Catchers have one of the most difficult jobs in baseball. In addition to all the mental aspects that go into calling a game, it’s physically demanding and frequently results in injuries. The Indians have said that their everyday catcher this season will be Carlos Santana, who is also expected to hit somewhere within the heart of the lineup. But would the team be better served to use him as their primary designated hitter instead?
If the front office doesn’t sign someone to fill Travis Hafner’s former position, the Indians have said that they will most likely use a rotational DH system for 2013. It might make more sense to rework the roster so that Santana, who is more useful at the plate than behind it, sees the most time in that role.
Last year, Santana hit .252/.365/.420 and led the team in home runs, walks and RBIs, despite getting off to a slow start. His 3.7 wins above replacement were the highest among Indians players last season, largely due to his offensive contributions during the second half. His ability to hit for power and get on base will continue be a huge asset this season, and although additions like Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds will take some of the pressure off, Cleveland can’t afford to lose Santana’s bat due to injury. With so many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup, it will be vital to have someone who can manage to hit home runs while maintaining a walk rate nearly twice that of the league average.
While his ability at the plate has been impressive, it’s no secret that Santana has struggled with defense. Originally a third baseman, the 26-year-old was converted to full-time catcher in 2008—the same year Cleveland acquired him from the Dodgers. The team has patiently waited on his catching skills to improve ever since then, but it hasn’t happened as rapidly as they once hoped. Last year, he led the league with 10 passed balls, and his caught-stealing percentage the past two seasons has been average or even slightly below. The blame doesn’t fall completely on his shoulders (the pitching staff certainly didn’t do either of the Tribe’s catchers any favors) but his struggles have been consistent throughout his short career.
Because they are involved with every pitch, catchers have more opportunities to get hurt. Santana is no exception to this and he has been injured several times. Most of them have been minor, but he also had two major incidents. In August 2010, he was hurt in a collision at home plate, tearing his LCL and missing the rest of the year. Last May, he spent time recovering from a concussion after being struck by a foul tip. His injuries have taken a toll on the way he plays, and consequently, he doesn’t always block bad pitches or prevent runners from scoring the way that he should. Those are understandable fears, but a catcher needs to be able to do those things.
Santana isn’t necessarily accident-prone, and he certainly can’t be lumped in the same category as Grady Sizemore or Travis Hafner. However, he has missed enough time that it merits considering the impact another serious injury could have on the team. Is it worth risking the loss of his bat, when the Indians need him in the lineup and he is only an average catcher at best?
The Indians are paying Lou Marson $1 million to be their backup catcher this season, and it might make sense to put him to better use. The 26-year-old is actually a good defensive player, but his lack of success at the plate is hard to overlook. It’s also not as though Marson has never hit major league pitching. During the rare stretches where he receives frequent playing time, his average usually starts to go up, only to drop back down once those at-bats go away. But with a grand total of five home runs in five years and a career OPS of just .609, it’s very difficult to make a case for why he should be an everyday player. His biggest asset as a hitter is his ability to walk. He had a .348 OBP last season, the fourth highest on the team among players with at least 100 at-bats.
That doesn’t change the fact that he still can’t hit for power or average, but this isn’t 2012. The Indians don’t need every last ounce of offense that their lineup can scrounge together, because Jose Lopez isn’t batting cleanup anymore. They have Swisher, Reynolds and Santana, and that’s before they even get to the mid-level power guys like Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera. There aren’t a lot of worthwhile catchers available as free agents and very few, if any, that have been mentioned as viable trade options. Yan Gomes has no major league experience, and none of the Indians’ top catching prospects are even close to ready.
Marson has been the Indians’ backup catcher since shortly after he was traded from the Phillies in 2009. Excluding last year, his caught-stealing rate has always been 38 percent or higher, which is much better than the league average of 27 percent. Something inexplicable happened to his arm last season, when he only threw out 14 percent of basestealers, but if he can demonstrate during spring training that he’s back to his old form, one bad year can be forgiven. According to Baseball-Reference, his 32 percent career caught-stealing rate is ranked 14th among active catchers, sandwiched between Joe Mauer and Miguel Montero. For comparison, Santana comes in at 31st. Marson is also a much more durable catcher than Santana, and so far he has had either the luck or the skill to avoid any serious injuries. Baseball Prospectus lists him as missing only three games during his major league career, after he was hit by a pitch last spring.
One final interesting note is that while the team ERA was slightly lower when Santana was the catcher (4.68 compared to 4.86), all of the starting pitching candidates this upcoming season—Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber—had better individual strikeout-to-walk ratios when Marson caught for them. As a team, the pitching staff’s K/BB rates last year were 2.29 with Marson versus 1.81 with Santana. Consequently, opposing batters also had a lower OBP when Marson was behind the plate. Considering the Tribe gave up the fourth most walks in baseball last season, the team could benefit from any move that cuts down on them.
Carlos Santana has still not shown that he is fully capable of running a pitching staff, despite two and half years of opportunity, and his injury history is a concern. For the 2013 season, the Indians need to move him to the DH role with only minimal catching duties. He can benefit the team much more with a bat than he can with his glove. In the meantime, Marson would make an adequate everyday catcher for the team, despite his struggles with offense. Having consistent at-bats for the first time in his career might even help him improve.