2015 Left Field Recap: Why Does It Seem That Starling Marte Is Underrated?

Starling Marte has been a very underrated player the last few years. In his first three full seasons in the majors, he has combined for a 12.8 WAR. That ranks third among left fielders, behind Alex Gordon (13.1) and Bryce Harper (14.9).

When you expand the field to every position, he ranks tied for 24th with Troy Tulowitzki. On the Pirates, only Andrew McCutchen — who ranks third with 21.1 WAR — is better.

Marte had a bit of a down year in 2015, compared to his previous two seasons. He put up a 3.6 WAR, which was down from his 4.4 WAR last year and 4.8 WAR in 2013. There wasn’t a massive change offensively. He posted a .780 OPS, which was down from his .808 OPS last year, but in line with his .784 OPS in 2013. His power was about the same, with a .157 ISO that fell just shy of his .161-.162 ISO the last two years. His walks were down to 2013 levels at 4.3%, after seeing a jump to 6.1% last year. However, his strikeouts were also down to 19.4%, which was the first time in his career that he dropped below 24%.

Defensively, Marte had another strong season. His 12.1 UZR/150 ranked fourth among left fielders, and was in line with his 14.2 career UZR/150. He had 24 Defensive Runs Saved, which ranked first among left fielders, with nine more than the next best player. He led the NL in outfield assists with 16, showing off his plus arm and putting his hard pre-game defensive work to good use.

Marte did the same thing this year that he’s done the last two years. Offense was up slightly around the league, which is why his WAR was lower with the same numbers. He also struggled a bit with his base running, not so much on stolen bases, but in other circumstances, which led to a negative value in Base Running Runs Above Average. But even with that, he was one of the best players on the team.

So why does it seem like Marte doesn’t get as much appreciation as he should for being one of the best players in the league the last few years?

My belief on why he’s underrated is that he’s not your prototypical player. He bats high in the order, but he doesn’t draw walks. He’s got the speed, and he uses that speed to get on base a lot, but his walk rate doesn’t further inflate his OBP, which doesn’t make him a great leadoff or number two guy. Across the league, batters got on base at a .328 rate this year batting second. Marte had a .337 OBP overall this year, but his OBP while batting second ranked 23rd out of the top 32 hitters in plate appearances at the number two spot.

Marte spent the most time at the number two spot this year, but his second most time came at the number four spot. At that spot he’s got some power and hits for average, but doesn’t quite have the bat that you’d typically want from a number four hitter. There were 36 hitters with 210+ plate appearances at cleanup this year. Of that group, Marte ranked 33rd in ISO, 19th in OPS, 17th in wOBA, and 15th in wRC+. In the power department, he was at the bottom, and in the overall hitting department, he was middle of the pack.

That’s what leads to Marte being looked over as one of the best. He’s a good hitter with great defense in the outfield. But he doesn’t really have a prototypical spot in the lineup. He lacks the OBP to be a great top of the lineup hitter, and he lacks the power to be a great middle of the lineup hitter. Outside of specific lineup assignments, he’s in the top half of the league in hitting. From 2013-15, out of 233 qualified hitters, he ranks 47th in wOBA and 37th in wRC+.

From a traditional lineup perspective, you’d want Marte batting lower in the order — about sixth or seventh — due to his lack of great OBP and plus power. But the reality is that no team has a lineup good enough to bat Marte that low. He’s a good hitter, even with his flaws at specific lineup spots. So you take the good overall hitting, and ignore that he doesn’t provide you with the traditional numbers from any of the spots in the lineup that he frequents.

The alternative would be to underrate a great player for not being great in the very specific way that his lineup spot would normally dictate. And that approach is how you underrate one of the best position players in the game the last few years.

The Future

Marte is under team control for six more seasons at what is looking like a steal of a contract. His salary in 2016 will be $3 M, and it doesn’t reach eight figures until 2019, when he will make $10 M. He has options for 2020 and 2021 at $11.5 M and $12.5 M, respectively (both salaries could increase by $1 M, based on his MVP voting).

