Giles: Is Starling Marte Underrated?

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™.

  • The answer to the question is: Yes, Starling Marte is underrated.

    He is a fun player to watch.

    If he had better plate discipline he would routinely be hitting .320 with HR and extra-base power, add that to speed on the bases and overall outstanding defense and that equals a star player. Even with chasing too many pitches that are down and away with 2 strikes, he’s still outstanding!

  • Breaking Betteridge’s law, yes Marte is underrated, he doesn’t put up the type of numbers traditional or newer that people will routinely notice and discuss. A large portion of his value is base-running (when he is aggressive, unlike last season) and defense. I don’t think he’ll ever walk much, but from his first full season until now he ranks 4th in infield hits, not many guys around him on that list with above average ISOs. He just has kinda of an odd profile that leads to being relatively overlooked.

  • Wow that really speaks to how good he has played. What a lucky group of fans we are to enjoy this kind of talent after that nightmare run of failure.

  • I don’t find myself thinking Marte is underrated, but that’s probably only because I’m a Bucs fan who watches most of their games. I’d say he has underdeveloped potential.

    While Marte is extremely talented, I find myself thinking that he could really bust through to elite status if he played with his head in the game every night. If he cut down the brain cramps, the sometimes lackadaisical OF play and like last night, not busting it out of the box, I do think he could be a better all-around player than Cutch. But I don’t have a ton of confidence in that.

  • Darkstone42
    May 10, 2016 2:12 pm

    The Pirates could reasonably have an outfield entirely of 130+ wRC+ hitters this season, all of whom can steal bases, and all of whom, of course, are outfielders.

    For reference, Freddie Freeman has a career wRC+ of 130, and last year was at 133. Brandon Belt’s is also 130. Both have been above average offensive first basemen over the full course of their careers. The Pirates could have three outfielders who hit like above-average first baseman and steal bases, and one of them is a plus defender, and another is a plus plus defender.

    It really is a dream scenario having three Freddies Freeman with speed in your outfield.

    • Did you debate at all Freddie Freemen vs Freddies Freeman? I would have gone Freddie Freemen, but I like Freddies Freeman way better.

      • Darkstone42
        May 11, 2016 10:29 am

        I actually wrote Freddie Freemen instinctively first, realized what I did, changed it to Freddie Freemans, didn’t like that, and went with Freddies Freeman finally if you wanted to know my full writing process here.

  • Jeff Rhodes
    May 10, 2016 1:08 pm

    In terms of sheer physical talent, Marte is actually better than Cutch. He’s faster, a better base stealer, has a stronger throwing arm, better outfield instincts and more raw home run power. The only liability in his game is his plate discipline, but you’re walking a fine line there.

    Would being more selective make him less aggressive and, thus, less productive overall? Hard to say, but I’d be very careful about tinkering with an approach that’s working pretty damned well as it is.

    • piraterican21
      May 10, 2016 2:34 pm

      I agree, but will add that Cutch has more power as well. But if you compare both swings, McCutchen gets his whole body behind his swing especially his legs, Marte uses an open stance with slight toe tap, if Mate was able to put that much behind his swing 25-39 HRs will be a norm. I don’t believe he’s able to get his whole body behind like cutch can without striking out in the 30% range.

      • Andrew McCutchen: 12.7% HR/FB
        Starling Marte: 14.5% HR/FB

        The difference in power between Cutch and Marte comes down to batted ball distribution; Marte hits almost two balls on the ground for every one he hits in the air while Cutch distributes his contact almost exactly even.

        Pretty damn hard to hit for power when the majority of your contact is on the ground.

        • What little I’ve seen this year, he seems to be hitting more hard line drives. Being a right handed hitter will hold his home run power down at PNC, but man that outfield will be downright scary once cutch locks in.

  • This is an exciting outfield to watch. Pitchers just need to keep it inside the park for them…cough cough Neise! I’m extremely excited about our AAA pitchers. The Indian rotation is scary good. All are sub 2 ERAs.