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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | August 30, 2014

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Lou Marson Locks Down the Backup Catcher Role

During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players that will need to take their game to the next level if the Indians plan to contend in the American League Central Division this season.

By Ronnie Tellalian

Lou Marson has struggled at the plate in his short Major League career. His once fantastic defensive numbers took a big hit in 2012. The caught stealing percentage can be largely blamed on the starting pitchers lack of ability to hold runners at first, but Marson’s value lies in what he can do behind the dish, not at the plate. Regardless of his bat skills, few backup catchers in the Major Leagues could do a better job at filling his role.

Marson came over to the Indians from the Phillies in the Cliff Lee trade. At the time, Marson was a top catching prospect. He hit .314/.433/.416 at Double-A in 2008, and before the Lee deal he was hitting .294/.382/.370 with the Phillies Triple-A team. All signs suggested that Marson had great patience and could handle the bat; couple that with his defensive ability and the Tribe seemed to have a very good prospect in the wings. His defense showed right away as he caught base stealers at a 48% rate in 2009. His bat, however, showed a poor trend. His first full season as a backup in 2010 he hit an anemic .195. His career .220 average does not reflect the hitter he appeared to be when he first came to the Indians.

Many fans have grown frustrated with his performance and rightfully so. Marson has not shown anything near the skill of even an average Major League catcher, but then again, that’s why he comes off the bench. The Indians do not yet have an option in the organization ready to take his place. Yan Gomes was a big pickup and he very well may fill Marson’s role soon, but for the time being the backup catcher spot is Lou’s. The Indians could look externally for a replacement, but there are few players available at this point in the off season that could come in and do a better job. By comparing Marson to the other catchers in the league, he can be ranked accurately among his peers.

It’s unfair to compare Lou Marson to other starting catchers. This would be like comparing Joe Smith to starting pitchers. Marson is not a starting catcher, he is a backup catcher. That is his role on the team and that is the only role he will play unless Carlos Santana is injured. Comparing him to other players at his position, backup catcher, makes much more sense since, if the Indians were to replace him, they would replace him with another backup catcher.

For this comparison I looked at all catchers that receive at least 200 plate appearances but no more than 300 plate appearances. I also filtered out catchers that were starters but fell into that range due to injury and catchers that were backups last season but are slated to start in 2013. I found 20 such players that fit those criteria.

Among those 20 catchers, Marson ranks ninthin batting average, middle of the road for a backup catcher. His .348 on-base percentage ranks second among that same group. This is due to his incredibly high 15.3% walk rate. Walks do not sell tickets, but they don’t make outs either. A player’s on-base percentage is exactly the rate at which a hitter steps up to the plate and does not make an out. That is the goal of any offense, to not make outs. A team can score an infinite number of runs if it never makes an out; outs are the only think that limits run scoring. Marson made an out 65% of the time in 2012. In comparison, Asdrubal Cabrera made an out 66% of the time. Michael Brantley made an out 65% of the time and Jason Kipnis made an out 66% of the time. Regardless of his batting average, Marson is making outs at the same rate as some of the Indians top young hitters.

Continuing with the backup catcher comparison, Marson’s strikeout rate of 18.7% is the fifth best among the 20 catchers that met our standards. The best among these catchers was Brayan Pena with a 10.6% K rate and the worst was former Indians Kelly Shoppach, who split the season between the Red Sox and the Mets. His K rate was a whopping 36.3%, worse even than Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs.

There is a statistic called wRC (weighted runs created) which measures a players total run production. It is an off-shoot of Bill James’ Runs Created statistic. It takes all the things a player has done well and done poorly and puts them into one number. Instead of listing out a players stats like hits, home runs, batting average, stolen bases, etc, it just shows one number and says player x was worth y number of runs for his team last year. In this category, Marson ranks sixth among backup catchers, which means that only five backup catchers in Major League baseball were worth more runs than Lou Marson.

This is not to say that Marson should be the starting catcher and batting cleanup for the Indians. The Tribe would be a far worse team if Marson were starting behind the plate instead of Carlos Santana. Marson, however, is a valuable player in the backup role. Not many teams have a catcher off the bench as good as Marson. This may be surprising given his seemingly poor statistics, but the players that catch off the bench are not exactly a murderer’s row. Marson does not going to be an impact player with the Tribe, but replacing him with another available backup would be a loss for the Indians.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer