Recent Posts

Appreciating Starling Marte’s Hustle

Pictured: Starling Marte hustling, as he often does. Photo by Nick Wass, AP.

Sports commentary is easy. Good sports commentary is a little harder. Engaging sports commentary is even harder. It’s tough to find something that consistently clicks with a large readership. That’s why narratives are so popular among talking heads, columnists, bloggers and even Twitter users. Find something that resonates with people and either build on it or milk it.

With the exception of the most model of beat reporters, almost everyone who writes about sports in either long form or in 240 characters goes to the well for certain players or teams. It can be “people think Player X is bad, but he’s actually good.” Or “Player Y is a clubhouse cancer.” One of my narratives is I hate two-seam fastballs. Barring some sort of paradigm shift or change in perception, a narrative will stick, but not all of them are justified.

Today, I'm going to try (almost certainly in vain) to kill one of those unjust narratives. Starling Marte — the two time Gold Glove winning All-Star — is not lazy. He hustles.

Marte has been a popular subject for Pittsburgh's media these last couple days. Nubyjas Wilborn of The Post-Gazette and Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic have both penned pieces on him since Sunday. Fittingly so, since he recently joined Barry Bonds as the only Pirates ever to hit 100 home runs and steal 200 bases. We may also hear his name pop up periodically throughout the month as one of the more desirable trade targets on the market. After all, who wouldn't want a center fielder who can hit, run, field and throw?

Besides all the people in Pittsburgh who are very vocally displeased with him, of course.

Before I get going, I should make it perfectly clear that I'm not calling out anyone in particular because this sentiment isn't limited to just one person. If it was, I’d spare myself the 2,205 words it took to write this post and just @ them. One of the coolest parts about The Point of Pittsburgh is how often our articles pop up in the wild. There have been plenty of times where I saw someone tweet out an article from weeks or even months ago to either support their argument or refute someone else’s. That’s why TPOP is worth reading. If I can’t kill the narrative, then maybe this post can at least live on, buried deep in the mentions of future threads.

So like all of my posts, let’s use data to refute the “Marte doesn’t hustle” claim. Unfortunately for me, there is no pure 'hustle' metric, so I'm going to have to pull from other stats which would indicate he is busting his tail. Let's start with an easy one: infield hits. Regardless of how fast you are, you have to hustle at least a little to beat out an infield hit.

Since 2013 — his first full year in the majors — Marte is third in baseball infield hits and tops in the NL.

Courtesy of FanGraphs.

What if counting stats aren't really your thing? We also have infield hit percentage, or how often a player turns a ground ball into an infield hit. FanGraphs' batted ball data goes back to 2002. Since then, 572 different players have accrued at least 2,000 major league plate appearances.

Of those 572, Marte's 11.6% career infield hit rate ranks fifth.

Courtesy of FanGraphs.

In fourth place is the legendary Ichiro Suzuki. Sure, he's a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the most universally beloved players of his generation, but you have to wonder how many more infield hits he would have legged out if he hustled all the time.

But what about in the field? His 79 defensive runs saved are the third best among NL outfielders since the stat started being tracked in 2002. He also grades out very positively in Outs Above Average.

How about on the basepaths? We all know he can steal bases, but there’s more to base running than just that. For a raw answer, we can turn to Baseball Reference to see how many runs his legs have created. Going based on base running and double plays, Marte has been worth the ninth most runs in Pirates history.

Courtesy of Baseball-Reference and the Play Index.

That’s some good company. A couple dead ball Hall of Famers are near the top. Omar Moreno — one of the very best base stealers ever — is sandwiched between them. Then there’s Clemente and Bonds, followed by Womack, Taveras and then another Pirate center fielder, Andy Van Slyke. Marte has picked up base running runs at the same pace as Van Slyke did throughout his Pirates career. Van Slyke was a little before my time, but I’ve heard stories about him. None of them were about how he took plays off.

