In 2007, a scout by the name of Rene Gayo became infatuated with a young short stop in the Dominican Republic. The tall, lanky teenager showed great tools however Gayo felt the kid would best be utilized if he moved to the outfield. After the kid tried out for the 5th time, Gayo offered him an $85,000 contract to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. That toolsy teenager is widely known today as Starling Marte.
Marte began his professional career with the DSL Pirates. In 132 at bats, he slashed .220/.307/.288 with six extra base hits and 16 steals. After progressing and hitting .296/.367/.455 the very next year, Marte began his quest to prove Gayo’s evaluation correct. He took flight among the prospect rankings and quickly became part of the 2012 Pirates top prospects behind your very own Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Josh Bell.
In the offseason before the 2012 season started, Minor League Ball spoke of Marte’s game and quoted, “Borderline B+. Hit well in Double-A, starting to develop more power, despite poor strike zone judgment. Superior defense. Still raw, needs a year of Triple-A, a wide range of possible outcomes, could become an All-Star, a mediocre regular, or a fourth outfielder.” Later that year, Marte made his major league debut and in 47 games he hit .257 with 14 extra base hits and 12 steals to total a 1.1 WAR.
Since his rookie debut, Marte has found himself to be a brilliant defender who holds a cannon of an arm, a speedy runner with prolific base stealing abilities, and a solid hitter who struggles with patience and the ability to get on base consistently. Through his 2015 season, Marte slashed a .283/.340/.445 while maintaining a 22.9% K rate and just a paltry 4.8% BB rate. His 113 steals in that span rank him 20th in MLB while his 121 wRC+ ranks him 50th. As productive as Marte has been, his achilles heal has been his free swinging spirit and inabilities to draw an old fashioned walk.
Entering 2016, we at NS9 predicted a breakout season for Marte, though we also expected one last season as well, and Starling has yet to disappoint. You can easily say he has taken his game to another level this year. To date, his batting average of .322 ranks 4th in the National League, 133 wRC+ ranks 16, 36 stolen bases rank 2nd, while his 3.2 WAR ranks him 12th. All of these numbers point to a breakout year for this young outfielder, but it is all of the things he has been doing over the past month that has us believing Marte is just reaching his potential.
As mentioned, Marte’s achilles heal has been his walk rate. Sure, he has a respectable OBP% throughout his career, but you can credit most of that to the 77 hit by pitches he has accrued in total. To put that in perspective, he has only walked 112 times. Similar to fellow Bucco, Josh Harrison, Marte has been known to be a free swinger and to chase outside of the strike zone. The graph you see below details the percentage of balls Marte has swung at for his career through June 23 of this year. As you can see, Marte has always struggled with laying off of the low and outside pitches.
Since the Dodgers series and especially after the All Star break, we have noticed a minor improvement in Starling’s at bats. He has appeared to be more patient and shown better pitch recognition. This has helped contribute to his better at bats which has gained a newfound skill set of drawing a walk. Through June 23 of this year, Marte has hit for .328 with an OBP of .370 but displayed a pathetic K/BB rate as he struck out 58 times to his 8 walks.
Since his newfound approach, the Marte Partay has batted .310 with an OBP of .395. The key to this 30 game stretch is his K/BB rate where he’s tallied just 23 K’s but has walked 11 total times. Yes, he literally has three more walks over the last 30 games than he did for a stretch of 67 games. This next graph will show you the difference as Marte appears to be laying off of that low and outside pitch that found him striking out so many times and now netting him free passes.
What does this all mean? Well for one, anybody who increases their walk rate tends to draw more value due to their increased ability to get on base. If Marte has finally made an effort to be more patient at the plate, not only will he bring a plus hit tool, but he will create less outs and create more run opportunities for the team.
What makes this so special for Marte is his speed and base stealing abilities. Marte has averaged around 33 stolen bases a season. So far this season he has already swiped 36 bags with 57 games remaining. While we were mentioning an increase in walks over his 30 game stretch, he also had an incredible increase in stolen bases as he tallied 16 during that span. If the Gold Glove outfielder can retain this ability going forward, it won’t be just a breakout we are speaking of, but possible future MVP considerations.
Nobody here is expecting to see 80 walk seasons by Marte, but a respectable 50 walk season to go along with his ticketed 20 HBP’s should net him along the lines of a .400 OBP season. This is honestly asking for around just 20 more walks per season. Minus the power, this would present a slash line eerily similar to Andrew McCutchen. Where Marte would lack in power he would clearly make up in defense and steals, however. What this also means is Pittsburgh very well could have found their best man to hit in the two hole.
Instantly, Marte is now the best hitter on this team. He brings a great batting average along with a high on base percentage which is everything that makes a saber metric fan drool. It also brings his speed back to the top of the order where Pittsburgh envisioned it early in his career.
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Last year, Marte tried to pick up some of the slack in the power department and did so by slugging a career high 19 home runs. It’s clear he has the power to do so, but what he brings to the team right now appears to bring out the best version of Starling. Less swinging for the fences and more swinging for contact as he lets his speed play is pacing him for the highest WAR season he’s produced.
The sample size here is quite small. In total, we are talking 113 at bats in 30 games played. Sure, we could immediately see the old Marte come back and this entire article becomes a waste of time and a moment that one sports blog made something out of nothing, but the eye test is forcing us to believe there is something to this.
As Minor League Ball stated, Marte’s path could take him towards many different outcomes, but neither of them mentioned were an MVP candidate. At only 27 years old with three consecutive 5+ WAR seasons under his belt, MVP candidate is something we all may expect to see come next season. If this prophecy holds true, the people of Pittsburgh can all thank an unheralded scout for giving a mere $85,000 to an unknown teenager in the Dominican Republic. Starling Marte would be sure to do exactly the same as well. So to Pittsburgh’s next big Superstar, thank you Mr. Rene Gayo.