The ceiling for Starling Marte

jrollison
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When Neal Huntington signed Starling Marte to an extension before the beginning of the 2014 season, some in Pittsburgh Pirate fandom were scratching their heads.  The phrases “But he’s too raw” and “We haven’t seen a good season from him yet” popped up everywhere from casual conversation to twitter feeds.  Today I will take a hard look at Marte and where I think he might go in his career.

After 2.5 full seasons in the league, Marte has steadily improved his game in a variety of ways, as evidenced below:

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At first, you may see those as being “merely” incremental improvements, and you would be right.  The difference to me is that he took good strides between ’13 and ’14 with 21 fewer plate appearances.  Despite that, he still improved his walk rate, and lowered his strikeouts.  While I fully believe Starling Marte will maintain somewhat of a “free-swinger” mindset, the fact that he improved his discipline in only his second full-season in the bigs gives me great hope that he will continue to make strides. When we look a bit deeper at his 2014 statistics, we can find a lot more to get excited about:

Marte’s 2014 splits between RHP and LHP  

The stat to focus on here is AVG and and OBP.  Although Marte seems to get less RBI chances against LHP, he hits it just as well. For a young right-handed hitter to be this close in his splits at this point in his career is very intriguing.  One item of note is that his strikeout rate against lefties is 29% vs 21% against right handers.  More overall plate discipline should bring those numbers lower across the board.

Of course, for some hitters, where they hit can mean a lot too.  Marte is no different, as evidenced below:

Starling Marte’s 2014 splits sorted by batting order

Things get very interesting when you look at where Marte batted in the lineup in 2014.  The Pirates took great strides offensively in 2014, and I think a lot of it had to do with Clint Hurdle figuring out what makes #6 tick at the plate.  Despite possessing leadoff-hitter capable speed, Marte has not, and I think will not flourish in that role.  Rather, he gets aided by having protection when he hits at #2, or potentially having runners on base with a fair-to good hitter behind him.   This to me is the most interesting thing about Marte.  When batting 6th, his numbers enjoy a HUGE jump almost across the board (just look at that .OPS!).  But what’s more exciting is that he only struck out 11 times when batting 6th.  He did only walk once from that spot, but that tells me he is getting good pitches to hit, perhaps because the bases are full of Bucs at that point.

While it’s true that the loss of Russell Martin will have some impact on Hurdle’s day-to-day lineup creation, I have to think that these numbers will force the coaching staff to do everything they can to keep Marte in the 6th spot.  This may prove to be the biggest challenge in 2015.  If Pedro Alvarez can return to form and play regularly at 1B, he could conceivably slide into 5th and the natural order of things won’t be too disturbed.  That is quite a big IF, however.  Hurdle has another good option by putting Marte in the 2 hole.  Doing so could take advantage of Starling’s speed and create many more RBI chances for McCutchen.

What steps does Starling Marte need to take in 2015? Avoiding a bad start.

In  2014, Marte got off to a subpar start in April/May.  Heating up in June before heading to the shelf, he surprised me by heating right back up again, to the tune of a .977 OPS in August.  You’ll also notice that his strikeouts continued to drop month by month as well.  Some of this could be attributed to jumping around in the order before assuming his central role in  the 6th spot.  As a baseball player ages and matures, so do his work habits.  All reports indicate that he is working hard this offseason, even taking Gregory Polanco under his wing, and aims to come into spring training with a renewed focus.

The Pirates took great strides offensively in 2014, and I think a lot of it had to do with Clint Hurdle figuring out what makes #6 tick at the plate.

The idea of this piece was to gauge the ceiling for #6, and after presenting all of the facts, I will now present my case.  And it is summed up thusly:  I am more bullish on Starling Marte than any Pirate in recent memory.  I fully believe he is capable of 20 HR, .300/,400/.475, 80-90 RBI, and 30 SB each and every year.  His strikeouts are only going to decrease.   His feel for the game continues to grow.  He needs to improve his clutch hitting (with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, his slashline drops to .224/.321/.367).  He needs to stay healthy.  But he can play LF and CF.  He comes back from injury strongly.   He does anything the staff asks him to do.

Starling Marte is going to do great things in a Pirate uniform.

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