The Argument for Carlos Santana, Starting Left Fielder

In 2014, the Cleveland Indians conducted a little experiment. Lonnie Chisenhall was still struggling as a third baseman, both offensively and defensively, and the club had had enough of Santana’s miscues behind the plate. In an attempt to maximize both the amount of offense in their lineup and Santana’s versatility, they began working him out at the hot corner in spring training, and an Opening Day, he was their third baseman. At first, things were OK — he’d field a bunt barehanded or make a diving play on a sharply hit grounder, but as soon as the Indians became comfortable enough putting Santana there everyday, things became a disaster. The experiment lasted just 26 games and 225.2 innings. Santana accrued -5 Defensive Runs Saved and a -6 UZR, good for a -39.5 UZR/150. He’s been a first baseman/designated hitter since.

Until tonight, apparently. Tonight, in a swing Game Three of the World Series, we’re apparently going to see the debut of Carlos Santana, Starting Left Fielder.

“If he messes up a ball out there, you can blame me,” Indians manager Terry Francona said during Thursday’s media availability. “Actually, you can blame me, and blame Mr. Selig a little bit, too (laughing).”

Francona, of course, is referring to the lack of a designated hitter in the National League, which is the reason why this is all happening in the first place. The thinking, fundamentally, is simple: Carlos Santana is the best hitter on the Cleveland Indians. He was their best hitter this year, he’s their best hitter by the projections, and he’s been the organization’s best hitter since becoming a regular in 2011. There’s no bat more important to keep in the lineup than Santana’s. But this isn’t actually about keeping Santana’s bat in the lineup; it’s about keeping Mike Napoli’s bat in the lineup.

Napoli, is, of course, also an above-average hitter, and he’s the one that would stand to lose playing time, the loss of the designated hitter meaning only one of the two could play first base. Napoli actually made 11 starts in left field for Texas last year, playing 50 innings, but evidently Cleveland is more confident in Santana’s athleticism to handle the position currently.

And so the Indians have watched Santana shag balls in left for the past handful of days, and they’ve certainly crunched plenty of numbers, and evidently, all of that has led them to the conclusion that Napoli’s above-average bat combined with Santana’s *shrug emoji* defense in left field is a more compelling option over the next one-to-three games than Coco Crisp’s below-average bat and Coco Crisp’s meh defense (and lol arm) in left field.

The scary parts, for the Indians: they’re playing these games in Chicago, a city with a nickname — and as I write this post, weather.com is predicting 15-20 mph wind gusts blowing out to left field during tonight’s game. Also: Josh Tomlin is pitching, and Josh Tomlin is a ball-in-play, fly-ball pitcher. Or at least, he has the reputation of being a fly-ball pitcher. This year, though, things changed, and with a career-low number of four-seam fastballs thrown, Tomlin’s batted-ball mix was actually right around league average. And then in Tomlin’s last outing, he rode his curveball and sinker to a career-high single-game ground-ball rate, and his curveball matches up well against the Cubs lineup, and Tomlin said yesterday that he intends to keep the ball down. So, maybe the Tomlin portion of the equation actually isn’t such a poor fit.

And then also, there’s this. I’ve gone through the play logs and the videos, and I’ve pulled every ball hit to left field by a Cubs batter thus far in the World Series. Just for fun, let’s pretend Santana, for whatever reason, was playing left field for Games One and Two in Cleveland, as well, and try to guess what would’ve gone differently.

Opportunity No. 1

  • Chance Brandon Guyer converts to out: 0%
  • Chance Carlos Santana converts to out: 0%

Opportunity No. 2

  • Chance Brandon Guyer converts to out: 0%
  • Chance Carlos Santana converts to out: 0%

Opportunity No. 3

  • Chance Brandon Guyer converts to out: 0%
  • Chance Carlos Santana converts to out: 0%

Opportunity No. 4

  • Chance Coco Crisp converts to out: 99%
  • Chance Carlos Santana converts to out: 96%

Opportunity No. 5

  • Chance Coco Crisp converts to out: 99.9%
  • Chance Carlos Santana converts to out: 99.6%

And that’s it! Overwhelming odds are, Carlos Santana could have already been playing left field in this series, and almost nothing would have changed. And while, yes, these are the balls already hit to left field, and not the balls Santana might have to field, which could look wildly different, the point is that, in two games, there have been five balls hit to left field, two were cans of corn and the other there were guaranteed hits. This is the whole thing about why defensive metrics can be so spotty. Fielders, particularly non-up-the-middle types, have a relatively small number of fielding chances throughout the year, and even those chances, more often than not, are either obviously easy catches or obviously easy hits. The actual in-between ball that Good Fielder X gets to that Good Fielder Y doesn’t is pretty rare.

Of course, there’s no telling when that in-between ball comes, and there’s nothing saying Santana doesn’t get three of those in-between balls a game for each of the next three games and blows all three. That could happen, and it could be a disaster. It’s hard not to conjure up images of Hanley Ramirez. But it’s just as likely, if not more so, that there isn’t a single decisive ball hit to Santana in this series. We just saw it in Games One and Two!

None of this is to mention that playing the outfield isn’t just about turning fly balls into outs. It’s also about running the right route to cut down a roller in the gap and prevent a single from stretching into a double, and it’s about playing the ball off the wall and communicating with your center fielder and knowing how to play the foul line and when and how to hit your cutoff man, and for example, we just saw a plus right fielder in Lonnie Chisenhall let in a run by messing up the cutoff throw in the first inning of Game Two. There’s plenty of ways for this to go sour for Cleveland.

There’s also plenty of ways for it to go right, which is why all signs point to them doing it. Put Santana in left, and you know what’s just about guaranteed? Mike Napoli gets at least four plate appearances. You know what’s not guaranteed? That a single ball gets hit to left field that Carlos Santana can’t catch that Coco Crisp or Brandon Guyer would have. This is what the Indians are betting on.

The funny thing is, across the diamond in the other dugout, there’s the Cubs, who would put Kyle Schwarber (who hasn’t been medically cleared for defensive duties) in left field if they could. They’re probably pissed that they can’t put their lumbering slugger in left field right about now. The Cubs would love to get a big, power-hitting bat into the lineup for multiple at-bats at the potential expense of left-field defense, and they were ready to do it for a full season. For all the same reasons, the Indians appear ready to do the same for the next two games.

We hoped you liked reading The Argument for Carlos Santana, Starting Left Fielder by August Fagerstrom!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

newest oldest most voted
alexohconnor
Member
Member
alexohconnor

Not sure if it helps or hurts Santana’s prospects out there, but the wind is blowing out to left tonight not in