Pittsburgh Pirates OF Starling Marte may just be the team’s most valuable asset
Last week in our Pittsburgh Pirates “Keep or Trade” series, we looked at Josh Harrison, the starting second baseman. This week we turn our attention to the outfield, starting with last season’s left fielder Starling Marte. As with past reviews, our goal is to ultimately answer the question “should the Pirates keep him or trade him?”
Coming into his own
Asking if the Pirates should keep or trade Starling Marte is sort of like asking if you want to hang on to that winning lottery ticket. Marte took a rough, but familiar road to the Pirates organization, hailing from the Pirates’ Latin American development organization in the Dominican Republic. He was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007 at the age of 18 after his first season in the DR’s Summer League. His stats at the time were not impressive but the raw talent was apparently evident enough for the Pirates organization to commit an $85,000 signing bonus. This is not big money in the world of international signings but Marte was not really on too many people’s radar at the time.
The next season he hit .296/.367/.455 in the DR Summer League and earned a ticket to the stateside minor leagues for the 2009 season. He hit everywhere he went, stole more minor league bases than one can reasonably count, and improved dramatically on defense. His only setback was a hamate bone injury that caused him to miss a big part of the 2010 season. He worked his way up through Bradenton, Altoona and Indianapolis and on July 26, 2012, finally got his shot at the big leagues. It’s hard to forget his first at-bat where he hit the first major league pitch he saw out of the park.
Starling Marte had a breakout season in 2016 with a .311/.362/.456 slash line and 47 stolen bases. This pumped his career batting average up to .289 and his career OBP to .345. If you factor his 160 stolen bases in to his career slugging percentage, it would leap from a respectable .447 to a remarkable .519. Marte was third in the National League in bags swiped and second in infield hits with 30. He was hit by a pitch 16 times in 2016 putting him in the top five in this category as well. If there is a weakness in Marte’s running game, it is that he should be taking more extra bases. In 2016, he took the extra base 52% of the time. This should be closer to Dexter Fowler’s 2016 number of 63%.
Noticeably, Marte encountered a drop off in his home run production last season, hitting only nine after three straight years of double digit dingers. It is interesting that Marte also had career highs in line drive percentage (29%) and plate appearances where a ball is put into play (71%). Marte’s exit velocity was slightly down from 2015 and his strikeout rate remained below 20% for the second straight season. This paints a picture of an emerging elite hitter who is learning to hit for average. With Marte, it feels like the home runs will be there if the situation calls for it and he is willing to accept a higher strikeout rate.
Marte won his first Gold Glove in 2016 and was selected at the 11th hour to represent the Pirates at the All-Star Game. Marte is one of the game’s best when it comes to throwing out would-be base runners. He recorded 17 assists in left field, often baiting runners by approaching a ball slowly, then using his rocket of an arm to throw them out with pinpoint accuracy.
However, Marte rates as average at tracking down balls in PNC Park’s spacious left field. The above chart shows the location of balls that Marte missed during the 2016 season color coded by how difficult they were to catch. Green dots are easy plays where Marte made errors. This is going to happen every once in a while to the best of outfielders so ignore those for now. The interesting dots are the yellow and orange locations where Marte had to range straight back and to his right. As he moves to center field, he will have to make a lot more plays in these directions, especially if the Pittsburgh Pirates insist on playing him more shallow like they did with Andrew McCutchen.
Intangibles and Injuries
Marte has a history of minor injuries. He finished last season on the DL with a back injury and did not play in the field after September 5th. His three at-bats near the end of last season looked awkward and painful. He had a variety of other middling injuries including a foot injury and facial contusion when he took one hopper to the face (on a ball where he had to range to his right). In 2015 he was hit by a pitch in the hand and missed a week’s worth of games. In 2014, he missed a couple of weeks due to concussion-like symptoms. Let’s face it, a player that gets beaned as much at Starling Marte is going to have some injuries. So far, Marte has gritted his teeth and worked through it for the most part, logging 500+ plate appearances every season since 2013.
Let’s face it, a player that gets beaned as much at Starling Marte is going to have some injuries.
Another gripe that some fans have about Starling is that every once in a while, he appears to be dogging it in the outfield. This lack of hustle famously rankled Clint Hurdle on a play where Marte allowed Brian Dozier of the Minnesota Twins to score from first. Hurdle was quoted as saying “It was a very disappointing play. I shared my thoughts with the player, personally. It wasn’t the first time I’ve shared my thoughts with Starling…” This indicates that it was an ongoing issue for the left fielder. In many of these cases, it is possible that Marte was trying to goad the runner into taking an extra base so he could, theoretically, throw him out. Although this does great things for his assist stats, the best thing for the team is to keep the runner from even attempting an extra base. It makes one wonder if Marte is playing team baseball 100% of the time.
Marte is under team control through 2021 and will make $5.33M in the 2017 season. This contract is so team friendly it doesn’t even bear consideration for a trade. The external options in this price range are nowhere near as good. This is a great deal for the Pirates.
Austin Meadows is waiting in the wings but would only replace Marte in an injury scenario. When the time comes for Meadows to play full time at the MLB level, he would most likely replace McCutchen or Polanco, not Marte.
Marte is obviously a definite keep. He is going to be the starting center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017 and beyond. He will also likely hit in the three hole in Spring training to see how he produces in that spot. The only black spot on his record is that he has occasional bouts of lethargy in the outfield and gets minor injuries on a regular basis. If he ends up spending extended time on the DL, this will cause the Pirates to think about calling up players like Austin Meadows sooner rather than later.
Photo Credit: Gina Riley