February 16, 2016 11:34:08 AM
STARKVILLE -- Elih Marrero knows baseball.
Marrero's father, Eli, played 10 years in Major League Baseball with six teams. Every day was like a classroom on the diamond for Elih, as he learned the ins and outs of the sport and how to play it the right way.
Marrero is using that knowledge to make a name for himself as part of the Mississippi State baseball team. The freshman is one of three catchers who will compete for playing time this season for No. 20 MSU, which will open the season at 4:30 p.m. Friday (SEC Network+) against Florida Atlantic at Dudy Noble Field.
"A lot of times we try to measure guys in their tools -- how fast they run, arm strength, and all of those things," MSU coach John Cohen said. "Baseball knowledge is important, too. I think he has a high baseball IQ."
After the Cincinnati Reds drafted Elih in the 29th round of the MLB Draft First-Year Player last June, the Coral Gables (Fla.) Senior High School standout decided to stick with his commitment to MSU. Named the 60th-best incoming freshman by Perfect Game, Marrero moved into the mix with junior Jack Kruger and senior Josh Lovelady to replace Gavin Collins, who started just 25 games behind the plate after being sidelined with a hand injury in the preseason. This season, Collins is competing for playing time at third base, which leaves three catchers to battle for the starting job.
"I think it is his instincts," Kruger said of Marrero. "I think he has really good and aggressive baseball instincts. There is no question he has talent and ability. He will continue to grow and develop that talent over the next couple of years."
Cohen said Collins also will still catch this year, but the Bulldogs will rely on Marrero, Kruger, and Lovelady behind the plate. Kruger, who played his freshman season at Oregon, transferred to MSU from Orange Coast (Calif.) College. His throwing arm is recovering and he hopes to be throwing to second base soon, but Kruger, who was named the No. 44 catcher by D1Baseball.com, is more of an offensive catcher. Last season, he hit .310 with 23 RBIs, 33 runs, and 10 doubles.
After transferring from Shelton State (Ala.) Community College, Lovelady made 20 starts at catcher last season. MSU was 13-7 in those games. Lovelady said he won't be surprised if Marrero gets a lot of chances at catcher.
"I think he's one of the best catchers I've ever seen behind the plate," Lovelady said. "He's very athletic, he's so toolsy with everything he does. He's so talented and he has a knack for the game."
MSU junior center fielder Jacob Robson said it seems like the 5-foot-7, 200-pound Marrero "has been playing three years in college already." Still, Marrero has had to make adjustments. He understands he doesn't know it all, which why he has asked for help.
"From the first day I got here, he (Lovelady) has taken me under his wing and taught me," Marrero said. "To this day, we learn something every day. We work hard every day."
Competition at catcher has been fierce, but it also has been friendly. Marrero said everyone is trying to one-up each other, but that's a good thing in the eyes of the catchers.
"All three of us are very competitive with each other, but at the end of the day we want to win," Lovelady said. "Whoever's back there, we're cheering the hardest for."
First-year pitching coach Wes Johnson said Marrero has handled the pitching staff "phenomenally," but he said he still has things to work on. Johnson said Marrero's competitiveness makes up for a lot things he hasn't experienced.
One of those adjustments is the number of quality arms Marrero catches every day. Between Dakota Hudson, Daniel Brown, Austin Sexton, Zac Houston, and Vance Tatum, MSU has an array of talented starting pitchers, as well as a number of quality arms in the bullpen.
"When you play in a high level of amateur baseball, you come across those great arms every once in a while," Cohen said. "He is catching a great arm every single day. I think he can handle it."
Along with handling the defensive duties of a catcher, the switch-hitting Marrero proved in high school he could handle the offensive end. Earning Perfect Game All-America honors all four years on varsity (2012-15), he hit .320 in 75 at-bats with 19 runs, 13 walks, 10 RBIs, three home runs, three doubles, and two triples as a senior last spring.
There's no question Marrero would like to be the catcher on opening day, but he has a selfless attitude.
"That is up to coach Cohen," Marrero said. "All of these catchers are working hard together. It does not matter who plays; we are all here to help the team win a championship."
Marrero's knowledge will help him at MSU. He said there are pros and cons to having a father who played baseball for a living, but he said his father always supported him.
"My dad always taught me to have confidence," Marrero said. "Ever since then, I have always gone out there and played my game. Whatever he has taught me, I have done it."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.