Photos: Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire

Whenever I share the list of Defensive Runs Saved leaders by position, there’s one name that always elicits a strong reaction.

People are surprised that not only is Carlos Santana of the Brewers the leading first baseman, he’s the leading first baseman by a healthy margin.  He has 9 Runs Saved, well ahead of Christian Walker (5 Runs Saved), Matt Olson (4), Anthony Rizzo (3), and Paul Goldschmidt (2), who have combined to win the last 8 Fielding Bible Awards. Santana has never won one.

Santana doesn’t exactly look the part. His body type would best be described as “stout.” He’s listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, and at that height he’s one of the shortest first basemen in MLB. At 37 years old, he’s also one of the oldest, which might make you think that his ideal position is DH.

But Santana has played a good first base in the past. This will be his 4th consecutive season with positive Runs Saved there. Since a rough 2015 in which he cost his team 11 runs with his defense, Santana has had positive Runs Saved in every season but one, peaking at 8 in 2017. He ranks 4th in Defensive Runs Saved by a first baseman over the last 3 seasons.

Most Defensive Runs Saved, 1B Since 2021

Name Runs Saved
Christian Walker 26
Matt Olson 16
Lewin Díaz 14
Carlos Santana 13
Paul Goldschmidt 13

How Is He Doing It?

So what’s driving Santana’s success?

Amassing Runs Saved at first base largely comes down to how well you field balls and finish plays more than how you handle throws (being well positioned isn’t part of the calculation). It might surprise you: Santana is pretty good at fielding and finishing.

Santana rates 13 Plays Saved better than the average first baseman (Plays Saved is similar conceptually to Statcast’s Outs Above Average). If you go to The Fielding Bible website, you’ll see that he’s an MLB-best 7 plays better than average on balls hit to his right, 4 plays better on balls hit to his left, and 2 plays better on balls hit at him.

So how is Santana getting to all of these balls?

In addition to charting batted ball locations and speeds, SIS also denotes what we call elements of descriptive defense, such as: Did the fielder slide, dive, or jump to make the play?

Santana is playing 2023 all-out. He leads all players with 29 plays made via slides, dives, and jumps this season (click the hyperlinks to see examples).

2023:      29 Diving, Sliding, Jumping plays in 852 innings

2021-22: 28 Diving, Sliding, Jumping Plays in 1,822 innings

He leads all first basemen with 53 such attempts. But his efforts are not wasted.

Carlos Santana in 2023

Type Plays Made-Attempts Success Rate (MLB avg)
Dives 15-28 54% (37%)
Slides 8-11 73% (71%)
Jumps 6-14 43% (39%)

Santana is succeeding at an average or better rate in sliding, diving, and jumping. Of his top 6 defensive plays made this season by Runs Saved value, 5 of them involved Santana diving, sliding, or jumping either to extend his range or to make sure he’d successfully corralled the ball.

Santana got off to a slow start after being traded by the Pirates to the Brewers but Craig Counsell continues to play him. The Brewers have been rewarded twice this week with home runs. They’ve also gotten good defense. In 16 games with the Brewers, Santana has 3 Runs Saved.