At the beginning of the season, the Indians conducted an experiment that received quite a bit of attention.
About two months ago, the experiment came to a close without an official announcement or much fanfare.
It didn’t work in the way the Indians hoped, but that’s not to say it didn’t work in another way. Or that it isn’t still having an impact on the team.
The Indians made Carlos Santana, previously the everyday catcher, the Opening Day third baseman. Yan Gomes, after signing a six-year contract extension, had taken over as the everyday catcher and Lonnie Chisenhall had played his way out of a job at third.
With Nick Swisher entrenched at first base, the only other position Santana had played, he didn’t really have a position, so they gave him one at third base. He hadn’t played third base since he was in Class A in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization seven years earlier.
And he wouldn’t play it for long at the major-league level, either.
Santana played 25 games at third base to begin the season for the Indians. He racked up six errors in those 25 games, giving him one of the worst fielding percentages in baseball. Advanced defensive metrics, such as his minus six defensive runs saved (DRS) total, agreed that Santana was among the league’s biggest liabilities at the hot corner.
It would have made sense, from the outside, to relegate Santana to the role of designated hitter.
But Santana isn’t too fond of being a DH. And the numbers back it up. His career on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) is 40 points lower while being the designated hitter than while playing the field.
“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.”
On May 25, Santana took a foul tip off the mask while catching his 10th game of the season, and he ended up hitting the disabled list with a mild concussion. Coinciding with Santana’s trip to the disabled list was Swisher’s trip to the disabled list, battling knee soreness that has plagued him this season. Since those DL trips, Chisenhall has regained his job at third base, Santana has played exclusively first base and Swisher has been the DH in 16 of the 20 games that he has started.
Playing first, Swisher had been equally as inefficient as Santana had been at third. Swisher’s nine errors and minus six DRS are the worst among major-league first basemen this season.
By the same metric, Swisher has been above average at first throughout his career, so it’s worth wondering how much his knee has played into his difficulties.
Unlike Santana, the veteran Swisher doesn’t mind being the DH, especially given his health. Indians manager Terry Francona says Swisher stays loose between innings by hitting in the cages and spends downtime during the game watching film on opposing pitchers.
“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.”
Since Santana has moved to first, he’s looked much smoother than he’s been before. Swisher isn’t the only one that’s noticed. Francona and General Manager Chris Antonetti agree.
“I think we’re seeing the benefit of his work at third base translate to helping him as a defender at first,” Antonetti said of Santana. “Because he’s actually played really well over there. He’s been an above-average first baseman.”
Santana admitted that juggling the learning curve of third base with the physical side of catching created an “imbalance” for him early in the season, while he was mired in the worst offensive slump of his career.
Since moving to first, not only has Santana broken out of his slump but also he’s been the Indians’ best hitter not named Michael Brantley. It can’t be said whether there’s a direct correlation, but it’s certainly worth noting, given what he’s expressed.
In the meantime, Chisenhall continues to produce and Swisher had a seven-game hitting streak and hit three homers in the six games leading up to the All-Star break, raising his season OPS to its highest since April 28.
Chisenhall earned his job back at his original position and has been one of the best hitters in the league through the first half. Swisher gets to ease his sore knees back to health. Santana is applying what he learned at third base to the other side of the diamond.
And for the first time all season, all three of them are hitting at the same time.
“Early in the year, there’s always some inconsistencies that take a while to kind of play themselves out,” Francona said. “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.”