HIGH ATOP MT. LEBO – Pirates outfielder Starling Marte has saved his best for first this season.
But should the Pirates save him for later in the batting order?
Marte enters today’s series with Washington (buy a ticket this weekend, folks) with an MLB-best .609 average in the first-inning. I wouldn’t suggest moving Marte out of the lead off spot while he’s on such a first-inning tear. But I do wonder in the medium-, to long-term if it’s the best place for the Pirates’ burgeoning 24-year-old star in a lineup.
The first inning has been a party for Marte this season … but should he take that party down the order in coming seasons (Or later this season)?
I wrote in today’s paper about Marte’s maturation as a hitter. Case in point was his eighth-inning at bat against John Axford on Tuesday, when he ripped an 0-2 slider to center on a line for a base hit. A year ago, Marte might have flailed at such an offspeed pitch. But as Clint Hurdle noted he’s able to now think fastball but also be “cognizant” of offspeed pitches. He better understands what pitchers are trying to do to him, pitch sequence, he better recognizes breaking balls, and he’s doing a better job of not getting out in front of pitches.
Don’t believe me? Just see the numbers: Marte has cut his out-of-zone swing rate from 34.5% last season to 29% this season, and he has cut his strikeout rate from 27% last season to 21% this season.
He’s never missed pitches in the strike zone. He’s making contact with 90 percent of swing offerings against pitches in the strike zone. But now he’s not chasing offspeed pitches out of the zone as often. This is a big deal. He’s only 24. What is he going to be at 27?
Last season he was fringe-average hitter against curveballs. This season he ranks 23rd among MLB hitters against the curve, trailing Bryce Harper and Lance Berkman, ranked 21st and 22nd. Not bad company.
And, yeah, Marte can still hit a fastball.
What does all this tell us? It tells us that Marte is maturing as a hitter, and doing so rather quickly in his career. He has tools. And he’s showing baseball acumen.
In batting practice Marte shows raw plus power. Hurdle said he has a future home run total in his head for Marte but he didn’t want to share it with reporters in Milwaukee. I think that means he’s thinking of an impressive number. 25 home runs? 30? To go along with 30 steals and perhaps a .300 average. He’s only going to get stronger and fill out his 6-foot, 190-pound frame.
He’s becoming a better hitter … but is he too good of a hitter – batting .327 with a .491 slugging mark – to bat leadoff?
Marte doesn’t walk much. He never has. He’s going to have more power. He’s going to be able to drive in runs. At the present he’s an unconventional leadoff hitter. He’s aggressive, though that aggression is now more controlled.
This doesn’t sound like the profile of a lead-off batter to me. This sound like a future middle-of-the order bat. I think down the road, perhaps as early as this season, Marte might have more value as a guy who is in more RBI situations.
So who should bat lead0ff? How about another unusual candidate: Travis Snider.
Snider doesn’t have speed, but he has the patience and on-base percentage you want as a lead-off man. Snider has a .386 on-base percentage this year right in line with his minor league on-base part of .383.
Again, I wouldn’t move Marte at this very moment. He’s too hot. And maybe he just really feels comfortable in that spot and that’s where he does belong. And there’s also the argument of getting your better hitters the most at bats possible.
But down the road, and perhaps down the road this season, maybe Marte should save his best for later: No. 2, No. 4 or No. 5 positions where his burgeoning bat has a chance to do more damage.
LIRIANO IS IMPRESSING MORE IMPORTANT FOLKS THAN MYSELF
Francisco Liriano isn’t just putting up good numbers in Triple-A – 11Ip, 8H, 2R, 0BB, 17ks – he’s also impressing scouts, writes John Perrotto here.
“I know it’s Triple-A but he’s been really good,” said a scout who saw Liriano’s start Tuesday against Gwinnett in the International League. “His stuff looks as good as it ever has and he’s throwing strikes with all his pitches.”
He’s always had swing-and-miss stuff. Has he learned how to throw strikes? If he has he’s a major bargain.
THE BRYCE IS (ALL) RIGHT
I know the Pens are playing tonight, but you might want to buy a ticket this weekend for the Nationals series. For one, Stephen Strasburg is probable for Saturday’s start, and you’ll also get to see a possible once-in-a-generation talent early in his career in Bryce Harper.
Here’s the 20-year-old Harper’s first 162 games: .284 average, .356 on-base, .518 slugging … 31 home runs.
The 31 home runs ties him with some guy named Ted Williams near the top of the list of players through their age 20 season. The difference is Harper’s age 20 season is just getting started. (Harper injured his side Wednesday but he played last night.)
What impresses me about Harper is not just his 80-grade p0wer but by the amount of contact and adjustments he’s making before he’s legally able to drink. (Well, he can drink in Canada. Someone should ask him if he has). A lot of folks in the scouting community thought his violent swing would lead to a bushel of strikeouts. It hasn’t.
Again, buy a ticket and come early for batting practice. You won’t regret it.