2014 Recaps: Starling Marte Has Quietly Become One of the Best in Baseball

Prior to the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen to a big extension. The deal paid him $51.5 M, locking up all of his arbitration years and buying out control of three free agent years. That season, McCutchen responded with a 6.8 WAR, went on to win an MVP award the next year, and the extension started looking like a massive value for the Pirates.

They might have gotten the same massive value with Starling Marte.

The Pirates extended Marte prior to the 2014 season, with the extension taking place in Spring Training, just like McCutchen’s deal. The deal guaranteed him $31 M, and bought out control of his first three free agent years. And already, it is looking like a steal.

Marte quietly had an amazing season in 2014. He started off slow, hitting for a .612 OPS in the month of April. He picked up the pace a big in May, with a .780 OPS. He struggled in the first half of June, but once Gregory Polanco arrived in Pittsburgh, he picked up the pace. Marte finished the month of June with a .901 OPS after Polanco’s promotion, and he didn’t look back. From July to the end of the season, he had a .932 OPS, and finished the year with a 13 game hitting streak.

To put those numbers in perspective, Andrew McCutchen had a .964 OPS from July to the end of the season. McCutchen didn’t have a rocky first half, but both players were impact hitters in the second half. Adding more perspective, Marte finished 11th among hitters in the majors in WAR in the second half, falling behind teammates Russell Martin and Josh Harrison. His OPS after the All-Star break ranked fourth in baseball, behind Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and Buster Posey.

Of course, Marte’s greatness isn’t just confined to the second half. Over the last two years he has combined for an  8.6 WAR, which ranks 30th among all position players in baseball. He’s not at Andrew McCutchen’s level (ranking second to only Mike Trout), but Marte is emerging as one of the top position players in the game.

There are things to criticize about Marte’s game. He doesn’t walk enough (although he did improve from a 4.4 BB% in 2012-2013 to a 6.1% in 2014), and he’ll make some mistakes on the bases due to his all-out style (still had a 5.8 BsR this year, showing positive value on the bases). Those mistakes can also carry over to the field at times. He strikes out a lot, leading to concerns that he won’t be able to hit in the long-term in the majors. But Marte’s speed allows him to keep a high average and a high OBP, despite the strikeouts and low walk totals. He had a 14.5% infield hit rate this year, which ranked 2nd in baseball, behind Mike Trout.

Marte hasn’t quite received the recognition as one of the top position players in the game, but he’s quietly already there. When he was coming up through the minors, there were concerns about his K/BB rates, along with his lack of power. He’s added some power since then, although a focus on power might take away from the biggest strength of his game — his speed. As long as he keeps using his speed to get on base, he should continue to be a productive hitter.

The Future

The Pirates have Marte under control through the 2021 season. Right now he isn’t guaranteed more than $10 M a year, and won’t make more than $13.5 M in any year of his deal. That’s the definition of a team friendly deal, especially since his value on the open market right now would earn him at least $20 M per year.

The Pirates have a Dream Outfield with McCutchen, Marte, and Gregory Polanco all under control through at least the 2018 season. That’s McCutchen’s last year of control. They also have a lot of promising outfield prospects in the minors, although Josh Bell will be making the switch to first base this off-season, and Austin Meadows is several years away from being a starting option.

Prior to the 2013 season, the feeling among Pirates fans seemed to be that Marte was the most expendable among the Pirates’ outfielders. I’m not counting out Gregory Polanco yet, and still think he can be a star, and possibly the best of the trio. Even if Marte is the “worst” of the group, he would still be one of the best players in the game. Marte should be viewed in the same light as McCutchen going forward. The Pirates have a highly productive player under a very team friendly deal. The only time they should consider parting ways with him is when his contract is up, and if there is another stud outfield prospect ready to take over for him at that time.

  • Hey, remember when fans were clamoring for Huntington to trade him for Upton back in ’11?
    Dodged the bullet on that one.

  • How about all those RH hitter on top of the Infield hit % list?
    That’s pretty amazing.
    Also, technically they shoudl consider dealing Marte/Anyone a year or so before their deal is up.

