With opening day only a couple weeks away, the Indians are still considering playing Carlos Santana at third base for parts of the season. His first appearance in a spring training game at third was uneventful; yet the club is hopeful that he can make the adjustment so both he and Yan Gomes can both be in the lineup at the same time. 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 Gomes, who is also good.
An organization moving a catcher to another skill position is rare because 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 they themselves probably didn’t anticipate this. Historically speaking, people take for granted that catchers will move down to first when they start to age. However, 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 him, you don’t picture a capable third baseman. But, recent memory has shown that 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 and 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 a pitcher who has no idea where the ball will end up once it leaves his hand (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.
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.
I researched guys who played third base after spending (some) time behind the plate. The Rockies never saw much production from Jordan Pacheo and Jake Fox. But Pablo Sandoval became a more than acceptable defensive third baseman with the Giants and 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. His first year was the roughest, but 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, with a lot of cheering from Joe Coblitz. Maybe the way this turns out is Santana plays 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 have only two weeks to see what the Indians decide, but if they like Santana’s work this spring and select him as a useful third baseman, chances are he will have made himself into something. It wouldn’t be valuable because it’s unlikely — it would be valuable only because it’s unusual.