Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte shattered expectations in 2013. The 24-year-old had a breakout season, hitting .280/.343/.441, and posting a .344 wOBA. Marte’s contributions went beyond his slash line, as he also stole 41 bases despite missing 27 regular season games with a hand injury. Due to his emergence, Marte is sure to see his fantasy stock soar in the coming months. While what he did last season was impressive, expecting a repeat would be foolish.
Marte certainly brings strong raw skills to the table, but he lacks a solid approach at the plate. Marte only walked in 4.4% of his plate appearances last season. Though is .344 on-base percentage was actually pretty solid, Marte gained a huge boost by getting hit with 24 pitches. It’s possible that Marte crowds the plate, and his approach leads to him getting hit by pitches regularly. Carlos Quentin proved that a player could consistently run into a lot of pitches. But in Marte’s case, 20 of those HBPs came with two strikes, as Jeff Zimmerman pointed out in late-September. That’s just not sustainable going forward. And even in the case that he’s the type of player who will get hit by a lot of pitches, that could lead to more injuries.
That’s hardly the biggest issue, though. Marte managed to hit .280 despite a 24.4% strikeout rate. This is just another case of the BABIP fairy working his/her magic again. Marte’s .366 BABIP ranked eighth in the league. While that would typically be enough evidence for analysts to predict a collapse, let’s give Marte the benefit of the doubt here. He’s the type of player who can beat out hits, and did post a .333 BABIP in limited playing time back in 2012. Perhaps it’s plausible to think he’s the type of hitter who can consistently post BABIPs in that area.
In order to figure this out, we can look at hitters who posted similar BABIPs from the past 10 years. If any of them were able to sustain their unusually high BABIP, we can see if they are in any way similar to Marte. Between 2002 and 2012, there were 92 players who had a BABIP of at least .355 one seasons. On average, those players lost .049 points off their BABIP the following year. Only two players were able to show improvement in their second season. Miguel Cabrera did it in 2005 and 2006, and Joe Mauer did it in 2012 and 2013.
Cabrera and Mauer are two of the twelve players who had a BABIP of at least .355 in multiple seasons over that period. Is Marte comparable to any of them?
The answer is not really. The chart features some of the best players in baseball over the recent past, and it would be foolish to compare Marte to Trout, Votto or Manny Ramirez, among others. At the same time, Marte does display some skills that allow him to utilize his speed, much like some of the faster players on the chart. He ranks between Jackson and Bourn when it comes to infield hit percentage, and his 52.3% ground ball rate ranked fourth. So, he’s doing the right thing when he puts the ball in play.
Marte’s undoing may be his contact rate. Marte’s 74.7 Contact% is the worst among these players. His contract rate on balls in the zone is fine, but Marte struggles to make contact with balls outside of the strike zone. This wasn’t as much of a problem for Marte last season, as he had saw a first pitch strike 67.4% of the time last year. That figure is easily the highest among all the players on the chart. Part of that probably has to do with Marte leading off the majority of games he started. The other part is that pitchers weren’t afraid to go right at him. While that didn’t work out in their favor last season, it’s likely to change in 2014. Marte hasn’t shown the ability to control the strike zone yet, and pitchers will likely test his aggressiveness by throwing him more balls.
That’s a significant issue moving forward. Marte does have some skills that suggests he can post a high BABIP, but he’s clearly not one of the best players in baseball. And now that teams have more data on his approach, pitchers will certainly adjust their game plan when facing him. Marte has never been a disciplined hitter, so unless he can improve his contact numbers he may be in for a precipitous fall next season.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.