Lou Marson has been the Indians' backup catcher since being part of the Cliff Lee deal in July of 2009. The backup catcher may not seem like a particularly important position on the team, but because Carlos Santana so often plays 1B or DH, Marson plays a lot more than the average backup backstop.
Bats: Right Throws: Right
2012 Age: 26
2012 bWAR: 0.1
2012 fWAR: 0.5
2012 Salary: $491,700
2013 Contract Status: Arbitration Eligible (Year 1)
Serving as a team’s backup catcher for more than three years is pretty rare. Usually, a backup plays their way up to a starting role, down and out of a job entirely, or simply gets a change of scenery. Marson is one of just five catchers around baseball to serve as the same team’s backup for each of the last three seasons. As I said, Lou Marson plays a lot more frequently than most backup catchers. His 235 PA were the most by any reserve at the position in the A.L. That still isn’t a huge amount, but the difference between a good backup and a bad one can certainly be a couple of wins if he’s playing often. Two wins shouldn’t be ignored. So, how has Marson done and should he continue in his role with the Tribe?
Right off the bat, I’d like to point out that Lou Marson has about as much power as a wet noodle. Isolated power (ISO) takes a player’s slugging percentage and subtracts their batting average, meaning a player who only hit singles would have an ISO of .000. Marson had an ISO of .062 this year, ranking 337th out of 347 players with 200+ PA. He didn’t hit a single home run and only six players in baseball had more PA than that without hitting one.
On the other hand, Marson certainly could draw a walk this season. He’d always been pretty good at that, but in 2012 his BB% climbed to 15.3, the 5th highest in baseball among players with 200+ PA and the highest by an Indian since Travis Hafner in 2007. Getting on base is the most important thing for a hitter to do, and drawing a lot of walks is a great way to do it.
Sadly, even with such a strong BB%, Marson’s OBP was still just .348, which is good (the American League’s OBP was .320 for 2012), but not great. How does that happen? A .226 BA, that’s how. That’s actually better than Marson’s career BA of .220. With such a low batting average and so little power, those walks are the only offensive value Marson’s provided this year.
Of concern to some are the differences between the first and second halves of Marson’s season:
He was an above average hitter before the All-Star break, but a catastrophe afterwards, when his slugging percentage was the worst of any player in baseball with so many PA as he had. I suspect much of it can be explained by the massive drop in his BABIP. Marson’s .375 figure before the break was far higher than his career norm, whereas his post-break figure of .213 was far below it. Whatever you think of Marson, I wouldn’t read too much into those splits.
Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs had Marson’s defense rated as above average in 2011, but he dipped in the estimation of both sites this year. One area Marson performed particularly poorly in was catching base stealers. In 2010 and in 2011, Marson threw out 38% of attempted thieves, far above the league average of 27% over that period. In 2012 though, Marson’s CS% dropped to just 14%, 3rd worst in MLB among players who caught at least 500 innings. No catcher who played that much gave up as many stolen bases per inning as he did. A catcher isn’t fully responsible for the number of steals that occur on his watch, but Marson’s defense needs to be bounce back for him to play as frequently as the Indians use their backup.
His BA and SLG% aren’t pretty, but if Marson’s elevated walk rate is sustainable, he actually provides what can be considered average offensive production for a backup catcher: Marson’s OPS+ was 84 this year, while the median OPS+ among the 30 catchers with 150 to 300 PA was 82.
There’s no reason to be in love with Lou Marson, but there’s no reason to want to ride him out of town on a rail either. With much better defensive numbers before 2012, I’m willing to give Marson the benefit of the doubt and say he can bounce back next season. The offense isn’t pretty (not even ONE home run?!), but it’s not entirely ineffective either. If he doesn’t require much of a pay raise in his first year of arbitration, he’s capable of holding down the fort when Santana’s not back there in 2013.
Here are Marson's numbers for his three and a half seasons with the Indians:
|CLE (4 yrs)||250||853||744||88||162||38||4||4||58||16||5||93||181||.218||.307||.296||.603||71|
Place in the Indians’ 2013 Plans: I expect a small raise (to ~$750,000) and another year as the team’s backup catcher. If Santana is going to spend less and less time back there though, a superior starting option to Marson is needed.