  • Why was Marte so much better after a slow start this season? Perhaps Starling already gave us the answer. While celebrating the
    playoff-clinching win at Turner field in September, Marte said what seemed obvious to me: he was much better once his best friend, Gregory Polanco, joined the team. My take is that these are two good guys who love the game and are going to have a ball playing together for years in the Pirate outfield. It should be fun for us, too.

  • David Ferrier
    October 16, 2014 6:36 pm

    I am wondering how much his ill mother in law played into his down turn early in the season. After her passing, he really picked up the pace.

  • Thanks tim. I was one of the ones beating the drum hard to trade him.. thonking I am wrong now.. any suggestions on how to make room for these prospects to grow two or three years from now? Also, would his war value be different if he played cf all year? He looked comfy there when cutch was out

  • Marte is a true 5 tool player and all five tools are very good, maturation with him has been the problem, but in the second half of the year you had a good look at maturation in action, Marte will be great. for those of us that had a chance to see Clemente when he came up, Marte’s first 3 years are better than Clemente’s first 3 years. I am not saying Marte is a better player than Clemente, because Clemente matured into one of the greatest players ever, something Marte has yet to do. There are a few stats to compare Marte and McCutchen, the difference between the two is that Marte is a 5 tool and McCutchen is a 4 tool.

    • I’m super jealous you saw clemente play..

      • I have Clemente’s autograph. 1959 Forbe’s Field.

        • My uncle took Clementes hat off his head after a playoff win. He just sold at auction for 15k. Clemente was not happy about it though.

          • I’ll bet he was’t Rick ! As an added attraction,you should see the other autographs I got at the same game. Johnny Logan, Joe Christopher, and Dick Stuart. God bless them all, none of those are probably worth anything. But here is the worst part : at that same game,the opponent was the San Francisco Giants. The autographs I got that day ? Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Willie Mays ! Do you think I can find those ? Noooo !

    • I think it’s really unfair to use Clemente’s first three years in comparison to other players. Clemente was severely mishandled as a young player — of course those seasons were not going to be good statistically.

  • Greatness awaits, now if the bucs can just cure the a.d.d. that crops up from time to time he should be super.

  • Marte’s 2nd half k-rate: 18%. SSS warning applies.

  • “Quietly” is the perfect word. Excellent write-up.

  • It would be so tempting to trade him now; similar to the McClouth trade. Polanco would go to LF and Snider would keep RF warm until Bell or Garcia are ready. Realistically Meadows isn’t that far away either.

    Tim, would the Yankees give us all their July 2 signings for Marte?

    • The McLouth trade made sense. They weren’t going to be contending while McLouth was there. His value was much higher than what he was actually worth. They were able to sell high on him, and get players who could help when they actually were contending.

      If you trade Marte, you aren’t selling high at all. And you’re dealing away a very important piece of a team that is currently contending.

      Dealing Snider would be more of a McLouth type deal, assuming a team wanted to over-pay for him.

      • I feel like snider has a lot more to show.. I actually like him as a rf moreso then Polanco next year.. I like the added power and love his defense and speed isn’t as important in rf.. am I the only one who thinks this? If so I’ll shut up about it. Lol

      • Not only is that logical, waiting on Garcia to figure out how to get to Pittsburgh might involve some waIt time.

      • Snider and McClouth isn’t close to similar. Snider has had one decent year as a platoon OF. McClouth had a GREAT season and a half and had more control. McClouth was the definition of selling high. Snider wouldn’t be.

        How are you not selling high on Marte? He’s about to go through this prime and is signed to a team friendly deal.

        If Marte has injury issues and gets slower he could look like a Tabata in a couple years. Maybe not 2 WAR to replacement level but 4 WAR to 2 WAR.

        The Rays kept their system stocked by trading excess pitching. We don’t have excess pitching so we need to trade excess OFs.

        • The point is that Marte is not “excess” OF – he is “essential” OF. Snider did well in a limited role the 2nd half of last season – but Marte is already a proven, productive every day player. Big difference. You start trading guys like Marte in hopes that guys like Snider can fill the gap and you will see the other side of .500 in a hurry.

