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Changing positions saved Carlos Santana’s career

Carlos Santana had his best season ever at age 33. That probably wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t so open to changing positions

Cleveland Indians v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Recently, MLB Network started their annual “Right Now” series, where they count down the top-10 players at each position using a combination of an algorithm (dubbed “The Shredder”), and panelist opinions. Freddie Freeman topped the first baseman list, followed by Max Muncy and Pete Alonso. But a little ways down, at No. 8, is the one we all know and love: Carlos Santana.

Santana had a roaring comeback season in his 2019 return to Cleveland with his best year to date: .281/.397/.515 slash, 34 home runs, 135 wRC+, 4.4 fWAR. With the exception of superb 2016 season, nothing else even comes close to what he did for the Indians last season — most of which was done carrying a half-dead team on his back.

It wasn’t a smooth road to be a consistent, everyday force for the Indians, but Santana’s willingness to do whatever it took to keep getting playing time may have saved his career.

Before he was one of the best overall first basemen in baseball, Carlos Santana was a designated hitter. Before that, for a single game in the World Series, he was an outfielder. Before that, a third baseman. And before that, where it all started, he was a catcher.

He wasn’t a very good catcher, mind you. But a catcher nonetheless.

From his debut season in 2010 until his last day behind the plate in 2014, Santana had the second-lowest defensive runs saved among catchers with at least 1,000 innings. In total, he cost the Indians 53 runs over that five-year span. His adjusted framing runs above average, Baseball Prospectus’ comprehensive measurement of a catcher’s defensive ability, ranked as the worst in 2011 (-25.8) and 2012 (-24.1), the sixth worst in 2013 (-11.4), and the 23rd worst in 2014 (-3.9). Defensive metrics aren’t perfect, but when they are that overwhelmingly terrible, you can be pretty sure something is up.

The issue, if you want to call it that, was that he was also a great hitter. You can be a pretty bad defender behind the plate, but if you can stick as one of the best hitters in the sport, you are immensely valuable attempting to be a catcher. Santana did just that. Again from 2010 to 2015 — as a catcher — he had the fourth highest wRC+ among catchers with at least 100 PA at 127. He trailed only catcher Mike Napoli (131 wRC+) and arguably the GOAT, Buster Posey (142 wRC+). He also slugged the third most home runs as a catcher with 98. But at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, it was never in the cards to stick at the position.

Injuries are a frequent worry at catcher, and it didn’t take Santana to learn the hard way. In 2010 — four years before the “Posey Rule” prevented collisions at home plate — Santana tried to block Ryan Kalish from scoring and a gruesome play ensued that resulted in his shoe flying off, his knee twisting, and a few people feeling sick to their stomach.

One of those people, coincidentally, was Red Sox manager Terry Francona:

“I don’t want to see it,” Francona said after the Indians beat the Red Sox 6-5. “I saw it live. I don’t want to see the replay.”

Catchers are chewed up and spit out constantly in Major League Baseball, mostly because of the stress on their knees as they sit in a squatting position for hours on end every night then have to pop up and throw out a runner at a moment’s notice. Few catchers can remain an offensive powerhouse for long, and even those that do — like Buster Posey — they start to deteriorate faster than other positions.

Posey, for example, has hit a steep decline in his early-30’s. His switch to first base will be coming sooner or later. Joe Mauer was one of the game’s best catchers early in his career, but switched to first base for the same reason. It allowed him to play well into his mid-30’s when he was able to retire as a 35-year-old and a square-on average, 100 wRC+ hitter. Some, like Yadier Molina, are freaks of nature and eschew offense later in their career to continue to be one of the game’s greatest minds behind the plate.

But Santana was never any of these guys. He was a terrible defender with a bat that played well at the position. He could have insisted that he stuck at catcher, hoping for a bigger payday at a premium position instead of getting lost in a sea of power-hitting first- and third-base bats. Remember, he made his switch in 2014 heading into his prime and potentially the first few years that would determine his free agency payday.

Santana seemingly didn’t hesitate when the Indians wanted to experiment with him at third base, either. He made a few flashy plays early on, but on the whole he wasn’t very good there either. In 225.2 innings as the Indians’ third baseman, Santana was worth -5 defensive runs saved, and had an ultimate zone rating of -4.4. By July the Indians quietly moved him to a mix of first base and designated hitter and never looked back. He wouldn’t play third again until his brief stint in Philadelphia in 2018 where he, surprisingly, wasn’t too bad.

The only time we’ve heard of Santana being disgruntled publicly was occasionally being miffed as the team’s designated hitter. Santana was never great at many defensive positions, but apparently he also didn’t like sitting around for the majority of the game and only coming up to bat.

Most of Santana’s discouragement came in 2015, his first season of no longer being the team’s main catcher and being shifted around between first base and designated hitter. From manager Terry Francona himself:

“It’s a fine line there,” said Francona. “You want your guys to be happy, but you want to put the best team on the field. I’ve tried to talk to him about that. Mike Sarbaugh (infield coach) has.

Still, just as he had done at catcher and third base, Santana continued to put in the work and he eventually found a home at first and the occasional DH stint. It culminated in him as a 2017 Gold Glove finalist at first base, and playing over 1,100 innings at first every season since.

Santana is going through a renaissance at the ripe age of 33 with a career-high in homers, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wRC+, fWAR, and just about everything imaginable. Would any of this have been possible if he stubbornly stuck at catcher six years ago? Would he be the perennial workhorse he is today with 140+ games in each of the last nine seasons if he wasn’t a catcher? Probably not.

Santana traded being on his knees as a catcher to being on his knees catching the game-winning ball of an ALCS. And for that, we can all be grateful.