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.
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