Settle down, Francis. Don’t get your jodphurs all knotted up. I’m not saying that Starling Marte is going to rattle off 10 consecutive 200 hit seasons and be Major League Baseball’s best pure hitter. What I’m saying is that Marte could be the same type of player as Ichiro. Both players have cannons attached where their arms should be. Both are excellent swipers of bases. Both hit for high averages.
What they also both have in common is their uncanny ability to produce abnormally high BABIP’s. BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls in Play. It factors what a player’s average would be if you account only for balls put in the field of play, so home runs are subtracted from the hit and at-bat totals and strikeouts from the at-bat total. The full formula is:
BABIP = (Hits – HR)/(At-Bats – Strikeouts – HR + Sacrifice Flies)
BABIP is used as a ground truthing device to determine if a player’s to-date performance is “lucky” or “unlucky”. The average BABIP for a hitter is somewhere around .300 to .310. So if a player has a triple slash line of .259/.351/.476 with a BABIP of .277 (Andrew McCutchen’s current line), you can feel reasonably comfortable that the player is getting slightly unlucky with balls being hit right to fielders or some great defensive plays being made. It’s reasonable to think that his stats will increase over time.
Conversely, if a player is batting .325/.355/.466 with a .380 BABIP (as Marte currently is doing), most people would say he is in line for a major regression. But with BABIP you also have to look at a player’s career BABIP performance. In doing so with Marte, a pattern is starting to develop that is showing that perhaps Marte will be an anomaly with regard to the “luck factor” of BABIP. Here’s Marte’s career BABIP’s since he’s come stateside:
2009 — .312/.377/.439 with a .400 BABIP at West Virginia
2010 — .315/.386/.432 with a .424 BABIP at Bradenton
2011 — .325/.355/.446 with a .380 BABIP at Altoona
By maintaining what some would feel to be an unsustainable BABIP, Marte is defying the odds with his contact ability and speed to beat out hits. Which brings us back to the theory that started this whole article — Is Starling Marte Pittsburgh’s version of Ichiro?
As per Fangraphs, Ichiro has one of Major League Baseball’s highest career BABIP’s at .355. Ichiro, like Marte, has a low walk rate (a stunningly consistent 6.3%), but Ichiro does not strike out very much at all with a career 10.0%. In some years during his Major League career, Ichiro has even been up in the .380 range with his BABIP. The interesting side note about Ichiro is that he could hit more home runs, but he has chosen not to do so in order to be the new millenium’s version of Tony Gwynn. After winning the 2007 All-Star Game MVP, Ichiro was asked the following question:
Q. If you concentrated on hitting for power, how many home runs do you think you could hit?
ICHIRO SUZUKI: Tough question. If I’m allowed to bat .220, I could probably hit 40 home runs. But nobody wants that.
Marte does have a propensity to strike out, but he has cut his K rate during the jump from A+ to AA from 26.6% to 17.2%. Even with that decrease to an acceptable rate, Marte will not dodge the BABIP beast to Ichiro’s level due his strikeouts. However, his minor league history has shown that Marte should be able to maintain an above average rate, perhaps a BABIP in the .330 to .340 range, and stave off the regression that most people feel is always around the corner for him.
If Marte can patrol RF with his howitzer right arm, hit .290/.340/.420, steal 30 bases and hit 10 HR’s, that wouldn’t be a Hall Of Fame-path career like Ichiro is on, but it would be quite acceptable for most Pirate fans I would hope. Don’t forget that Ichiro didn’t make his Major League debut until he was 27. If Marte continues on his current path, he should debut some time during his age-23 season in 2012.