I’ve discussed Gregory Polanco’s hot start to the season, but the results for Starling Marte have been nearly as good, both at the plate and in the field. Marte is now hitting for a .341/.388/.512 line (144 wRC+) with 1.7 fWAR on the season, slightly ahead of Polanco (133 wRC+), who has added more defensive value so far.
The slight difference between the two is the sustainability of their early season numbers. Before getting to that, though, I want to share a few thoughts on Marte’s major league performance to date for some context.
Marte’s .283/.340/.445 (121 wRC+) career line entering this season is obviously above average, but it may surprise you that his 13.7 fWAR (16.9 rWAR) was good for 17th among NL position players in that same span.
Despite his strong performance, it’s arguable that Marte has been a bit underrated, both by Pirate fans and on the national level, at least in part due to his apparent lack of plate discipline. His career 4.7% walk rate and 22.8% strikeout rate are both on the wrong side of the league average.
In his Age-27 season, it’s unlikely that he will make significant improvements with respect to drawing walks, and he’s drawn only four so far (2.9% BB%). ZiPS (4.6%) and Steamer (5.2%) both believe that his walk rate over the remainder of the season will regress toward his career line, which seems reasonable to expect, but that is not development by any measure.
Where he has seen improvement, though, is avoiding strikeouts. Marte’s 19.4% K rate last season was actually below the league average for position players (19.9%), and his 21.5% rate in 2016 is fairly close to the current league average of 20.1%.
Decreased strikeouts and fewer walks mean more balls in play, and that’s where Marte has gotten some help from Lady Luck so far this year. His .419 BABIP is easily the best among the Pirates’ regular starters, and is well above his career .340 average.
With Polanco, we’ve seen an increase in quality contact, enough to put him among the leaders in hard-hit rate, which supports his offensive progress this year. Marte, however, has the same average exit velocity on balls in play as last season, so we must look elsewhere to substantiate his high BABIP.
Marte has been hitting more line drives than his career average (25.3% vs. 22.7%), and fewer ground balls (45.3% vs. 51.1%). His proportion of hard hits is up (33.3% vs. 31.2%) as well. That contact could probably support a BABIP in the .360-.370 range, but is not enough to explain his current performance.
Pitchers may be playing to Marte’s tendency to look for contact, as he is seeing fewer strikes overall (38.3% vs. 44.9% career) and fewer first-pitch strikes (54.8% vs. 66.3% career). To his credit, Marte has kept his swing rate and his whiff rate in line with his career averages so far.
He’s making more contact in the zone (89.2% vs. 86.3% career), which would indicate that he’s hitting somewhat higher quality pitches, but again, there is not enough here to justify the high performance we’ve seen so far this season.
I fully expect Marte to continue to hit well, just not as well as he’s been hitting. His defensive value will continue to support strong fWAR/rWAR numbers, and it’s possible that he may find his way onto the NL All-Star roster for the first time later this season.
Marte’s Unique Historical Context
To revisit the point about Marte being at least a little underrated, I used the Baseball-Reference Play Index to search for players with similar seasons to Marte’s performance in his three full seasons (2013 – 2015).
Marte rose through the Pirates’ system with the promise of the classic “five tool player”: someone who could hit for average, hit for power, show speed on the bases, throw hard, and field his position well. He’s shown each of those five tools throughout his brief career, with a .287 average, .163 ISO, 16.5 base running runs above average, and strong DRS/UZR defensive value added.
In the expansion era (1961-present), only 32 players had at least one season where they hit .280 or higher with a .150 or higher ISO, stole 30 or more bases, and contributed positive defensive value (at least 0.1 Baseball-Reference dWAR).
That list includes several current and deserving Hall of Famers: Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mike Trout. Other highly accomplished players like Kenny Lofton, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Andy Van Slyke are also on the list.
Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, and Cesar Cedeno are the only other players to have done so more than once. Starling Marte is the only player to do it three times, let alone three consecutive times, and he has a solid chance to do so again this season.
Starling Marte is having a very good year and career so far. His current performance is not likely to endure at this level over the course of this season, but with Polanco in the midst of a breakout year, and McCutchen yet to find his usual summer hot streak, it’s perhaps a closer race than expected to see who will have the best season in the Pirates’ Dream Outfield™.