Thursday, February 18, 2016

Will Marte become Pirates' best player?

February 17, 2016
(Photo Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Starling Marte #6 of the Pittsburgh Pirates watches his two run home run in the twelfth inning to beat the Cincinnati Reds 6-4 on October 2, 2015 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(Photo Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Starling Marte could stay the same — not improve an ounce — and still have the kind of career most players only dream of. Any team would want him.
But don't you feel like he's capable of more?
Don't you wonder if he can make the leap from Starling to Superstarling?
Among the Pirates' many spring storylines, none stirs the imagination quite like Marte heading into his age-27 season. That is prime-of-career territory.
If he's going to make the leap, now would be the time.
Look at the Greek-God torso, the five-tool repertoire, the already eye-popping back of Marte's baseball card (101 steals, for example, in three years), and you might even go so far as to ask yourself this: Is it possible he becomes the Pirates' best player this season?
That would be quite the feat, considering Andrew McCutchen still cashes paychecks here. And I believe McCutchen is primed for a much better season. Right fielder Gregory Polanco best be primed for one, too. The Pirates desperately need Polanco to become a high-impact player.
Because this team practically sat out the offseason, its best hope of maintaining contender status is via internal improvements. I asked manager Clint Hurdle in a radio interview if he is concerned about an apparent lack of power overall and left-handed power in particular.
“What we have right now is what we have,” Hurdle said. “I think our power can play. The challenge is to be a better overall lineup one through eight than it was last year. Tougher outs, see more pitches, scratch out more runs. Everybody has the ability to hit a couple more homers. At the end of that day, that would add up.”
Regarding Marte, the question is this: How, precisely, does he become a better player?
The answer seems obvious: plate discipline.
Marte already is a Gold Glove defender. Sabermetrics and conventional stats love him equally. He made only one error and led NL outfielders with 16 assists.
He also suffered lapses where he was either slow to get to a ball or made a lollipop throw. His concentration level must improve, and that figures prominently into his plate approach.
First, check out Marte's numbers over his three full seasons. He has basically flatlined. He has done so in a pretty good place, as Hurdle might say, but has flatlined nonetheless.
Marte from 2013-15:
• Batting average: .280, .291, .287
• On-base percentage: .343, .356, .337
• OPS (combined on-base, slugging): .784, .809, .781
• Home runs: 12, 13, 19
• Steals: 41, 30, 30
• Runs: 83, 73, 84
• Doubles: 26, 29, 30
• Walks: 25, 33, 27
• Strikeouts: 138, 131, 123
What jumps out is the increase in home runs last season, despite a hand injury that bothered Marte for parts of the year. The big leap would see him hiking that total toward 30 and his OPS well into the .900s. Walks up, strikeouts down, solid contact increased.
Easier said than done, obviously, and nobody wants Marte to lose his aggressiveness. But it's over-aggressiveness that kills him. He needs to lay off pitches he couldn't hit with a telephone pole.
Advanced stats show Marte swings at a ton of bad pitches and predictably fares poorly. That was laid out in stunningly graphic fashion in August in a study on
Using every chart available to mankind, the site reached an inarguable conclusion: “Marte struggles to make high-quality contact on pitches out of the zone — he rarely hits the ball hard (78 MPH average exit velocity), rarely elevates it and only runs a .315 (slugging percentage) on the pitches he hits.”
That was nearly 400 points below Marte's slugging percentage on pitches in the zone.
The naked eye tells you Marte still has enormous difficulty laying off sliders way off the plate, particularly when he falls behind.
That hardly makes him unique. Maybe it never changes. Maybe Marte stays the same. If so, he will remain an outstanding player whose worth far exceeds his $31 million contract extension.
But if he finally puts it all together and becomes more McCutchen-like in his approach?
Man, just imagine.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him

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