          • If you want to be competitive for years you need to find a way to do that.

            We will not be drafting in the top half again for a long time. How do you expect to stay competitive? The Rays are a last place team next year with a near barren farm system.

            That where we’ll be in about 5 years without some foresight.

    • Not in a million years does this guy go anywhere!!!

    • Stop it with he trades!!

  • He’s one of 2 players that I can think of that have a chance to get 20 home runs and 40 stolen bases next year. The other being Trout.

  • i would like to see him hit for more power. I can deal with the K’s and lack of BBs if he can hit 25+ HRs.

    • The problem with trying to hit for more power is that he’d have to change his approach. He had a 47.3% ground ball rate this year and a 29.2% fly ball rate. By comparison, Andrew McCutchen was at 39.9% and 41.5%.

      McCutchen has a career 12.6% HR/FB ratio. Marte is at 13.2% in his career, and 12.7% in 2014. So Marte’s power numbers on fly balls are good. He just doesn’t hit fly balls.

      If he focused on hitting fly balls, he’d be taking away from the biggest strength of his game, and that is his speed. His average would go way down, since you’d be removing a lot of infield hits, and replacing them with a lot more fly outs (the BABIP on fly balls is very low).

      Marte’s lack of homers are fine, as long as the tradeoff is a lot of extra hits, not to mention his gap power (he actually does better than McCutchen at hitting line drives).

      • McCutchen’s BABIP since 2012: .361

        Marte’s 2014 2nd Half BABIP, in which he increased his FB rate 10% : .401

      • Don’t get me wrong, your logic is fine. I just don’t think it’s at all assured that his average would go “way down” with a batter ball profile that features more flies.

        • Wouldn’t you consider 401 unsustainable? I would think we would put more weight on tim’s explanation provided when trying to understand what to expect from a more homer marte at this point. . The logic he used is widely excepted on fangraphs

          • .401 is absolutely unsustainable. Certainly wasn’t trying to argue otherwise. I also thought Marte’s .363 BABIP last year was, too.

            The basis of Tim’s logic, that fly balls generally go for hits less often than ground balls, is definitely true. But not to the point where an increase in fly balls in the range one can reasonably expect would drastically lower his overall BA. Marte isn’t turning into a Chris Carter hitting 50% FBs, nor should he. But with the power he does have, he also shouldn’t be hitting over 50% GBs, either.

            Another way to think of the issue is that the vast majority of ground balls are pulled, and Marte is no exception. If you want a hitter using the whole field, you shouldn’t be asking him to keep the ball on the ground.

            • Or thought of another way, Tim showed that Cutch and Marte have similar HR/FB rates.

              Would you trade Cutch’s homers for singles?

              • Good points. . I should break out babip’s and percents for gb/fb/line drives for both cutch & marte and get an idea of what to expect. . Would it be difficult for a hitter to just decide to hit more fly balls?

                • Typically, yes. A hitter has to add loft by changing his swing plane in order to significantly alter his batted ball profile, and that’s not easy.

                  But reducing ground balls can also be accomplished by staying on the ball longer and using the whole field, even of that may seem counterintuitive. getting pull happy will have you rolling over more ground balls than your natural swing would dictate, as we saw with Marte and Jordy early this year, and Alvarez, well, basically his whole career.

    • You guys are forgetting that he has missed 30 games each of the last two years. If he can stay healthy for a full year, he will hit around 20 or so homers. That to go along with around 30 doubles 8 triple range and 35-40 steal range. I’m so sick of seeing people complain about this guy. He is by far my favorite current player and a big part of why is because he is so disrespected and under appreciated by so many Pirate fans.

      Great article Tim!

      • I agree 100% I have never seen a player who performs so well and get so little credit for it by the hometown fans. Countless people on here always want to trade him while others complain about his low walk rate while failing to see he has a high OBP. The guy hits, he hits in the clutch, hits for power, bunts, steals bases and runs everything down in left. Glad he is a Pirate and I look forward to see him in a Bucs uniform for the next 7 years.

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