Marson Hopes for Increased Opportunities in 2013
Bob Toth | On 18, Oct 2012
After a disappointing 2012 Cleveland Indians season the organization is at a crossroads to decide how to progress with the organization, not just for the 2013 season but several seasons to come. Decisions involve ownerships, the front office, managerial and coaching decisions and the players. For the month of October, we’ll look at how the Indians ended up in their current predicament, but most importantly, Where Do the Indians Go From Here. Today we analyze one of the many players facing salary arbitration this winter.
While it certainly was not the intention at the time of the trade, backup catcher Lou Marson has been the most consistent of the prospects acquired by Cleveland in July of 2009 from the Philadelphia Phillies, in exchange for Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco, to grace the Indians’ roster.
When trading away Cy Young award winning pitchers, most teams have to hope the highlight of the trade three years later is not a reserve catcher.
So goes the Indians’ subpar prospect hauls and their erratic play over the last few years.
The 26-year-old Marson has been a durable and serviceable backstop for the Tribe, even though it comes with the inconsistent performance easily blamed on infrequent playing time.
Marson could not find the field in April, making just three starts and batting .111 in the month. While he made nine starts and 13 appearances overall in May, his batting average for the month remained a miniscule .160, but four walks helped to kick his on-base percentage up to .300 during that time.
After taking over for a concussed Carlos Santana in the 8th inning on May 25th in Chicago, Marson put together seven-game and nine-game hitting streaks over the next 21 games, including falling just a home run short of hitting for the cycle on June 30th in a career-best four-hit performance versus Baltimore. With more regular playing time through July 14th, Marson batted .377 with seven runs driven in and his batting average reached .297. He hit in 18 of the 21 games and reached base in all but one.
With Santana back and playing time beginning to dwindle, Marson’s stats faded away. Over the final two and one-half months of the season, he batted just .156. He drew more walks (21) than he had base hits (15). He played in less than half of the team’s games to close out the season.
During 2012, Marson played in his fewest number of games in any full major league season during his five-year career. His overall offensive numbers were down across the board when compared to previous seasons with the exception to an improved eye at the plate. His patience led to a significant drop in strikeouts (from 68 to 44), and an increase in walks (from 24 to 36) boosted his on-base percentage nearly 50 points. He supplied the offense with just ten extra base hits in 195 at bats and drove in only 13 runs. For the second time in his big league career, he was homerless.
Marson has never been a juggernaut at the dish, but there was a time that he showed promise.
As Marson aged in the minor leagues, his batting average increased. After batting .243 in Single-A Lakewood in 2006, his average rose to .288 in 2007 and up to .314 in 2008 with Double-A Reading. He never hit for significant power, but had shown an ability to drive in runs and provide a solid on-base percentage.
The catcher made his major league debut back in 2008 with the Phillies, appearing in the final game of the season as a 22-year-old rookie, slugging a home run and driving in a pair in an 8-3 victory. Considered a top prospect in the Phillies’ system, he had been added to the major league roster as a September call-up after the completion of the Double-A season.
Marson did not initially break camp with the Phillies to start the 2009 season, but was quickly added to the roster less than two weeks in after starting catcher Carlos Ruiz was lost to an injury. Marson batted .235 in seven games before being sent down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. After being acquired by the Indians, Marson was sent to Triple-A Columbus, where he played in 28 games and batted .243, with one home run and nine runs batted in. After the completion of the minor league season, he joined the Indians and batted .250 with six doubles and five singles in 14 games.
Marson started exactly one-half of the Indians’ games in 2010 at catcher. He had a fielding percentage of .993 and threw out 38% of would-be base stealers. But at the plate, his offensive woes continued, as he batted just .195 on the season with three home runs and 22 RBI. While his average was down 55 points from the previous season, his on-base percentage plummeted 72 points to .274. On June 11th, his .191 batting average could not make up for his AL-leading 35% success rate throwing out base stealers and he was optioned to Columbus for the highly-touted Santana. Marson would be recalled on August 3rd when a left knee injury would sideline Santana for the remainder of the season.
Last year, Marson’s role changed. When the season began, Marson saw action infrequently, appearing in back-to-back games just two times through the first two months of the season. It was in June that it was decided that a struggling Santana, batting .228 at the end of May but making up for it somewhat with more walks than strikeouts, was going to see a significant increase in his playing time at first base. Santana made 14 of his 27 starts in June at first, giving Marson more starts behind the plate.
The move initially seemed to benefit Marson, as his batting average climbed from .204 at the beginning of the month to .245 by month’s end. The success was short lived though, as while Santana’s power returned and his batting average steadily improved, Marson’s steadily decreased. He finished the season with a .230 batting average, one home run, and 19 RBI in 74 starts and 79 games overall.
If the Indians are going to rely on Marson as a regular catcher, he will need to show concerted improvements in several statistical categories.
The most noticeable deficit has been in the batter’s box. As the Tribe has had to play him more and more, his lack of offensive production hurt a lineup that already carried several players on the roster who were better known as defensive specialists than they were for their bats.
One of Marson’s greater strengths during his first two years in the big leagues became one of his greater weaknesses in 2012. During his first full year in Cleveland, Marson had the American League’s third-best percentage of throwing out base runners from behind the plate (37.8%). The next season, Marson ranked second in the same category (38.5%).
This season, Marson found himself on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, allowing the fifth-most stolen bases by a catcher in the American League, with 67 swiped. This total was nearly 20 stolen bases higher than his 2011 total, despite starting ten fewer games. It represented nearly one stolen base allowed per game played. His 14.1% success rate throwing out runners in 2012 was second-worst in the AL when compared to others playing in a similar amount of games. Only Minnesota Twins’ catcher Joe Mauer (13.8%) had a worse percentage, the worst of his big league career.
Certainly, the catcher is not entirely to blame for the number of stolen bases against him. Santana allowed a career-high 70 stolen bases this season in his 100 games behind the plate and threw out 26% of would-be base stealers. The high rates of stolen bases against regular Indians’ starters Zach McAllister (94.7%), Ubaldo Jimenez (86.4%), and Justin Masterson (78.1%) surely did neither catcher any favors.
Marson was by far the more reliable defender behind the plate despite the increased number of steals allowed. On the season, he allowed just two passed balls. Santana allowed ten, the most in the AL. Marson made just two errors; Santana had seven behind the plate in 31 more appearances. Marson’s fielding percentage while catching of .996 was better than Santana’s .990.
If the team feels that Marson is capable of carrying more of the catching duty, it would allow Santana to see more action as a regular or platoon first baseman or designated hitter. It would allow the team to focus some of its offseason pursuits elsewhere, instead of necessarily having to focus offensively on the existing holes at first, DH, and left field.
Marson feels he is up to the task.
“I think I can play every day. [Santana] can play other positions,” Marson said during his nine-game hitting streak during the 2012 season. “So I’m gonna try to do everything I can do to catch every day.”
Marson is under team control until the end of the 2015 season. He made almost $492,000 this season as a part-time bench player and is in line for a potential raise this offseason through his first round of salary arbitration. If the Indians elect to bring him back for 2013, he could be seeing a raise in his salary near the neighborhood of $800,000 (projections courtesy of Matt Swartz’s arbitration projections at MLBtraderumors.com).
If Marson remains in the team’s future moving forward as a more regular catcher, he will need to spend significant time trying to improve upon his shortcomings and show the team that he is capable of being the everyday player he thinks he can be.
Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images