The Oakland A's have had a tough time fitting Mark Canha into their lineup over the last two seasons. He's gotten most of his time at first base, where he's a capable defender with plenty of mobility and a good arm. He's also spent time in the outfield corners, especially LF, where he holds his own with better range than the eyeball test might immediately suggest. But on Monday he got a start at third base for the first time in his MLB career, and that's the position we're here to discuss today.
This wasn't Canha's first time at the hot corner, as he filled in for a couple innings in a blowout loss last April and stepped in a couple times in the late innings in Detroit last week. But it was the first time he played the position intentionally, from the start of a game whose result was still in question. This is significant to me because, for a guy who has struggled to find regular playing time, added versatility can be the ticket back into a bigger role. Just as Chris Coghlan has gotten himself into the lineup by starting at four different positions already, Canha could find his way into more at-bats if he can prove competent at a position other then 1B and LF.
During spring training, I asked Canha about his experiences at third base and how often he's gotten to play the position:
"Very little. That was something I wanted to pursue earlier in my career and it never really unfolded the way I would have liked. When I was with the Marlins, they never really let me go out and play third. ... I could still do it in emergencies.
"I like working over there just to get your footwork down. I think it helps. I'll go over there in batting practice occasionally and take some grounders at third. I think it translates and helps a lot with things at first base."
One thing I'll say about Canha is that he'll do anything to get in the lineup and help the club. The dude is a team player and he has no problem leaving his comfort zone in whatever way is asked of him, and this is a great example. Here he is dabbling in other positions during practice just to stay sharp and get a fresh perspective on things, and between that dedication and his underrated athleticism he has opened the door to the possibility of playing new positions in actual games. Heck, in the spring he even made a start in center field, just to see how it went. Here's what Bob Melvin said at the time, via Jane Lee of MLB.com:
"It wouldn't surprise me if he handled it fine. ... He's a sneaky good runner, and he stole some bases for us last year," Melvin said. "He does a nice job wherever we put him. His more natural positions are left and first, but we even had him at third base last year, and he's open to anything. He just wants to be in the lineup."
So, with the stage set, how did Canha do on Monday? By my count he was only really involved in four plays, and two of those were popouts (one of which he grabbed using a basket catch because Mark Canha is an absolute treasure). Let's look at the other two plays, one of which was good and one of which was bad.
First, the good! In the 4th inning, with the score tied, Nelson Cruz stood on second with one out. The batter lofted a fly to medium-deep center, and Cruz decided to test the arm of Billy Burns. In theory this was a smart move by Cruz because Burns isn't much of a thrower, but the problem is that Cruz also isn't much of a runner; this was a battle between two subpar entities, like if Jim Johnson were pitching to Billy Butler.
Initially it appeared that Cruz won the battle of lesser evils, as Burns' throw came in a little short and slightly off-line. However, Canha leapt to the rescue. He recognized that the ball was not going to beat Cruz to the base, so he ran several steps up the line toward second, caught it on the fly before it had a chance to short-hop him, turned on a dime and swiped a tag across Cruz's butt to complete the double play.
Canha displayed a lot on this play. There was the sheer baseball IQ that led to the heads-up decision to come off the bag for the throw, because if he'd conservatively waited for it to come to him then Cruz would certainly have been safe. There was the mobility to move quickly up the line to the exact spot he needed to be to catch the ball. And there was the agility and athleticism to quickly twist around and apply the tag. This was not an easy play, and it's one that I don't think gets made most of the time. It was also huge within the game, as it erased the potential go-ahead run and ended Seattle's first real rally.
And now, the bad. With one out in the 7th, and the Mariners leading 3-1, Nori Aoki attempted to steal third base. Stephen Vogt's throw was rushed and it short-hopped the bag, skipping past a helpless Canha and into left field. Aoki trotted home easily with what turned out to be the deciding run.
First things first: the error on this play was correctly charged to Vogt, as his throw was the biggest problem. But it's easy to wonder if a more experienced third baseman would have found a way to knock it down before it got past him and made matters worse. The throw wasn't wide or high, just short, and a guy who is used to playing a lot of first base theoretically should have been able to at least get a glove on it.
On the other hand, this was presumably the first time Canha has ever covered third base on a steal attempt in MLB, and can you really blame him for not making a second sparkling play to save yet another questionable throw? In my opinion, that throw gets through to the outfield more often than not, no matter who's on the receiving end, and I'm not holding this one against him. The throw from catcher to third is one of the quickest, most sudden plays in the game, and there's not really anything like it at first or LF -- even when the catcher snaps a pickoff throw to first, at least the 1B has spent the entire sequence camped out on the bag holding the runner rather than having to react to an unexpectedly unfolding steal attempt.
Canha starting at 3B was probably a one-time thing, with Jed Lowrie just needing a routine day off while Danny Valencia is still recovering from his pulled hammy. But I think he acquitted himself well there, and with the thin infield depth chart it's nice to know that he can be another viable option -- whether in an emergency late-inning situation, or as a spot starter if one or more of the other infielders gets hurt.
(Note: None of these plays involved Canha fielding a grounder, which is obviously one of the primary duties of an infielder. For what it's worth, he made a sweet diving play while playing 3B in Detroit on Wednesday, leaping to his left to smother a grounder and making the throw to first for the out. Unfortunately there's no video, but I assure you it was impressive. Now let's see him field a routine grounder.)