Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona had this to say before Wednesday’s home game against the New York Yankees:
“Early in the year, there’s always some inconsistencies that take a while to kind of play themselves out. That’s just the way a year is. It happens with every team. Then, once guys get settled in and get on a roll, then you see how good you can be. For whatever reason, sometimes it takes a while.”
There’s a reason I’ve presented those three facts to you immediately following that quote. The reason is because the “inconsistencies” Francona spoke of relate to an experiment the Indians underwent to begin the season, concerning those three players and those three positions.
Well, the experiment really had just one subject, Santana, but it ended up effecting all three players. The experiment was a big deal when it was first announced. Quietly, nearly two months ago, the experiment came to an end without an official announcement or much fanfare.
Carlos Santana has always been a catcher, but he was never a particularly good catcher. Let me rephrase that: he was never a particularly good defensive catcher. Immediately upon entering the league, Santana started to hit. And he hasn’t stopped since. From 2011-13, when Santana was the Indians everyday catcher, he was in an elite class offensively among his peers, right there with Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina. Difference is, Yadier Molina is the best defensive catcher in baseball. Mauer was average. Santana was one of the worst. In that same span, Santana’s -14 Defensive Runs Saved were third-worst in baseball among catchers. He had a league-average arm, but was the worst pitch-blocker in the MLB. According to the StatCorner framing report, Santana was also the league’s worst pitch-framer, and by a pretty significant margin.
Santana was still the sixth-most valuable catcher over those three years because of the offense he supplied from an offensively-suppressed position. But his deficiencies behind the plate were starting to take their toll on the Indians pitching staff. Enter Yan Gomes.
Gomes landed in Cleveland along with Mike Aviles in a 2012 trade with Toronto for Esmil Rogers. As soon as Gomes was put in the lineup, he made it impossible for Francona to take him out of it. He hit, he blocked pitches, he called a good game and showed off one of the strongest arms in baseball. After just a half-season behind the plate for Cleveland, the Indians locked him up to a six-year extension, effectively ending Santana’s time as an everyday catcher.
This created a little predicament for the Indians. Santana is a good, young hitter and a building block of their core. But Gomes was the catcher and Swisher was the first baseman. These were the only two positions Santana had played at the major league level. The next logical step would be to make him a full-time designated hitter, but there’s a caveat to that. It’s easy sometimes to get wrapped up in numbers and fantasy sports and forget that athletes are still human beings with unique minds, routines and feelings that can affect them in ways which will never be quantified in a statistic. It would make sense to just DH Santana, but Francona mentioned that Santana doesn’t like to DH. And for what it’s worth, the numbers sort of back this up as Santana’s OPS as a DH is 40 points lower than his career OPS. I asked him about his feelings toward being the DH:
“Some days, it’s good for me and my body,” Santana said. “But, I’m younger and I don’t feel comfortable when I play DH. I want to play defense. When I play defense I feel more tied to the game, timing, my teammates, everything. This is what I want, to play defense. Because I feel comfortable.”
So the Indians got a little creative.
On November 13, 2013, it was reported that Santana would be taking grounders at third base in Spring Training. It was an interesting tidbit, but not one taken too seriously. The thoughts from most were that Santana would do a little catching, play some first, DH a bit and maybe be available at third in an emergency situation. On March 25, Francona announced that Santana would be the everyday third baseman. Six days later, the Indians handed Gomes his extension. This came as somewhat of a shock. The Indians were a playoff team the year prior and were handing the keys at third base to a guy who hadn’t played there since Single-A ball seven years ago, save for a handful of Spring Training games in which Santana had clearly impressed the Tribe coaching staff.
Once the regular season started, he showed some flashes at third. This was on Opening Day:
This was a month later:
But the bad eventually started to outweigh the good:
Santana’s defense at third base graded out at -5 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and -6 UZR, giving him the worst UZR/150 of any third baseman in baseball. Defensive metrics in 225-inning samples are hardly the end-all-be-all of a players true defensive ability, but league-worst numbers paired with the visual evidence above make a pretty strong case that Santana was hurting the Indians at third base more than he was helping them.