On Tuesday, I wrote about the future of the outfield in Pittsburgh, pointing out that the Pirates have Gregory Polanco and Marte under team control for a long period of time. They also have Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez coming up through the farm system. As I mentioned the other day, it would make a lot of sense to move on from Andrew McCutchen after the 2018 season, rather than trading away the young prospects or trading the very affordable Marte or Polanco.

And here is where I will double down on that with Marte. The idea of trading Marte in the future is crazy. He’s a 3.5-4.5 WAR player, which would be worth about $21-27 M per year on the open market at $6 M per WAR. At most, the Pirates will pay him $51.5 M over the next six years. That’s an average of $8.58 M per year, which means Marte needs to be a 1.5 WAR player or better each year to justify his contract. He could do that on defense alone.

Keeping Marte is not just for value. As noted above, he’s one of the best position players in baseball right now. Unless he sees a rapid decline in the next few years, then his age 30-32 seasons will be better for the Pirates than Andrew McCutchen’s age 32-34 seasons during the same 2019-2021 time frame. It’s likely that Marte’s seasons will come at half the price of McCutchen’s seasons. That doesn’t include the likely possibility that McCutchen will have a deal at that time which would probably have him under contract for several more years, making $20+ M per year at ages 35 and up.

Obviously we’re talking about a scenario that is three years away from taking place. Anything can happen during that time frame. But as it stands right now, Marte is a guy the Pirates have to keep at his production and with his valuable contract.

  • If he is underappreciated, he shouldn’t be. This is a player who has a lot of “plus” tools – speed, great fielding skills, outstanding arm, hits for power and these are not just “abstract:” – we see it all the time in games, especially with the arm and throwing out runners and spectacular catches. Just compare Starling to Schwarber who seems to get so much attention – Schwarber looked just awful in left field, like Greg Luzynski of the Phils!!! . I don’t think Starling has quite put everything together yet – he had a stretch this past year where he was striking out a ton on pitches “down and away”. The Pirates should be letting him loose even more on the bases, same for Polanco & Harrison (and that is why Hanson could be dynamic at the top of the lineup if he can get on base consistently enough). Starling has all the talent to be a true superstar. And I would bet that it all comes together for him….next year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Tim, quite often you write things like:

    >> That’s an average of $8.58 M per year, which means Marte needs to be a 1.5 WAR player or better each year to justify his contract. He could do that on defense alone.

    One problem i have with that statement is that the Pirates can’t afford to pay market rates for WAR for their young players. They *HAVE* to get better than 1 WAR per $6M in payroll on average or else they are going to be a 100/6 + 48 = 64-win team.

    To become a 90 win team, then they need to come up with 42 wins for their $100M or $120M or whatever their payroll is. So they need to get a point of WAR for $2.5-3.0M.

    The other problem I have with the type of calculation above is that signing guys to long term deals early in their careers carries risk. Not every one of those moves pays off. They took a risk in order to get bargain WAR, and sometimes those signings bomb, and if they do, then the other guys need to make up for it to balance out the strategy.

    So what I’m saying is that to justify his contract he, has to do more than “break even”.

    I don’t disagree with your conclusions about Marte: he’s worth so much to the team at that price that it would be almost impossible to get fair value in a trade. And, they need his “bargain WAR”, if you will, to be able to afford to purchase the rest of the WAR they need on the open market.

    • Even with all that, Marte clearly brings such excess value that he’s the exact reason you take some risk with a highly talented guy early in his career. They could have Marte bringing in twice the value of his paycheck for years, allowing them to A) spend elsewhere and B) Help get them to 90 wins with 70 win payroll at times.

      The team does take risks in that, but good on them for doing really well early on in getting Cutch+Marte to both sign deals that were well below their likely market value. Even the J Hay extension say regression from the player but likely twice the production of his contract the first year.