Well, this is all just because he’s so fast, right? It’s true Marte has a set of wheels. Baseball Savant has his sprint speed listed at 29 feet per second. That’s 26th out of the 362 players who have made at least 50 competitive runs this year. 30 feet/second is considered “elite,” and he’s reached that speed 23 times this year. The only other player at least 30 years old to hit 30 ft/sec 10 or more times is Jarrod Dyson.

But speed doesn’t always translate to good base running. According to Baseball-Reference, Marte has a 60% extra base taken percentage this year. That means when there’s an opportunity for him to move from first to third on a single, first to home on a double or second to home on a single, he has succeeded 60% of the time. The league average is 41%.

For curiosity’s sake, how does that compare to other players with roughly his sprint speed? I took a window from players who average 28.8-29.2 feet/second and whittled it down to players with at least 10 opportunities to take an extra base. Out of the 19 players who met those qualifications, Marte’s extra base taken percentage is third.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant and Baseball-Reference.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant and Baseball-Reference.

Last year, out of players in the same sprint speed window with at least 20 extra base opportunities, only Javier Baez topped a 60% success rate (64%). Marte is outclassing his contemporaries through hustle and good baseball IQ.

But he doesn’t run hard all the time! Sorry to burst your bubble, but nobody runs or ran hard all the time. Joe DiMaggio didn’t. Jackie Robinson didn’t. Ty Cobb didn’t. Their play is romanticized through the passage of time. They hustled and ran hard a lot, but they were also human. You can’t be on all the time.

So why did this narrative take off? Marte clearly hustles, or at the very least, he puts forth enough effort to be elite at all the hustle-adjacent stats. Why did this stick? I have five theories I want to discuss. This is by no means a complete list, but it’s a starting point.

1. Selling Jeans

If Michelangelo was asked to carve the perfect baseball player physique out of marble…he’d probably be really confused. But once you explained to him what baseball is (in Italian), then he would probably chisel someone who looks like Starling Marte. Muscular, fast and with a rocket arm. Sounds like an MVP candidate.

He may never have reached MVP discussion, but Marte was a five win player each year from 2013-2016. Four straight seasons of All-Star level play hardly sounds like a disappointment, regardless of pedigree or potential. He was on a three WAR pace in his suspension shortened 2017 campaign and was worth 3.7 bWAR while changing positions last year. He’s having another impact season in 2019.

Perhaps people were upset because they thought Marte had another gear after his first year or two in the majors. If he did, he probably will never reach it, but with the body of work he’s produced, it’s hard to be disappointed.

2. He’s the superstar, right?

Sometimes it’s lonely at the top. When things go sideways, someone needs to be held accountable, and the best players are held to a higher standard. Name recognition is a double-edged sword.

This isn’t just a baseball-ism. Ben Roethlisberger could throw for 400 yards, but if the Steelers lose, the discussion will center around an interception or a missed throw on a key third down. Matt Murray made 30 saves, but gave up two power play goals. That’ll be radio fodder the next day. Starling Marte had a three hit night, but he didn’t book it down the first base line on an inning-ending double play. The negatives stick out.

3. His value isn’t surface level

Home runs and RBI are sexy. Base running runs and good fielding plays that don’t require highlight reel dives aren’t.

Going by the triple crown stats, Marte looks pretty pedestrian. He’s a .280-something hitter with his home runs usually somewhere in the teens and 60-70 RBI. None of those figures are bad, but if you are a casual fan who doesn’t know what WAR or OPS are, that seems underwhelming for your supposed best player. If he’s the best on the team, why isn’t he better? Doesn’t he hustle?

4. Gregory Polanco

Sometimes players are paired or grouped together. If I was to write about the Pirates’ awful pitch framing this year, I’d focus on Elias Diaz, but I would talk about all the catchers. Other examples can be the starting rotation, players who came together in a trade and platoon partners.

