Coming in to the 2011 season, Starling Marte was coming off a year where he hit for a .315/.386/.432 line in 222 at-bats in high-A. That season followed his break out year, where he hit for a .312/.377/.439 line in 221 at-bats in West Virginia. However, there were three valid concerns.
The first concern came with his power production. Marte hit three homers in 2009, and didn’t homer at all in 2010. He hit a few extra base hits, thanks to his speed. He was still at a young age where power was a possibility for his future, but it wasn’t a guarantee. Without power, Marte would be a strong defensive center fielder and a leadoff hitter due to his speed and average.
That brings up concern number two. Marte’s strikeout numbers were too high for a guy who wasn’t hitting for power. He struck out 24.9% of the time in West Virginia during the 2009 season. In 2010, he struck out 26.6% of the time. The high strikeouts in A-ball didn’t give Marte a good shot at maintaining his high average in the upper levels.
The third concern was his low walk rate. Marte drew a walk in just 4.9% of his plate appearances in 2009, and dropped slightly to 4.7% in 2010. As a potential leadoff hitter with no power and a lot of strikeouts, Marte would need to see more walks, especially if his batting average was at risk to drop.
Coming in to the season, we had Marte rated as the number two prospect in the system. That was mostly due to his speed, strong defense, and the fact that we felt he could add power going forward. So far this season, Marte has done a great job, with a .322/.356/.481 line in his jump to the AA level. But is he answering the questions that surrounded his prospect status prior to the year?
Marte missed half of the 2010 season after getting hit in the hand with a pitch. That required surgery to remove his hamate bone, a procedure that can limit a player’s power for a year. Despite this surgery, Marte has managed to hit ten homers this year in 432 at-bats. Coming in to the season he had 15 homers in 867 at-bats in his minor league career, along with three homers in 443 at-bats between low-A and high-A.
The most encouraging sign has been that his power has increased recently. Marte has five homers in 64 at-bats over his last 16 games. You could chalk this up to a hot streak. However, let’s consider the hamate surgery. The procedure usually limits power for about a year. The surgery was performed in mid-May 2010, meaning that he should be fully recovered by now. Are we starting to see some of his power potential?
Five homers in 64 at-bats would be about 43 homers in a full season. I don’t think Marte will ever get anywhere close to that number, so we can chalk some of this up to a hot streak. However, I don’t think it’s entirely fueled by a hot streak. I could see Marte hitting 10-15 homers at the Major League level eventually, which combined with his speed and defense, would make him a strong center field prospect.
We’ve also seen improvements in the strikeout area this year. Marte has struck out 19% of the time this year, which is a good improvement from his numbers over the previous two seasons. When you factor in the increased power, his strikeout numbers are looking pretty good. The league average in the Eastern League this year is 22.4%, which puts Marte at an above average pace. There’s definitely room for improvement, but the current improvement is definitely a positive sign.
This is one area where Marte hasn’t improved. In fact, he’s gotten worse in his jump to AA with his walks. He’s only walked in 3.3% of his plate appearances this year. Despite a slightly higher average at the AA level, his on-base percentage is 30 points lower than it was in high-A in 2010. Marte profiles as a leadoff hitter, so his on-base percentage is more important than his average. The difference here isn’t massive though. With seven more walks this season, Marte would equal his 4.7% rate from the 2010 season. With seven fewer hits, Marte would have a .306 average. So it balances out. But why the lower on-base percentage?
The answer to that question comes with the third factor: his hit-by-pitch rate. Marte was hit 15 times in 253 plate appearances in 2010. In 2009 he was hit 16 times in 281 plate appearances. This year he’s only been hit nine times in 459 plate appearances. That will lower the on-base percentage, but overall it’s a good thing, as it lessens the risk of Marte getting injured again. I don’t think this is a skill, and I don’t think it’s a change in approach for Marte. I think he’s just seeing better pitchers in AA, and is at less of a risk to get hit.
The HBP numbers inflated Marte’s on-base percentage, which masked the importance of his walks. An on-base percentage in the .350 range is decent for a leadoff guy, although it’s mostly fueled by batting average. If Marte doesn’t increase his walk rate, he’s going to need a .320 average in the majors to put up decent OBP numbers, and that average in the majors isn’t guaranteed.
The question that remains is: can Marte learn to draw walks? I’m not as concerned with the walks as I was with the strikeout totals. In the times I’ve seen Marte, he doesn’t seem like a free swinger. He lays off close pitches, especially inside pitches that are out of the zone. He also makes good contact at anything close to the strike zone. That, combined with his speed, keeps his average high, and probably takes away some walks.
Marte almost seems like Freddy Sanchez in a way. He doesn’t draw a lot of walks, but hits for average. Sanchez .297 average in the majors, with a 4.9% walk rate. Marte has much better speed and plays great defense at a premium position, which gives him an advantage. However, he doesn’t have the extremely low 11.4% strikeout rate that Sanchez has.
It’s not impossible for a player to have success with a low walk rate. Marte has a ton of tools to his advantage that make up for his glaring weakness. He’s got a lot of speed. He’s got a cannon for an arm. He plays great defense in the outfield. He hits for average, and makes good contact with anything close to the plate. He hasn’t hit for much power in his early 20s, but is starting to display what could be 15 HR a year power.
It might be a lofty comparison. It might not be a comparison you can make in Pittsburgh. But those tools, combined with the poor walk totals, sound a lot like Roberto Clemente’s career. Clemente didn’t draw a lot of walks, with a career 6.1% walk rate (he had a 3.9% rate in 1955-1959). He had a cannon for an arm, played great outfield defense, hit for average, swung at anything close, usually makig contact with it, and from 1960-1972 averaged 16 homers per season.
Clemente obviously had some amazing seasons, with averages in the .340-.360 range, and three seasons with 20+ homers. I don’t see Marte putting up those types of numbers. I think a more appropriate ceiling for Marte would be a .320 average, 15 homers a year, a .350 OBP, and strong defense. The comparison basically boils down as two outfielders with great arms, the ability to hit for average, and low walk rates. The all important difference is that we’re comparing a Hall of Fame career by Clemente with Marte’s numbers in AA. Marte could be a special all around player, but in order to accomplish this, he needs to carry his current average over to AAA and the majors, increase his walk numbers, or both. As for the other questions, he’s done a good job of hitting for power and lowering his strikeouts this year. Those improvements both go a long way to increasing his prospect value, and increasing his chances of realizing his potential in the majors.