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Appreciating The Underappreciated Starling Marte

"You!  In Section 127!  Why were you booing me?" Photo from Getty Images

“You! In Section 127! Why were you booing me?”
Photo from Getty Images

Andrew McCutchen is the face of the Pirates’ franchise and probably will be while he’s on the team. Josh Harrison had a breakout year in 2014 that made me question if he made a Faustian deal with the Devil. Gerrit Cole, Neil Walker, and Russell Martin all had their loyal fans.

Whither the appreciation for Starling Marte?

At times in his early career, it seems as if the general fanbase gets as frustrated with Marte as they do with Pedro Alvarez. Would it surprise you to know that Starling Marte was the 8th most valuable outfielder in all of baseball in 2013 by Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (4.6 WAR)? What if I told you he followed that up by being the 16th most valuable in 2014 (4.1 WAR)?

Marte has steadily improved each area of his triple slash line from his late-season debut in 2012 through last year:

  • 2012 — .257 AVG/.300 OBP/.437 SLG
  • 2013 — .280 AVG/.343 OBP/.441 SLG
  • 2014 — .291 AVG/.356 OBP/.453 SLG

If you prefer the new-school Weighted Runs Created Above Average (wRC+ for short, where 100 is league average), Marte has progressed from 100 in 2012, 122 in 2013, to 132 in 2014. This means he created 32% more runs than the average Major Leaguer this past season.

And although the gains are small, Marte has improved his walk rate (BB%) and strikeout rate (K%) each year, as well:

  • 2012 — 4.4 BB%, 27.5 K%
  • 2013 — 4.4 BB%, 24.4 K%
  • 2014 — 6.1 BB%, 24.0 K%

The best part is that Marte will be playing the 2015 season at age 26, meaning he’s still 1-2 years away from his theoretical peak years. Well, actually the best part about Marte is his contract. Prior to the start of the 2014 season, the Pirates inked Marte to an incredibly team-friendly extension of 6 years/$31M. As per Cot’s Contracts, it breaks down as follows:

  • 2014 — $0.5M, with a $2M signing bonus
  • 2015 — $1M
  • 2016 — $3M
  • 2017 — $5M
  • 2018 — $7.5M
  • 2019 — $10M
  • 2020 — $11.5M team option ($2M buyout)
  • 2021 — $12.5M team option ($1M buyout)

If you presume, whether cynically or realistically, that McCutchen will be gone from the organization after (or before) his 2018 club option is picked up, then Marte is poised to become a primary cog on this team during the remaining years of his deal.

So what is it about Marte that rubs some people the wrong way? Is it the fact that his English isn’t very strong? I would hope not. Is it his proneness to head scratching slumps that a player like McCutchen seems immune to? Maybe. Is it his maddening mental lapses at times, both at the plate and in the field? Probably.

But don’t forget that as cold as Marte can be, he can also be Fukushima-hot and carry the squad, as well. In April 2013, when Marte was the regular leadoff man, if it seemed like every game started with him on 2nd base, you wouldn’t be too far off. That month he batted .327 AVG/.395 OBP/.477 SLG (149 wRC+) with 7 steals. He helped jumpstart the 2013 team to a 15-12 record.

This past season, Marte pulled off the rare feat of being better after he returned from getting beaned in the head with a wild pitch. On July 6th, Marte got beaned in a game against Philadelphia. He struggled through two games before wiser heads prevailed and he went on the disabled list. Up to that point, Marte was having an OK year with some of his mental lapses in the field. As if that wild pitch jarred some cobwebs loose, when Marte came back in earnest on August 5th he played with his hair on fire the rest of the year.

  • August 2014 — .344 AVG/.410 OBP/.567 SLG (179 wRC+, 4 homers)
  • September 2014 — .363 AVG/.402 OBP/.571 SLG (178 wRC+, 4 homers)

His August 5th return and ascension to MVP-caliber play was important because it coincided with McCutchen going on the disabled list on August 4th after getting tattooed by Arizona’s Randall Delgado in retaliation for Paul Goldschmidt’s broken hand. Marte and Josh Harrison (180 wRC+ in August) kept this team afloat until McCutchen returned and went nuts himself.

Heading into 2015, the Pirates have an outfield that is the envy of the rest of baseball. Marte – McCutchen – Polanco from LF to RF has speed and upside galore. When the three of them were firing on all cylinders last year after Polanco’s initial callup, that was a devastating 1-2-3 at the top of the lineup. I suspect that Marte will be moved lower in the order to start 2015, both to allow Josh Harrison to slot into the #2 hole and to take advantage of the strong production that Marte achieved while batting 5th and 6th.

In small samples, when Marte batted 5th his triple slash was .270 AVG/.314 OBP/.514 SLG (132 wRC+, 4 homers in 118 plate appearances). When he batted 6th, it was a stop-the-presses .415 AVG/.441 OBP/.677 SLG (220 wRC+, 4 homers in 68 plate appearances). Marte was, in baseball terms, doing the work of over two players while batting 6th.

It’s greedy to expect that Marte will continue to improve over his already strong line that he put up in 2014. As I’ve shown, he’s already an easy bet to be a top 20 outfielder across all of baseball. Perhaps if he can consolidate his offensive season with some stronger defensive metrics he can vault into the 5+ WAR territory. That would put him solidly in the top 10 of value. But even if he maintains this current level of production, Marte is a huge asset for the Pirates, both on the field and in terms of their payroll commitments.

I just hope that the rest of the general public starts to appreciate what they have in left field more often.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.