Marte has been matched with Polanco seemingly more than anyone else on the team. How often do you hear the phrase “Marte and Dickerson” or “Marte and Bell?” What about “Marte and Polanco?” Maybe it’s because they were two-thirds of the “dream outfield” or they’re the two most noteworthy products from the Dominican Baseball Academy, but they are a package deal. If one is struggling, the other tends to get caught in the fallout through no fault of their own. Polanco’s 2019 campaign looks like a lost cause. Those frustrations could spill over to Marte through name association. Speaking of association…

5. The elephant in the room

Screw it, I’ll say it. The comment section has had it too good for too long.

It’s not inherently racist to say Player X doesn’t hustle. (Proof: Adam Frazier doesn’t hustle.) If a player isn’t hustling, we need to be able to call him out on it. Marte doesn’t need called out. The first half of this article was all about that. Trying to pass off such a narrative because of a handful of outliers is irresponsible, and even if there is no racist authorial intent, it can be misinterpreted that way. To put it another way: it’s not racist, but it’s very popular with racists.

This is called coded language. In the words of professor Ian Haney-L pez, “It allows people to say, ‘Hey, I’m just criticizing the behavior, not criticizing a racially defined group.'” For example, in 2015, Bud Norris was approached by USA Today about a study that found the majority of benches clearing incidents involve foreign players. Said Norris:

'…This is America's game. This is America's pastime, and over the last 10-15 years we've seen a very big world influence in this game, which we as a union and as players appreciate. We're opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you're going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years, and I think sometimes that can be misconstrued. …”

For someone who claims to care so deeply about respecting the game, Norris sure was disrespectful to his teammates. His hazing of Jordan Hicks last year got himself blackballed out of the league. Stop talking about respecting the game and respect your fellow man, first.

And therein lies the problem with narratives like how a player doesn’t hustle or respect the game. They are so wide ranging that it’s impossible to completely refute. Even though I presented multiple researched arguments that contradicts this claim, a critic can point to a time where Marte didn’t run as hard as he could and it cost the Pirates an out, a run, or worse, a game. The times where his hustle did result in a run or win doesn’t matter. There was also a time when he didn’t. You can’t use logic to win an illogical argument.

To close, I want to look at Marte’s last two at-bats Monday night. In the sixth, down by five with a runner on first, Marte tattooed a ball 101.5 MPH, but right at the shortstop. It was a tailor made double play ball, but Paul DeJong bobbled it for a moment. That turned out to be inconsequential and the Cardinals got two, beating Marte by a step and a half. Marte wasn’t at full speed, which of course drew ire. Even if he was gunning it, I’m not convinced he would have beat the relay.

In the ninth, he hit a soft chopper to third. This time, he ran hard. It was bang bang at the bag, but a perfect defensive play got him. Down by a touchdown, the game was long gone. It didn’t matter if he was safe or out. It was for pride, to not go quietly into a shutout.

He hustled. He does that.

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.

13 Comments on Appreciating Starling Marte’s Hustle

  1. IsIt2016Yet // July 16, 2019 at 9:31 AM //

    I like how'at the end of the article'you cite two plays. Marte didn’t hustle on one and did on the other after his manager had a conversation in the dugout about _not hustling down the line_. The conclusion is “he hustles”.

    • Kevin Creagh // July 16, 2019 at 10:16 AM //

      I think it was more related to the 2000 previous words and charts and stats. Alex stated his case and the defense rests. Literally every player goes 75% on what are perceived as sure outs or probable double plays. But keep knocking down a fantastic player.

      • IsIt2016Yet // July 16, 2019 at 10:21 AM //

        'I talk to our players about us all giving our effort that we need to give all the time,' Hurdle said. 'He needs to get down the line. We all need to get down the line. We all need to continue to play hard.' -Clint Hurdle

  2. James Littleton // July 16, 2019 at 10:47 AM //

    You must not watch many Pirates games. I watch every game that is on television and I go to games every year. I watch the players and Marte always seems to be the last out of the dugout and out to his position and has moments like the one in last nights game where he doesn’t hustle to first. You picked certain stats to make your argument, but leave out others like he is 3rd in the NL in GIDP this season. I bet you can watch every game this year and sure it might not have changed the play, but he has numerous incidents a week where he doesnt hustle down the line.

