For most of the season, Starling Marte was the starting left-fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The only exception was when Marte was injured, leading to Jose Tabata getting a lot of starts at the position. Other players, like Alex Presley, Travis Snider, and Felix Pie, got a few starts, but when breaking down the left field position it was primarily Marte.
Defensively, Marte was outstanding. His UZR/150 was the best out of all MLB left fielders this year, although he lost the Gold Glove award to Carlos Gonzalez, despite Gonzalez missing about half the season. Marte also posted some good offensive numbers, and overall he was a 4.6 WAR player in his first full season in the majors. That ranked second on the Pirates, and tied for 32nd in the majors. The only question about Marte was his ability as a leadoff hitter.
Back in Spring Training, I asked Clint Hurdle about Starling Marte’s walk rate and his role as a leadoff hitter. Perhaps the only knock against Marte is that he doesn’t draw walks. In his short career in the majors he has a 4.4% walk rate. The numbers weren’t much better in his minor league career, as he was only over 4.9% at one level, and that was his 6.5% walk rate in Triple-A. Hurdle pointed out that Marte could be a dynamic leadoff hitter, then suggested that many of the best leadoff guys in the game are unconventional.
When it comes to a leadoff hitter, most people are focusing on one stat: on-base percentage. The lack of walks from Marte means that he will never be a leader in OBP. But is it possible that people are over-exaggerating what kind of OBP you need from a leadoff spot?
In 2013, Marte had a .343 OBP. That ranked fifth on the Pirates, behind Andrew McCutchen, Justin Morneau, Gaby Sanchez, and Marlon Byrd. Morneau and Byrd were only around for a month, and Sanchez was a platoon player. The Pirates didn’t have the best OBP as a team, but that doesn’t mean Marte was bad. The league average OBP in 2013 was .318, so Marte was above-average.
So what about the leadoff numbers? In 2013, only four teams saw an OBP greater than .343 from their #1 hitters, with two other teams right at .343. The flip side to this is that Marte didn’t have all of his at-bats as a leadoff hitter. He had a .336 OBP as a leadoff guy, which still would have been top ten among teams. Marte also wouldn’t be expected to play every game, even if he was healthy for the entire season, which means the team OBP isn’t going to be based entirely on him.
The point of the team numbers is to show that most teams would love to have Marte’s numbers at the top of the order. Now let’s look at the actual players. I looked at all of the players who saw 250+ plate appearances in 2013 at the leadoff position. I went to 250 just to get a list of 30 players. In that list, Marte finished tied for 13th with his .336 OBP as a leadoff hitter. His full season .343 OBP would have ranked 11th on this list.
At the age of 24, Marte’s numbers were about middle of the pack, and slightly above the average. If you only looked at qualified leadoff hitters (which would give you all of the full time guys), Marte still ranks around the middle of the pack.
The Pirates could improve over Marte, but it’s not as big of a need as people think. Marte’s numbers as a leadoff hitter are better than most, while the perception is that he just isn’t a leadoff guy. Not a lot of teams are getting better production from the leadoff spot. A much bigger need would be the #4-5 spots in the order, where the Pirates are below average compared to other MLB teams.
The reason Marte has a good OBP is because of his high average and his tendency to get hit by pitches. The average isn’t likely to go down, as Marte gets on base a lot more often than others due to his speed. The HBP trend is something that has existed throughout his minor league career, and shouldn’t be expected to go away, though it does come with injury concerns and jokes about oven mitts. The speed and the tendency to get hit with a pitch will both keep Marte’s OBP at above-average rates, and in a good range for a leadoff hitter.
His lack of walks means he will never be more than an average to above-average leadoff hitter in terms of OBP. However, you also have to consider what happens when Marte does get on base. He stole 41 bases this year, which ranked sixth in the majors out of 140 qualified players. Earlier in the year there was a stat floating around about how many times Marte doubled, tripled, or stole a base. The idea was that this showed how many times Marte put himself in scoring position, which is always what you want from a leadoff hitter. When counting doubles, triples, and stolen bases, Marte tied for fifth in the majors. Some of those stolen bases might have been stealing third, in which case Marte was already in scoring position. However, he still ranks top ten out of 140 qualified players.
Marte showed this year that he gets on base at an average rate for a leadoff hitter. When you consider how often he gets in scoring position, that only adds value to his bat at the top of the lineup. It would help going forward if he improved on his walk rate, but for now it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Marte continued as the leadoff hitter for the Pirates.
Marte is under team control for the next five seasons, which means he’s pretty much the present and the future for the Pirates. They will have him under team control through his age 29 season, with two more league minimum years remaining. The Pirates might want to consider extending him, in the same way they extended Andrew McCutchen. If they extend Marte on the same timeline that they extended McCutchen, then the extension would come next off-season. The earlier they extend him, the better value they could get.
There’s also some risk involved, as they would be basing this decision on one season. However, Marte wouldn’t cost a lot at this point. He also gets a lot of value from his speed and defense, so even if he doesn’t improve certain parts of his game (power, walks), he would still provide value over the long-term. Marte only received an $85,000 signing bonus, and his career earnings to this point are under $1 M. That’s a few million less than McCutchen had received by the time he signed his extension, which means the Pirates might have a better chance of getting a great deal with Marte. And if Marte continues to improve his game, then the Pirates could get a massive value from an extension, much like they did with McCutchen.