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Starling Marte Is Doing Something New: Walking

Starling Marte is drawing more walks than ever this year. How much could that impact his season, and can he maintain it?

It ?s a good time to be a part of the Pirates ? lineup. Everyone 1 through 8 is contributing, and the quality of the hitters runs the gamut from average to elite. It ?s only been 11 games, but it ?s clear to see this team isn ?t 8-3 because of their defense or bullpen. They ?re putting up runs, and lots of them.

There are plenty of players who needed a hot start to get monkeys off their backs. Corey Dickerson is making people forget about McCutchen. Colin Moran is doing the same, but with Gerrit Cole. Gregory Polanco is already up to 13 RBI, and the Pirates are 6-0 when he brings a run home. I ?ll give myself a way too early, incredibly undeserved pat on the back for calling him the most important player this year.

Starling Marte is also off to a fast start. There was plenty of concern around him after being suspended for half of 2017 and changing positions this winter, but so far, so good. Sure, he may have slimmed down a bit, but he ?s still got pop. Here he is Tuesday barrelling up his hardest hit ball since Statcast was introduced in 2015.

That laser beam was one of his six extra-base hits he has this season, so the power is still there. That should put a lot of fears about his game to rest, but that doesn ?t mean he ?s the same player as he was before. Surprisingly, the notorious free swinger is second on the team in walks.

Marte has been tantalizingly close to being elite for years. He has the glove, the speed and more than a decent amount of power. What has kept him from being a consistent All-Star or even a possible MVP contender has been his OBP. While he benefits from a consistently above league average BABIP clip and gets hit by more than his fair share of pitches, his career OBP is just .344. That ?s good, but it could be great if he drew even a league average amount of walks.

Marte ?s career high in walks was in 2014 when he drew 33 free passes, which equated to 6.1% of his plate appearances. It was, not surprisingly, his best year as a major leaguer, accumulating 4.5 fWAR with a 132 wRC+. For comparison’s sake, let ?s put his 2014 and 2018 seasons side by side, and also contrast that to Andrew McCutchen ?s MVP 2013 season.

Marte 2014: 545 PAs, .291/.356/.453, 6.1 BB%, 132 wRC+

Marte 2018: 49 PAs, .262/.367/.548, 14.3 BB%, 152 wRC+

McCutchen 2013: 674 PAs, .317/.404/.508, 11.6 BB%, 156 wRC+

Marte has a better OBP in 2018 than he did in 2014 even though his batting average is almost 30 points lower. This is why his patience at the plate is such an encouraging sign. His value is destined to take a hit this year since he does not grade out as well as a center fielder as he does a left fielder, so he could really use a boost in offense. He has the most room to grow with his OBP. Take Bull Durham ?s infamous ?one hit every week ? speech, but replace ?dying quail ? or ?gork ? with ?walk. ? In fact, let ?s take that 2014 Marte season but replace one out a week with a walk. Now, his line looks like:

545 PAs, .306/.402/.477, 10.6 BB%

One extra walk a week turns Marte into a .300 hitter and adds almost 50 points to his OBP. Bull Durham is right again. A 10.6 walk percentage is a little high, but it ?s not ridiculous. 52 of the 144 qualified batters (3.1 PAs per team game) last year reached that mark. Marte should shoot for that, too.

Marte has already drawn seven walks in his first 49 plate appearances. That ?s a walk rate of 14.3%. It ?s probably too soon to put too much stock into that BB%, but reaching seven walks is a benchmark for him. He ?s drawn seven or more walks in a month just seven times in his career. He ?s never drawn 10 walks in a month, nor has he earned a free pass in 10% of his plate appearances in a month.

Click to enlarge. Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.

The Pirates still have 18 games this April. He ?s in very good position to reach double digit walks for the first time. Again, that would ideally be a floor, not a ceiling, but it would still be breaking new ground.

You can credit this change with Marte having a better feel for the strike zone so far. In his career, he ?s offered at 66.9% of pitches in the zone and 38.4% outside the zone. Through the first 10 games this year, it ?s 81.4% and 25.4%, respectively. For reference, the league averages the last five years have hovered around 66% and 30%.

But this doesn ?t mean Marte is immune from falling back into bad habits. From 2013-2016, he consistently started the year offering at fewer pitches outside of the zone, just to go back to his free swinging ways. Let ?s take a look at his rolling 10 game averages, courtesy of Fangraphs:

Dotted line is a reference for his season average. Click to enlarge. Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.

Some years have more fluctuation than others, but the generalization is he rarely sticks around or below that 30% mark. That ?s not good, and a potential buzzkill to Marte ?s newfound discipline.

Does this mean that Marte is going to fall back into the same career trends? Not necessarily. He only has seven months with 7+ walks, but two of those months were August and September of last year. Perhaps some time away from the game forced him to not swing at everything. He walked in 8 percent of his plate appearances last September. It was by far his best month of the season. Even a modest jump like that could have a major positive impact.

Sean Rodriguez made a similar change in approach in 2016, leading to his best offensive season. If Marte can maintain what he ?s doing, he could replicate McCutchen ?s numbers. If he doesn ?t, it looks like he could at least match his pre-steroid output.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.