KANSAS CITY -- There has never been much doubt about Carlos Santana's abilities as a hitter. The questions that have hovered over his head during his time with the Indians have dealt more with his long-term viability as a catcher.
Experience can create a natural progression for players, and the Indians believe Santana is in the midst of that kind of growth behind the plate. He will hit and get on base, but the Tribe needs him to also embrace the defensive side: game-calling, throwing and communication.
"He's had a hot start offensively," said Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr., a former All-Star catcher for the Tribe. "I think he's still working behind the plate. I mean, he's still further ahead offensively than defensively, but he's doing the job, and he's taking more pride in his defense."
That showed on Monday night in Chicago.
In the seventh inning, the White Sox had runners on first and second base with no outs and a 2-1 lead on the Indians. Santana thought Alejandro De Aza might try to advance the runners with a bunt, and the catcher saw pinch-runner Blake Tekotte inching farther and farther from second base. Santana alerted starter Justin Masterson and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera that a pick-off attempt might be in order.
Masterson threw a ball and Santana fired a strike down to second base, where Cabrera applied the tag on Tekotte for a critical out. One pitch later, Masterson induced an inning-ending double play and Cleveland was on its way to a 3-2 comeback victory.
"That was all him. He was ready for it," Masterson said. "Sure enough, he threw to second and it was, 'See ya.'"
It was a glimpse at Santana's potential as a defender.
The catcher has a strong arm, but his caught-stealing rate (25.4 percent over the 2011-12 seasons) has been in the middle of the pack in the American League. Cleveland's starting pitchers combined to allow the second most stolen bases (168) in the AL in that span, so the onus should not be placed entirely on Santana or the club's other catchers.
So far this season, Santana's caught-stealing rate has dipped to 17 percent, and the Indians' pitching staff has posted a 4.70 ERA with him behind the plate. Last year, the catcher led the AL with 10 passed balls. There are undoubtedly flaws in Santana's defensive game, but he is putting in the work behind the scenes in an effort to improve.
It is most noticable in Santana's communication with the pitchers.
"In the years before, I tried to talk to them, but I was a little shy," Santana admitted. "But this year I feel comfortable, and the pitchers will come to me when I'm playing."
Masterson believes Santana's shyness may have had a little to do with the catcher's limited ability to speak English. There has been improvement early on this year.
"He's definitely done better at talking with pitchers," Masterson said. "I think it's his confidence in English. I think before he had a fear of getting made fun of a little bit -- a little self-conscious. I think he's gotten past that. He's more assertive. He asks questions."
Alomar said this is an integral aspect to Santana's growth as a catcher.
"That's been a big turnaround for him," Alomar said. "When it comes to getting everything better, from a catching point of view and for the pitchers, you have to have good communication. His language has to get better in order for him to do that. That will open up a whole world of possibilities.
"If you restrict yourself with communicating, it's going to be hard for you to improve behind the plate. That's a big key for him, and he's doing much better with that."
If Santana continues to get better in that regard, perhaps the questions about whether he should eventually switch to first base or designated hitter will cease. What will not be questioned is whether Santana should be in the lineup on a regular basis.
The 27-year-old Santana gives Cleveland a switch-hitter who boasts both power and on-base ability. That has been on display to the extreme in this season's first month, with Santana hitting .352 with a .435 on-base percentage and a .704 slugging percentage through 15 games. Along the way, he has collected four homers, seven doubles, eight walks, nine RBIs and 11 runs scored.
As things stand at the moment, Santana's average is the highest for an Indians catcher in the season's first month since 1997, when Alomar hit .387 for the Tribe. Santana's on-base percentage is tied with Steve O'Neill ('21) for the best mark in the first month by an Indians catcher. Santana's 11 extra-base hits and 38 total bases are the second-most for a catcher in the first month in team history.
"He's been pretty good so far," Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said. "He's a dangerous hitter. He's got power from both sides. He's got pretty darned good eye for the most part."
In Spring Training, Santana suited up for his native Dominican Republic during the country's undefeated run to the World Baseball Classic championship. The catcher played every game for the D.R. and said he learned a lot from the experience.
"Yeah, it helped me a lot," Santana said. "I never played with too many star players from the Dominican. The WBC helped me a lot with everything -- outside and inside."
Masterson also believes the tournament helped bring out the best in Santana.
"I think there was some extra motivation from the WBC," Masterson said. "I think for him, not only the fact of having some fellow countrymen maybe getting on him a little bit, but I think even more it was the taste of victory, knowing what it feels like to be victorious. Then you come here and it's no longer fun just to play the game. You want to win the game."
If the Indians are going to win as much as they hope, Santana will surely play a big role both in the batter's box and behind the plate.
"He's been terrific," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "When you're a young catcher, the learning curve is steep. He's still learning, but I think he wants to. I think he's energetic. I think there's a lot of things that probably go unnoticed just because he swings the bat so well."