Nearly two months ago, on May 22, Santana started at third base against the Baltimore Orioles. It was his 26th start at third in the 2014 season. In the seventh inning of that game, he made the error shown in that last GIF there, where he threw the double-play ball into right field. That was the last time he played third base. Three days later, he took a foul tip off the mask while catching his 10th game of the year. He went on the disabled list with a mild concussion and missed two weeks. Since then, he has played exclusively first base.
There’s a few other things in play here. First, recently-qualified batting leader and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has a better wRC+ than Jose Bautista, Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Abreu. Defensively, he’s probably not much better than Santana at third, but it is his natural position and he’s earned it back.
“It’s actually a pretty good story,” Francona said. “Last year, he’s given the job and plays his way out of it to the point where we had to send him to Triple-A. This year, he’s given nothing. Santana does a really good job in Spring Training, but Lonnie also did a really good job to the point where, even though it was a little repetitive, we kept him on our team because we thought he did so well. Rather than hang his head and go, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ his work ethic was incredible. His routines picked up and it started to show on the field and in the consistency of his at-bats. Now, it’s kind of hard not to want him there. Which is a big compliment to him.”
Coinciding with Santana’s trip to the disabled list was regular first baseman Nick Swisher’s trip to the disabled list. Swisher, 33, has been battling a sore knee for a lot of the season. Swisher’s year has been notable because he’s posted career-worsts in just about every offensive category. But he’s had a rough go in the field as well:
Swisher’s matching DRS and UZR totals of -6 are worst in the MLB among first basemen this year. In 3,000 innings at first base before this season, though, Swisher has graded out as an above-average first baseman, so you have to wonder how much his knee has played into his struggles. Since returning from the disabled list, Swisher has DH’ed in 16 of 20 games, while Santana has taken over at first base.
Unlike Santana, the veteran Swisher doesn’t mind DH’ing. First, it means extra rest for his sore knee. Francona says Swisher keeps loose between innings by hitting in the cages and uses the downtime during games to watch film on the opposing pitcher. Swisher just wants to do whatever will help the team win:
“Right now, Carlos is playing a killer first base,” Swisher said. “So it’s like, ‘Hey, why mess with that?’ This is a team game and sometimes you’ve got to do different things that you’re not used to doing. This is a little different role for me, but whatever we can do to put W’s up on the board each and every night, bro, I’m all for it.”
As someone who has seen nearly every game Santana has played at first since returning from the DL, I can vouch for Swisher’s praise being more than just your typical teammate fluff. Santana legitimately does appear to be smoother and more comfortable than he’s ever been in the field. But what’s my opinion worth when you’ve got Indians general manager Chris Antonetti’s:
“I think we’re seeing the benefit of his work at third base translate to helping him as a defender at first,” Antonetti said. “Because he’s actually played really well over there. He’s been an above-average first baseman.”
Santana admitted to me that juggling the learning curve of third base with the physical side of catching created an “imbalance” for him early in the season. Since scrapping all of that nearly two months ago and finding himself entrenched at first, Santana has been the Indians next-best hitter to Michael Brantley, posting a 163 wRC+. There’s no way of knowing how much causation, if any, there actually is between Santana snapping his season-long slump and his move to first base. But it’s certainly something that’s worth noting, especially given his and Francona’s comments. In the meantime, Chisenhall continues to produce and Swisher is currently riding a seven-game hitting streak with three homers in his last five games leading up to the All-Star break, raising his season OPS to the highest it’s been since April 28.
After a couple months of “inconsistencies,” it appears the Indians have found the trifecta that suits them best. The banged up 33-year-old who struggled at first base becomes the designated hitter, a role he makes the most out of while getting extra rest for his knee. The 25-year-old third baseman who lost his job to a catcher in the offseason earns it back by working his tail off and putting up one of the best first halfs in baseball. Our subject is no longer having to juggle the mental aspects of learning a new position with the physical rigors of catching, while still getting his wish of playing in the field. And whether there’s anything to it or not, all three are hitting well together for the first time this season.
Sometimes, experiments work out just the way you wanted them to. Sometimes they don’t work out at all. Other times, they work out in ways you never expected.
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