As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s backup catcher: Lou Marson.
Background: The Philadelphia Phillies picked Marson, now 25, out of high school with their fourth-round pick in the 2004 MLB amateur draft. He became known for his strong defense, and after an offensive breakout in his age-22 season (.849 OPS with Double-A Reading) he earned the No. 66 spot on Baseball America‘s 2009 Top 100 Prospects list (ahead of names like Brett Lawrie, Gio Gonzalez, and Daniel Bard). He came to Cleveland along with Jason Donald, Jason Knapp, and Carlos Carrasco in the July 2009 trade that sent Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco to Philadelphia.
Last year: Marson hit .230 with one home run, 19 RBI, 26 runs scored, and four stolen bases in 272 plate appearances. He continued to show solid plate discipline (8.8 percent walk rate), and a 79-point spike in his BABIP (.313, which is probably closer to his true-talent level than the .234 mark he posted in 2010) helped to mask the spike in his strikeout rate (25.0 percent, up from 18.7 percent in 2010). Everyone agrees that Marson is a phenomenal defensive catcher, which is how he earned his keep—despite pegging Marson’s bat at 17 percent below league average, FanGraphs estimated his value at 1.1 wins above replacement in less than half a season’s worth of games.
Key factor: Hitting the ball harder. Marson is never going to trouble pitchers with his power—this is a guy who never slugged over .416 in the minors—but he needs to show some pop in order to be an effective MLB hitter. Last year, Marson posted a weak .066 ISO, an unintimidating .287 Power Factor, and a cringe-worthy .296 slugging percentage, which would have been the lowest in all of baseball had he gotten enough plate appearances to qualify.
The only offensive asset Marson has is his ability to draw walks, but that’s mitigated by the fact that he strikes out once every four trips to the plate. A high strikeout rate isn’t a fatal flaw for a hitter—Mike Stanton, Ryan Howard, and Jim Thome are among the several quality hitters who whiffed more often than Marson did last year—but if you don’t put the ball in play very often you have to make it count when you do.
These numbers don’t look all that great, but they actually suggest a substantial amount of growth for Marson. All five predictions indicate improvements in his walk rate (projections vary from 9 to 11 percent), strikeout rate (20 to 23 percent), and ISO (.080 to .102), though his projections are hindered by an expected decline in his BABIP (RotoChamp has his hit rate increasing to .315—not sure what the rationale is behind that). These numbers paint the picture of a hitter who can get on base at roughly a league-average rate but won’t make outfielders play very deep.
The biggest discrepancies between the numbers are actually about playing time. Steamer sees Marson getting just 174 plate appearances, while ZIPS has him accumulating 397 PAs. Note that thanks to his position and strong defense his WAR numbers suggest he’ll be incredibly valuable for a part-time player.
Best-case scenario: Marson’s walk rate increases, his strikeout rate falls, and he starts showing respectable power—think the Bill James projection, but with about 25 more points of slugging percentage. He proves that he’s not a hole in the lineup, and as he continues to prove himself it’s actually worth moving Carlos Santana to first base on a regular basis. An almost-league-average hitter who plays great defense is the ideal backup catcher.
Worst-case scenario: Marson doesn’t show any growth in 2012—his walk rate and power remain stagnant while his strikeout rate continues its upward trend. Combine that with a healthy dose of BABIP regression and his numbers will resemble those he posted in 2010 (.195/.274/.286, 59 wRC+). Santana has to kneel behind the plate almost every day and Marson is essentially an automatic out when he makes an occasional appearances in the lineup.
Most likely scenario: I’d say the mean projection looks about right. With Marson is entering what should be his prime I’d take the over if I had to choose, but the average there looks like a pretty good 50th percentile projection.