Interleague play presents a problem for the Cleveland Indians.
With Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana both on the roster – neither with substantial experience beyond first base – manager Terry Francona has no choice but to bench one of the two Dominican sluggers to field a capable defense.
Santana is forcing the skipper to reconsider.
No, the 31-year-old switch-hitter is not playing catcher again, a position he played on 330 different occasions throughout the early stages of his career (2010-2014).
Instead, Francona positioned Santana in right field for just the fourth time of his career at Great American Ball Park on Monday evening. With Encarnacion’s major league tenure beginning in Cincinnati, it made sense for Francona to continue his experiment of having Santana explore the confines of an outfield.
His decision yielded a mixed bag of results.
Between a violent collision with the right field wall and the Tribe’s first five-star catch of the campaign, it certainly was an eventful night.
“He didn’t hit his head,” said Francona of Santana’s dangerous pursuit of a foul ball down the right field foul line in the second frame. “Pretty violent on his back. He’s okay. He stayed in.”
“He doesn’t want to come out of games.”
Had he exited the contest, the top-ranked web gem of the year would not have been possible.
Santana’s diving play to his glove side in the sixth inning may dictate Francona’s decision-making moving forward in the campaign…
Opportunity time: 3.2 seconds
Distance needed: 43 feet
Catch probability: 24%
Level of difficulty: Five-star catch
Per Statcast, Santana became the first Cleveland player to record a five-star catch this season, a fielding metric that started in 2015. Not only did his effort rob Eugenio Suarez of extra-bases and pave way to a double play with a runner on first in a one-run game, but it also had a lasting impression on Francona and the rest of the coaching staff.
“That was a great play,” Francona said. “I think he’s more athletic than people give him credit for. He does fine out there.”
In his 48.2 innings in right field (32 innings) and left field (16.2 innings), Santana is 12-for-12 on putouts, four of which came in the World Series. Both his assist and double play were firsts in his small sample size of playing outfield.
Analytically speaking, Santana entered play with a -1.4 ultimate zone rating (UZR) and -2 defensive runs saved (DRS) through 28 regular season frames in the outfield. Again, this is a small sample size and even though these totals rank below the average right fielder, they likely indicate nothing toward his future outlook at the position (if he has one).
Although a permanent move to the outfield grass is unlikely, Santana is showing an undying passion toward helping his team in any way possible. His willingness to stay in the ballgame despite a hard crash against the wall helps support this notion.
If he can sustain this level of defensive performance, Santana’s acceptance of a new challenge may come in handy further down the road.