    • Kevin Creagh // July 16, 2019 at 11:21 AM //

      Alex, who wrote the article, is in the press box at virtually every home game. I know for certain he watches every road game. Of all the writers on this site, he watches the most baseball (and other teams, too).

      People have their preconceived notions of what a player should or should not do. I believe once $ is introduced into the equation, people lose a sense of reality on how much hustle a player should or should not give on each play. The stats that Alex showed far outweigh his GIDP, most of which is due to him hitting the ball so hard typically.

    • Alex Stumpf // July 16, 2019 at 5:01 PM //

      Baseball-Reference syas that in his career he has grounded into a double-play in 10.4% of his double-play opportunities (force at second, zero or one outs). It’s less than 10% if you omit his call-up in 2012. The MLB average in that time is 10.8%. Batting in a lot of PAs in double-play opportunities will lead to a lot of double-plays.

  3. As has been cited here and any number of other outlets, Marte does have lapses of concentration. That’s frustrating for sure, but it’s a lot different than dogging it.

  4. Is there a stat that measures his speed down the line when trying to get an infield single as opposed to the back end of a double play? I agree he hustles down the line when a hit is on the line but on the DP ground balls, I am sometimes surprised how far he is from 1st base.

    • Alex Stumpf // July 16, 2019 at 4:50 PM //

      To my knowledge, the public can’t access sprint speeds of individual plays or certain scenarios. That really bummed me out. One of the few times where I think Savant dropped the ball.

      I can’t say for certain whether or not he runs harder if there’s a hit on the line. It’s an interesting theory. I do know a good chunk of those base running runs Baseball-Reference credited him for came from the double-play part of the equation. I chose that version of the stat rather than just base running runs to try to give value to beating out the relay.

      If you’re interested, Baseball Savant has every pitch since 2018 available for access. If you want to compare his sprints down the line, here are the force outs he hit into in double-play scenarios (, the double-plays he grounded into (, and the infield singles he legged out (there are a few weakly hit balls the outfield included here, but this seemed like the best query to get the most infield hits.

  5. Leo Walter // July 16, 2019 at 4:43 PM //

    I heard the same sort of bs about Clemente and his injuries from 1956 till at least the middle '60s, if not later. His 1966 season did finally helped put it to rest however. Anybody thinking Pittsburgh is or was any better for Hispanic players than any where else is kidding themselves.

  6. NorCal Buc // July 17, 2019 at 8:31 AM //

    Kevin ~ As a guy who grew up in the '60s, when the only stats that mattered were the ‘big three’ – I must say I CANNOT read all of your statistical analysis, bit I sure APPRECIATE what you put into every article.

    • Kevin Creagh // July 17, 2019 at 8:48 PM //

      You're very welcome and I appreciate your loyal readership. However, Alex wrote this one!

  7. Phillip C-137 // July 17, 2019 at 5:56 PM //

    Marte is a hard guy to figure out. He had a SuperStar type game back on June 27th against a premier team, the Astros. He had multiple hits, a HR, a stolen base. His abilities were on full display that day. I personally noted that game and watched as he seemed to be fully engaged the next several games. Instead of standing and watching his fellow OF’ers catch routine fly balls (bad visual), he actually appeared in the frame backing them up, just in case (good visual).

    The man basically plays everyday. The Pirates have played 95 games. He’s started 82 of them (he missed 9 games after the Gonzalez car wreck). He’s gone O’fer in 26 games (includes 2 games with a single PH appearance). He has 29 games with a single hit and he has 29 games with multiple hits. The man is a cornerstone of the lineup.

    Having given him due praise, it is terribly maddening on those occasions when he gives somebody an extra 90 feet because he tiptoes after their double in the gap or doesn’t score from 3rd on a soft grounder. Why? Because we’ve seen what the man can do when he plays full bore. It does seem this is happening less this season, which is good.

Comments are closed.