  • Keep Marte in the 2 hole, that’s the best fit for him on this team, leave Cutch at 3rd and pray that Kang is healthy and let him hit 4th. It’s going to be interesting if/when Walker/Alvarez leave and who takes their spots in the lineup. Bell when he comes up, profiles nicely in the 5th hole behind Kang….Maybe Harrison hitting 6th? His breakout year he was one of the best hitters w/risp. Read an article awhile back that said the 6th hole gets more chances than any other spot in the lineup w/risp. GP-SM-AM-JK-JB-JH-FC-JM could be the lineup by June.

  • Marte will continue to be “underrated” until he cleans up certain parts of his game….Base running gaffs, acting like a space cadet in LF, etc. Maybe he has ADHD.

  • I’m guessing Marte surpasses Cutch next year in value to the team. And I think Polanco surpasses Marte a couple of years after that. IMHO

  • I like Marte in the #3 spot with his profile. He’s a true balance of speed, power, and on base, where only the speed is truly an excellent skill. Cutch, as our best hitter, I firmly believe should be batting second, since it’s statistically the most important spot in the order. Polanco has a leadoff hitter profile once he puts it all together, can hit for average, good discipline, and tons of speed, so that’s where I think he should be long term. After that, Kang, Cervelli, Morse, Harrison, and Mercer, probably would be how I’d go, with a consideration of batting Harrison 9th as a second leadoff guy.

    But yeah, I think Marte actually profiles best in the one spot he’d never get a chance to hit, and that’s third.

  • I know his walk rate is down but shouldn’t his walk rate also include getting HBP? Marte gets plunked at unusually high rate and when combined with his walk rate it becomes an acceptable number for a top of the order guy. As a team the Pirates could take a few more pitches so at this time really moving him down in the order makes no sense (Cervelli historically doesn’t walk often either so no point moving him up). I really like Marte and feel like he is one of the most valuable players we have. He gets clutch hits, makes big plays in the field and and just looks like a guy who could suddenly be in a batting title race in the near future. I look forward to watching him for many years and will continue to wear my Marte jerseys proudly.

  • If Marte doesn’t win a Gold Glove this year, they need to get rid of the award altogether.

  • After watching Schwarber butcher left, Marte surely a blessing

  • Marte needs to be let lose on the base pads, they have to let him and Polanco run more. Both of those guys should have 40 steals. Marte and Polanco will both put on some more muscle and their power will go up. Marte should be a 30/30 guy next year, and stay that way he just has to stay healthy!

  • Where would you bat Marte and who would you sandwich him in between? Assuming either Pedro or Walker or both will not be back?

    • I’d like to see Cervelli in the #2 spot because of his OBP. I might bat Marte 3rd with a transition of Cutch to the 4th spot in the order followed by Kang.

    • Cervelli would clog the bases up. I like Cervelli at 7 or 8 where his patience at the plate helps.

      • I don’t know about that. It’s not like Cervelli is Bengie Molina out there – the guy did leg out 5 triples and scored from first on a double over half his opportunities, which was better than the team average. He’s a slightly below average runner, but he’s not slow by any means.

        I like Cervelli in the 2 spot because he’s got above average contact rate and walk rate – he, Polanco and Cutch are the only 3 on the team who can say that, and it makes sense to have those guys top 3 in the lineup.

        And ultimately, do you want your high OBP/low power hitter hitting in front of Mercer and the pitcher’s spot? That’s a recipe for getting stranded a bunch.

        • And to extend this point, plus speed is nice at the 2 but not really a huge need. If Cervelli is getting on base a bunch in front of a lineup with Cutch-Kang following, it gives two high quality hitters a chance to hit with a runner on a lot. Those are guys that drive the ball as better than most hitters.

          Cervelli’s quick enough to score on a double and his OBP and ability to spray the ball make up for not being a burner that will steal bases.

  • What would the numbers look like if you moved Marte to CF and had him bat 3rd? Polanco 2nd with Hanson (eventually) leading off and McCutchen batting 4th.

  • I like to party with Marte.