Starling Marte #6 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates after hitting a two run home run in the sixth inning of the interleague game against the Detroit Tigers on April 12, 2016 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan.(Source: Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)
PITTSBURGH -- Back in the 1970s, Al Oliver was often said to be the most underrated player in baseball.
He played in the shadow of Roberto Clemente and then Willie Stargell on some fearsome power-hitting Pirates teams. Both are now Hall of Famers.
Starling Marte, in many ways, is becoming the Al Oliver of the 2010s.
The Pirates' left fielder is one of the most-talented players in the major leagues. Yet he is virtually ignored outside of Pittsburgh while playing next to superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who has finished in the top five of the National League Most Valuable Player each of the last four seasons.
Marte has yet to be selected to an All-Star Game or receive an MVP vote and he’s never been on the cover of any national magazines.
Yet that doesn’t bother the five-year veteran. While the 27-year-old is flashy on the field, especially with his great defensive plays, he is deeply religious man who is quiet and humble off it.
“The big thing for me is to help the team win and we’ve been in the playoffs three years in a row,” Marte said. “I just want to help my team, help my teammates win games and make the fans happy. That is most important."
However, little by little, Marte seems to be getting noticed.
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona raved about Marte last month during spring training when he recalled his team’s three-game interleague series against the Pirates last July at PNC Park.
“He’s a terrific player, just terrific,” Francona said. “He can do everything. I didn’t really know much about him because we don’t play the Pirates often but I was so impressed. He’s a great player and he’s at the age where you expect him to get a little better.”
Marte is hitting .347 with two home runs, eight RBIs and four stolen bases in 13 games, helping the Pirates get off to a 7-6 start.
They were off Monday and open a 10-game trip Tuesday night against the Padres at San Diego with left-hander Francisco Liriano (1-0, 2.45) facing Chris Rea (0-1, 5.56). The Pirates play three games in San Diego, three against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix and four against the Colorado Rockies in Denver.
Marte’s strong start comes after hitting .286 over the previous three seasons while averaging 15 homers and 34 bases a year.
After winning his first NL Gold Glove last season, Marte has been playing outstanding defense again. He made a jaw-dropping catch Friday night when he leaped over the top of the left-field fence and into the crowd at PNC Park to rob the Milwaukee Brewers’ Chris Carter of a home run.
The following afternoon, a veteran scout made an interesting -- and somewhat startling -- observation about Marte.
“He’s the best player on that club now,” the scout said. “For me, he’s the guy I’d fear the most if my team was playing the Pirates. He can change the game with his bat, his legs and his glove. He’s one of the most complete players in the game.”
In other words, Marte is a better player than McCutchen?
“In my eyes, he is and that’s not a knock on McCutchen but a compliment to Marte,” the scout said. “He’s the best-kept secret in baseball and he’s still getting better.”
While the sky does indeed seem to be the limit for Marte, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wants to at least tap the brakes on the expectations.
“I think Starling’s going to show you things that are special throughout the season as he continues to grow,” Hurdle said. “But to say two weeks in that this is the new guy and he’s going to be like this every day, I don’t need to go there. I want Starling to paint the picture for all of us.”