot match. First basemen actually play the left handed power boys deeper than a third baseman can with a righty. When the fist baseman is stuck holding a runner he has a problem, but he can also settle for knocking a ball down while he’s getting out of the way.

The throw from third is overrated. Catchers need better arms, no question. When my rotator said get a life I could still play third, but catching was out. Even a second baseman will have more opportunities to utilize a gun than a third baseman. Way back in the day you saw second basemen without great arms, but no longer. A below average arm at third is no deal breaker.

I would guess third is the least favored position in baseball judging from the talent level willing to commit there.

Malamaña
Guest
Malamaña
2 years 6 months ago

Henry Blanco did the opposite move. He was a very good third baseman before Leones del Caracas (his original Venezuelan winter league team,) and the Dodgers made him a full time catcher.

LaLoosh
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

I thought this was a trade value piece… “moving” as the vernacular for “trading.”

Bryz
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

As soon as I saw Carlos Santana’s name, I knew this was about changing positions on the field.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
2 years 6 months ago

Yeah, it was pretty big news a few weeks ago, too.

gfor
Guest
gfor
2 years 6 months ago

The 1983ish Reds thought this was a good idea for Johnny Bench.

Scot
Guest
Scot
2 years 6 months ago

The Expos tried to move Michael Barrett from C to 3B, and he was an unmitigated disaster defensively at 3B – terrible reflexes, no range, bad hands. It was ugly.

LaLoosh
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Despite all that’s been written about this move so far, I have to believe that ultimately Santana splits time between DH and 1B with Swisher.

LaLoosh
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Jason Giambi notwithstanding.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
2 years 6 months ago

Because of the arm, it seems reasonable to try a catcher (unless he’s Scott Hatteberg) at third. What seems odder is that there have been catcher-second basemen, like Biggio. The overlap there is presumably footwork?

matt w
Guest
matt w
2 years 6 months ago

Neil Walker was a minor league catcher and got moved to third before organizational need (Andy LaRoche, Pedro Alvarez, Akinori Iwamura) pushed him to second just before his callup. Though his defensive reputation was that he was a bad catcher and good third baseman.

therood
Member
2 years 6 months ago

Ozzie Guillen once started Chris Widger at third base when three of the White Sox infielders were banged up.

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2005-04-28/sports/0504280201_1_joe-crede-arizona-fall-league-ozzie-guillen

/Non-sequituranecdote

Jon
Guest
Jon
2 years 6 months ago

Hey man, after Miguel Cabrera was only kinda-bad at 3rd (in 2012, 2013 was an atrocity) my mind is open to pretty much any positional switch, save for something like Prince Fielder to shortstop.

wpDiscuz