Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Left Field

Starling Marte

Starling Marte was a 4.6 WAR player in 2013. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

The Future

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.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • deacs

    What are the chances the Pirates actually approach him with an extension? With Cutch they waited 2 1/2 seasons before they signed him to an extension right? Not sure if my example is comparing apples to apples given Cutch’s first couple years were a little more offensive heavy.

  • Joe9195

    I’d like to see the Pirates find a lead off hitter just so that they could move Marte down in the line-up, where I think he could be a very good run producer. That said, RF and 1B, are not exactly know to produce lead off hitting types, and the Pirates don’t really have others in the line-up to make up for the loss of production from those spots. Ideally, in my opinion, the lead-off hitter would come from the SS or 2B position, but that is just not a realistic option for this Pirates team any time soon.

  • deacs

    Is Polanco in the 2 hole when he comes up then? Does it piss guys off to get moved from the leadoff spot or CF or clean up or whatever? I live in Philly and there was so much talk of how Rollins thought “Leadoff was his” and hated hitting 5th or 6th. Otherwise why not put Polanco leadoff with his ability to take a walk. Then again I guess you can’t ignore the 40 SB’s Marte had either. Nice problem to have figuring out where to bat who.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Polanco might be better when he comes up. He does better drawing walks, hits for average, and also can steal a base. He had 40 last year, and 39 this year. That’s also in a five month season. One thing about Polanco is that he has a better chance than Marte of putting up McCutchen-like power numbers. It will be interesting to see what they do with the lineup when that happens.

      Personally I think Alen Hanson might be the best long-term bet as a leadoff hitter, but he won’t be up until mid-2015, so we’re talking about the 2016 lineup there.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rothermund Ian Rothermund

        It’s really nice to think about how many stolen bases the team could have as a whole between 2015 and 2016. That could easily make for three guys with 30+ in Marte, Polanco, and Hanson. Everyone will still likely be confused about why McCutchen doesn’t steal more. I understand it’s more valuable for him to avoid potential situations where he could get injured unnecessarily. However, I’d really prefer to see him be more aggressive on the base paths.

        If Alvarez is on fire and batting behind him, that’s one thing. That only accounts for roughly 1/3 of the season though, so that leaves 2/3 when McCutchen should take advantage of that “green light” Hurdle’s always talking about.

  • deacs

    Why Hanson over Polanco leading off? Because Polanco’s bat is better suited for the middle of the order compared to Hanson? If Hanson gets it together and comes up, whether it be 2nd or SS, they’d have four 30 SB threats in their order. Hopefully though more guys will get on base which will mean less open bases to swipe.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Hanson has a ton of speed and also showed a good ability this year to keep infielders guessing. He would lay down a bunt for a hit one at-bat, then show bunt and quickly pull back and hit into a drawn in infield in a later at-bat. His effectiveness here comes with his combination of speed and his ability to make good contact and hit the ball hard. He keeps opponents guessing, and if he can continue this, he could be a really good guy at the top of an order. Plus he’s got speed on the bases, enough to be a threat stealing second and third.

      • deacs

        Is he going to show bunt every other AB like Marte? Are those mind games? Is he taking a pitch regardless? I’m irrationally frustrated by this.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          He did in Bradenton this year. It’s mostly a mind game. Like Marte, he’s got explosive speed, which makes opponents respect the bunt, even if he fakes it often.

  • Andrew

    Is anyone else concerned about Marte’s splits versus RHP, he hits .250 against RHP and .375 against LHP with a wOBA split of .136.? Obviously these samples are small and the wOBA split will lessen but he has been below average versus RHP and at times he seems over matched against sliders and change ups coming from RHP. I really do not have an opinion, it is his first full season, but I think more time is needed before offering an extension or buying out arbitration years.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I wouldn’t be concerned about his splits based on one season and his young age. As an example of how he can improve, look at McCutchen’s numbers vs RHP:

      2009: .811 OPS
      2010: .785
      2011: .779
      2012: .900
      2013: .864

      Marte had a .724 OPS this year, so his numbers are lower than McCutchen’s in the first three years. He probably won’t go up to the .900 range like McCutchen did, but he could also show some improvements after some additional time in the league.

      • Andrew

        Thanks, I saw that split and was surprised by the magnitude, I did not know what to make of it other than regress back to the league average, which seems less than helpful.

  • IC Bob

    No worries with Marte. Last year was his first full year in the bigs. He had a heck of an OBP considering he hit only in the 280s. I would expect him to hit 300 and when he learns the pitchers and learns what they are trying to do to him, his OBP and his success against RHs will also go up. I like Marte and his speed leading off. You take him out of that spot you take away his bunting opportunities as well his SB opportunities, I also think in a couple of years his walk totals will increase dramatically.

    PS He would have lead the league in HBP had he not been hurt. Each one those is like a walk. Most came with two strikes because most pitchers tried to jam him when ahead in the count.

  • ChirpCity

    File this under the category of “never going to happen” but when Hanson eventually makes it, I’d love to see him hit 9th and have him lead into a top of the order consisting if the three outfielders. That would give him a chance to adjust to major league pitching in a low pressure spot in the order while playing a defensive position that’s expected to hit at the bottom of the order anyway. If marte can add some power between now and then, all the better to have someone with good speed more likely to get on base hitting right before him to set the table.

    • belfry

      Yet at the same time, having Hanson at the end of the batting order would considerably limit his plate appearances. He’s a bat-first, fielding-second guy. Shortstops with bats don’t grow on trees.

    • http://www.deanmanifest.blogspot.com Dean Manifest

      I don’t hate the idea, particularly if we have a deep bench by then. Your 1st or 2nd guy off the bench will often be a better hitter than your 7/8 hole guys anyway (thinking about the latter third of the game when the SP is gone).

  • http://www.deanmanifest.blogspot.com Dean Manifest

    It’s also worth thinking anecdotally about how Marte’s tools would play further down in the lineup.

    -HBP: while a walk or HBP may be roughly equal to a single for a leadoff hitter, that’s not the case for a guy in the middle of the order.

    -Infield Singles: plenty of infield hits will turn into a fielder’s choice if men are on. Furthermore, even those that remain hits are unlikely to score a runner from second.

    -SB: This one depends. There can be value to stealing a bag in front of the relatively light hitting players you see in the 7 and 8 holes.

    We’ve established that Marte piles up extra bases through infield hits, stolen bases, first-to-thirds, and stretching singles to doubles and doubles to triples. While some of that shows up in his BA, OBP and SLG, all those “extra” bases are more valuable as a run scorer than as an RBI guy, for obvious reasons.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      All good points.