A few words in praise of Starling Marte

Since this blog is mostly read by Pirate fans, I don't actually need to start out by saying that Starling Marte has been good this year. Pirate fans certainly know that. Seasons play out in shifts, and Marte was the first Pirate to really carry the offense in 2013. He handed the baton off to Russell Martin, who then handed off to Andrew McCutchen, who then handed off to Pedro Alvarez. All four players are having really good years at the plate (they all have wRC+ of over 120, which is sabermetric speak for "they've been statistically as good as you think they have") and they've all played very good defense. Because Marte's hot streak came first, though, and because he's been in something of a slump since mid-May (he's shown signs of breaking out of it a couple of times, but may or may not be there yet), I feel like his contributions are a little bit lost in the crowd. Since Marte went bananas at the plate last night with a triple and two home runs, let's take a minute or two and talk about the season that he's having. 

When talking about Marte, I always think it's important to point out his path through the minors. He wasn't signed as a 16-year old or even a 17-year old which means that he wasn't very on the Latin American prospect lists that we talk about every July 2nd. Instead, Marte was signed by the Pirates in January of 2007, a few months after his 18th birthday (I think he may have been counted as a 17-year old for that signing period, but the vagaries of this sort of thing elude me; the point remains that he was old for a Dominican prospect either way). He made his Dominican Summer League debut at 18 and played two full seasons in the DSL. For comparison, both Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco played in the DSL at 17 and were in the US, playing for the Gulf Coast League Pirates at the age of 18. Marte's first season in the States didn't come until his 20-year old season, when he went to West Virginia at mid-year and hit .312 with 17 extra base hits in 54 games. This is really pretty crazy, when you think about it. In 2010, Marte got off to a scorching start with Bradenton in the Florida State League, then broke his hamate bone in May and lost most of the rest of the season. He came back win Altoona in 2011 and was even better than before, hitting .332/.370/.500 with 38 doubles, eight triples, and 12 home runs. That firmly established him as a prospect, even though he was 22 years old and had only played one full season of minor league baseball on American soil. You know the rest from here; Marte tore up Triple-A in 2012, got promoted to the Pirates, hit a home run on the first pitch he saw, etc. etc. 

With the Pirates this year, Marte's hitting .283/.343/.454 with 12 doubles, 7 triples, and eight home runs. He's stolen 22 base in 30 attempts (just about at the break-even point at 73.3% success), he's been incredible in PNC Park's huge left field; he covers a ton of ground with his speed and good instincts and his arm is ridiculous.  He runs the bases with reckless abandon. This is occasionally frustrating, but usually fruitful for the Pirates; Fangraphs rates him as one of baseball's best base-runners (the metric doesn't account for stolen bases). He's been solid in every aspect of the game and if he weren't a relatively unknown rookie in a glamorous position, he'd likely be a strong All-Star candidate this year.

Coming into 2013, there was a lot of concern about his strikeouts and his ability to draw a walk. A strikeout rate of over 20% and a walk rate around 5% were the only red flags in his minor league numbers and because he hit so well at every level, it was hard to know how much that would affect him with the Pirates. Marte's striking out quite a bit this year, but his 22.2% rate is pretty much in line with his minor league numbers. His walk rate is a bit low (13 in 324 PAs, a 4% rate), but he's always had a knack for getting hit with pitches and his 14 HBPs this year essentially doubles his walk rate and that's what has helped his OBP over .340, which is fine for a leadoff hitter. 

Depending on your defensive metric of choice and how you account for base running, Marte's on pace for a 6-7 win season. To put it in better context: because PNC Park plays as a pitcher's park, he's having a better year at the plate than Justin Upton without considering his superior defense or speed on the bases. A year ago, a lot of people all around baseball would've signed off the Pirates making an Upton-for-Marte trade as a way for the Pirates to upgrade. That's not not true today. If Marte stays on his 6-7 WAR pace, that's a borderline-MVP-type season on the upper end. That's incredible for a 24-year old that didn't play in the States until he was 20 and didn't play a full season of baseball until he was 22. Marte is still streaky and slump-prone, which means it's certainly possible that his numbers at the plate could come back to earth even more in the second part of the season. His ability is really undeniable, though, and it seems like he's fighting through the end of his first big league slump right now (.311/.323/.623 since June 8th).

The potential outcomes for Marte's career are still all over the map since his experience is so limited. It's possible that the strikeouts will eventually become a bigger flaw in his offensive approach, which could limit his value as a left fielder. It's also possible that his power will continue to develop and that as his plate discipline improves he becomes a middle-of-the-lineup monster on par with the guy that stands just to his left on most nights. For now, though, it's fair enough to say that through almost a half of a season, Marte's been one of the best players on one of the best teams in baseball. There's plenty about that sentence that should make Pirate fans smile. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.