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.
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.