SOUTH HILLS – It’s hard to label Starling Marte‘s first full season in the major leagues as anything other than a success. Despite missing 25 games with a hand injury, he finished 28th among position players in all of baseball with 4.6 Wins Above Replacement. He impacted the game at times with all five tools. He showed burgeoning power. He stole 41 bases. His bat was redhot to open the season and his defensive play in PNC Park’s deep left field was critical. But ….
…. there are some troubling trends, particularly since Clint Hurdle seems inclined to keep Marte as the everday lead-off hitter.
For starters, Marte’s strikeout rate surged to 29.7 percent in the second half. That’s Pedro Alvarez/Chris Davis territory. You can live with that if you have 8o-grade power. Marte does not.
Marte swung at nearly 40 percent of pitches that were out of the strikezone. His swing-and-miss rate of 12.2 percent supports his high strikeout rate. His approach declined as the season went on perhaps as pitchers made adjustment, perhaps because of his hand injury. Whatever the reason, it was trending down.
His on-base was a solid .343, but that was bumped up by 24 HBPs. Maybe getting hit by pitches is a sustainable skill, but even if it is, you don’t want an everyday player in harm’s way so often. The Pirates are working with Marte to reduce this number.
On the bases, Marte stole 41 bases, which was great. His speed is a true plus tool. But his instincts and technique are perhaps in need of refinement because he was caught stealing 15 times.
Some of this is nitpicking because we are talking about a 24-year-old who demonstrated all five tools and would have been a 5 WAR player had he remained healthy. He’s a premium athlete, who had he grown up in the states, might be playing wide receiver in the NFL. His HR/FB rate was impressive considering the drain that is PNC Park on right-handed power. He perhaps has 30-30 upside. There’s an Alfonso Soriano-like player here (with much better defense), which is a good thing. Also, Marte did improve his walk rate from 3.3 percent in the first half to 6.7 percent in the second half.
This is valuable package.
But I don’t think this is the profile of a lead-off hitter … at least not against right-handed pitching (my pick would be Neil Walker).
For me, Marte is of course an everyday player. His defense and baserunning adds value regardless who is pitching. But for me, he should bat further down in the lineup against RHPs. He hit .254 against RHPs last season vs. a whopping .402 against LHPs. For me, he’s not an everyday lead-off hitter until he improves his overall approach and performance against RHPs. But can plate discipline be learned? Many believe, and the evidence suggests, it is an innate skill to a degree.
The other question is this: is Marte a core player worthy of a long-term contract? I lean toward ‘Yes’ though the plate discipline is a concern. Marte is not Andrew McCutchen 2,o, though, and I think Gregory Polanco is also clearly a more valuable asset when you factor in Polanco’s remarkable ability to control the strike zone.
Marte can still be part of a dream outfield for years to come. But he looks like the third most valuable piece there and down the road he could be a trade chip depending on the performance of Josh Bell, Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez.