Aided by Alomar, Santana developing into star
Former third baseman fine-tuning his skills behind the plate
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Carlos Santana remembers walking into his manager's office, unsure of why he was being called into a meeting. When he walked in the room, Travis Barbary, the Dodgers' catching coordinator, was among those waiting for him.
Santana, a third baseman in Los Angeles' farm system at the time, was being asked to move behind the plate. He was told that converting to catcher would present a better opportunity to rise quickly up the organizational ladder.
"I looked at them and I said, 'No,'" Santana said. "And then I went home."
Leaning on a bat rack inside the doors of the Indians' clubhouse on Thursday morning, Santana recalled that turning point in his career. On the wall behind him hung Cleveland's lineup card, which included his name in the cleanup spot for that afternoon's home game against the Rockies. Santana was also given the start behind the plate.
He is entering his second full season as Cleveland's regular catcher, and also as one of baseball's budding stars behind the dish. What began as an overhauling of a prospect five years ago has reached the point of fine-tuning a future All-Star. Guiding Santana through the development process now is Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr.
"You couldn't find a better guy to teach you," Cleveland manager Manny Acta said. "He's been very important to Carlos."
Alomar is a veteran of 20 big league seasons -- 11 with the Indians -- which included six All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove during his time as a Major League catcher. These days, when he is not assisting Acta with the daily operation of the ballclub, Alomar can often be spotted working with Santana on the side.
The Indians acquired Santana from the Dodgers on July 26, 2008, in that trade that sent infielder Casey Blake to the Dodgers. Two seasons later, Alomar returned to Cleveland when Acta was hired as manager. In the years since, Alomar has served as a mentor to Santana, who came to the Tribe as a raw work in progress.
Alomar is quick to credit the effort of Double-A manager Chris Tremie and others from the Minor League side for creating a solid foundation for Santana's big league training.
"You have to give tribute to the Minor League guys here," Alomar said. "They worked with him tremendously to get him where he's at right now. When he first came in, they say he was very awkward receiving, with his stance, everything.
"They got him into an acceptable catching position."
Alomar's task has been to help Santana make the smaller adjustments that can help make him a standout behind the plate at the Major League level. There is no question that the 25-year-old Santana can hit. He belted 27 home runs, drew 97 walks and posted a .351 on-base percentage despite having a .239 average last year.
|"I try to tell him is listen, you're going to be that pitcher's caddy every day. That's the most important relationship -- between you and the pitchers. They have to know that you really care about them. The day that you have really bad offensive days, you have to go out there and say, 'At least I can make a difference behind the plate.'"|
|-- Sandy Alomar, on Carlos Santana|
"I saw him when he was coming up as a third baseman," said a National League scout. "I remember thinking we needed to keep an eye on this kid. He could hit. I never even imagined he'd become a catcher."
In order for Santana to become an elite catcher for Cleveland, though, there are still mechanical issues to smooth out. Given his short legs, Santana has a slight turn in his setup stance to help with covering his signs. Once the ball is in flight from the pitcher, Santana has to focus on his positioning to make sure he can clear his left knee on throws.
Alomar said he has seen great strides from Santana with his positioning and blocking this spring, but the focus has been on improving the time it takes the catcher to throw to second base. The pair have worked hard on ridding any excess body movement on throws and the times have dropped steadily as a result.
An average catcher throws to second base in roughly two seconds from the time the catcher releases the ball to the point the infielder receives it. Santana used to routinely need more than two seconds to get the ball down to second base. This spring, he was recently clocked at 1.87 seconds and he has often thrown around 1.9 on his tosses between innings.
"We know that consistently now, he's getting it," Alomar said. "I tell him all he has to do is get the ball in the air. The more movement you have, the more adjusting you have to make. Try to have less moment. When he waits for the ball, he's great."
Alomar added that his conversations with Santana often focus on the mental aspect of the game.
Santana, entering this season as Cleveland's cleanup hitter for the second straight season, is an integral piece to the Indians' offense. Even so, Alomar said the young catcher needs to concentrate on his game calling and focus on the days that he is having a rough time in the batter's box.
It is a balancing act that comes over time for offensive catchers.
"I try to tell him is listen, you're going to be that pitcher's caddy every day," Alomar said. "That's the most important relationship -- between you and the pitchers. They have to know that you really care about them. The day that you have really bad offensive days, you have to go out there and say, 'At least I can make a difference behind the plate.'
"You have a lot on your plate in regards to how to focus in the game, but you need to have that pitcher having that confidence and trust in you, that you're really in the game with him even when things are not going good for you offensively."
Santana appreciates all the advice that Alomar offers.
"We have a great relationship," said the young catcher. "All the time, I talk to him during the game or I'll go to him and ask about certain situations. Or, he'll come to me. I feel comfortable with him, because he's helped me a lot."
Both Acta and Alomar said Santana has made the most strides in his catching development this spring, now that he is two years removed from a scary right knee injury. Santana has been at full strength this spring, allowing him to handle a normal workload in preparation for Opening Day.
Santana has come this far because he overcame his initial fears about changing positions.
On that night in 2007, after he told the Dodgers he would not move from third base, Santana began to give the idea some more thought.
"I came back the next day," said Santana, "and I told them, 'OK, let's go. Let's do it.'"
Since that decision, Santana has been on a path to stardom.
"If he's focused, he can be good," Alomar said. "He can be very good. I'm not going to call shots right now, because he's still developing. He needs to take pride in being behind the plate. But once he turns that page, and he realizes that he can separate catching and offense, he could be very good."