Pirates fans have been excited about Starling Marte for a long time, and there’s good reason for that. As a prospect, he showed excellent speed, skill with the bat, and a great arm as well. He really has the makeup of what most would call a five tool player. Marte has shown flashes of these tools throughout the time that he’s spent in the big leagues (including homering on the first pitch he faces as a Pirate), but has yet to put all of them together in one package. Granted, Marte is still a rookie without a full season under his belt, but there are some things that strike me as concerning with his performance so far.
As a fielder, Marte has been solid for the most part. As a left fielder last year, Marte posted a .957 fielding percentage out in left field, and displayed a great knack for covering the massive expanse that is left field in PNC Park. To go along with his ability to cover a lot of that ground, largely due to his speed, Marte showed an impressive arm as well. He clearly has a cannon out there, his most notable display of it was in nailing Paul Goldschmidt by about five steps when Goldschmidt tried to stretch out a single. Given these numbers, and his impressive arm, there’s not much we can really complain about as far as Marte’s defensive abilities go. He’s a solid defender now, and given more experience could blossom into a very much above average type of outfielder.
With Marte’s hitting, there are things which we can take issue with, and we’ll do that here. Last year in his first time in the big leagues, Marte batted a respectable .257, posting a triple slash of .257/300./.468 with five home runs and seventeen RBI. The main problem that sprung up with Marte’s hitting was his overall lack of plate discipline. As a leadoff hitter, Marte’s job is to avoid strikeouts, work counts, and get on base. In that role, Marte had a lot of failures with fifty strikeouts and only eight walks in his time in Pittsburgh last year. As a leadoff hitter in his first season in 2009, McCutchen drew fifty-four walks, and struck out eighty-three times. McCutchen has always been known for his plate discipline, but so far, Marte has not. Even when Marte has put up great numbers in spring training this year, he still had only five walks, compared to eighteen strikeouts. Marte swings at 34% of pitches outside of the zone, while McCutchen went after only 20% as a rookie. Marte’s discipline (or lack thereof) is a legitimate problem. Leadoff hitters are supposed to be the kind of guys that can have more discipline than nearly any other hitters in the lineup, but Marte clearly doesn’t fulfill this role.
As a baserunner, Marte is decent. In 2012, he was just over 66% success rate on his stolen base attempts, and that can be expected to go up as Marte matures, and becomes better at getting jumps and reading pitchers. Reading pitchers while attempting to steal bases, while not one of the most important things in baseball, is easily one of the most difficult things there is in the game, outside of the obvious things like hitting. You can’t just learn to steal bases in a few minutes, it takes many years of practice, learning the art, along with improved conditioning and speed. Look for Marte to get better in this area as his career continues.
Marte may be a guy with five tools, but he needs to put them all together, and mature right now. This isn’t to say that he can’t or won’t, I certainly expect him to improve, but I don’t ever expect Marte to be an All-Star quality player. He’ll be above average, but never great, given his current trajectory. The Pirates need a guy to occupy the top spot in the lineup, and to get on base for McCutchen and the rest of the middle of the order to drive in. Without his great speed and arm, I don’t think it would be wise to keep Marte in the lineup right now, but given his tools, and the current options available, he’s what the Pirates are going to have to have. Hopefully his discipline improves with age, or else we’ll never be able to fill that top spot in the lineup properly any time soon. Provided he improves at the plate, Marte really could be a light version of Cutch, but unless and until he does, he’ll just be a great athlete who happens to play baseball. Let’s hope that improvement comes soon.