One of the big questions I have been asking myself over the first 29 games of the season is who is this guy we call Starling Marte. So far he has only played 75 games as a professional and while he has been tearing it up this season there have also been stretches through his pro career that made you think he might never “get it.”
Marte is always a guy that has exceptional speed but lacks the ability to maximize it as he has some problems getting on base when he is not collecting hits. That really isn’t a problem now because he is now hitting .328 so naturally he is going to have a solid on base numbers (.391), but last season when he had a .257 average his OBP was only .300. Throughout his minor league career he only walked 5.1% and struck out about 20% of the time. As a leadoff hitter the walk rate is relatively low and while the strikeout rate isn’t horrible it is still a part of the game he needs to work on. His short major league career shows about the same rate as through 75 games he is walking at a 4.8% rate and a 25.2% strikeout rate. The strikeout rate is really high but he has improved from last season (27.5%) to this season (21.9%).
So what does Marte bring the Pirates? First, he brings a really solid leadoff option in 2013. Obviously he has been mainly the leadoff option for the Pirates and that spot in the lineup is hitting for a .325/.391/.492 average with 39 hits which is the most of any spot in the batting order on the Pirates. In 2012 the Pirates hit only .246/.291/.386 out of that spot and while this season has small sample sizes I think we can see what can happen to the team when there is a guy at the top of the lineup that is getting on base and creating things when he gets on the bases. His speed has helped him take the extra base and his nine stolen bases currently lead the team as he is projected now to have upwards of 30 steals on the season.
Aside from getting hits and getting on base there really isn’t anything that tells you that Marte should be this much better than last year with essentially the same walk rate and a slightly improved strikeout rate. His batting average on balls in play is extremely high at over .400 so as that comes back to normal he will regress but I am not sure that is the only reason why he has improved this season.
When you look at what Marte is doing at the plate there are some positive coorilation to his success and the pitches he is seeing. Last season he was swinging at around 35% of the pitches that he saw outside of the zone (O-Swing%). This season he cut that number down to just over 31% which isn’t great all told but when you look at the contact he is making on those pitches (O-Contact%) he has drastically improved from 51% last season to nearly 62% this season. So while he is still swinging at too many pitches outside of the strike zone he is still able to make contact on over 10% more of those pitches and put them in play and when you are riding a high BABIP those are going to turn into hits.
Marte has also marginally improved on pitches he is swinging at inside the strike zone (Z-Swing%) from 59% last season to almost 62% this season and he is also making more contact on pitches inside the strike zone up from 87% to over 90% this season. Learning the strike zone is something that Marte has struggled with throughout his career the fact of the matter is that he has improved in his short amount of time this season and it has resulted in him getting on base more and creating more chances for the guys behind him to drive him in. All told his contact rate has gone up from 73% to 80% so while he is never going to be a guy that walks a lot he is starting to show that he has become a guy who can adjust and make more contact. With those improvements Marte is right around league average in O-Swing% (29%), Z-Swing% (64%), O-Contact% (66%), and Z-Contact% (86%) and Contact% (79%). As you can see he was pretty poor in most categories last year but seems to have adjusted well thus helping to make him a more complete hitter.
The contact rate has helped Marte gather some more hits but he has worked on being more affective in pitcher counts. For a lot of last season it seemed like when pitchers got ahead of him there was a pretty good chance that they were going to put him away fairly easily. At the start of this season it was much of the same but he has really come around. With the pitcher ahead in the count last season he hit .229/.314/.554 and so far this season he has upped that to a .309/.345/.436 line. While his power was there more last season I think Marte may be learning that when you are down in the count the most important thing to do is just to put the ball in play and put some pressure on the defense. League average with the pitcher ahead is .204/.212/.302 this season and while that number surprised me a little bit (that he was better than league average) it goes to show the kind of talent Marte has.
With two strikes he hit .200/.227/.314 in 2012 and in 2013 he is still struggling with a .183/.279/.217 and while the average is down he is getting on base at a higher rate with two strikes. To put that into perspective the ML average with two strikes is .178/.246/.271 this season so while Marte’s average has done down with two strikes he is getting on base at a better rate than the league average.
I think we are still trying to figure out who Marte is and while we are doing so we have seen some really good times and some really bad times. I think it has been good to see Marte adjust after not having the best end to the season last year. Usually how it works is that the hitters will get off to a hot start when they come up and then when there is a book on the hitter the pitchers will come back and attack them differently and open up holes in the swing. It is encouraging that Marte was able to be pretty decent last season in around 50 games and it is good to see that he has bounced back to have more success in the start of his second season.
It must be noted that this is still a really small sample size. Marte only has 310 career plate appearances which is about half of a season’s worth of plate appearances so there is still a lot of learning to do. Pitchers are going to start to have a better book on him and he is going to have to continue to evolve as a hitter to play as well as he has in 2013. Fact of the matter is that coming into the season I had Marte a guy that could be a really exciting player in spurts but with his on base ability so highly tied to his batting average and his propensity to be a free swinger I thought it was going to be tough for him to really play as well as his talent level. So far this year he has proved me wrong and while I still have some worries they are much less than they were at the beginning of the year.