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What Do Starling Marte, Jay Bruce & David Ortiz Have In Common?

Marte will return to the leadoff role for PIT in 2014, but will he be able to replicate his .340+ OBP?

Marte will return to the leadoff role for PIT in 2014, but will he be able to replicate his .340+ OBP?

I recall a Twitter conversation I had with Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris before the 2013 season, one that centered around Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte. More specifically, it centered around Marte’s chances at sticking in the leadoff spot.

Batting in front of Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez would provide any batter with a significant number of run-scoring opportunities, especially a player with Marte’s speed, but would Marte get on base enough to warrant such an honor? Given his 5.1% minor league walk rate, that was a fair question.

I figured that Marte would be given a long leash batting leadoff — who else did Pittsburgh have? — and our preseason rankings reflected both our faith in his abilities as well as the Pirates’ lack of alternatives.

As it turns out, Marte’s on-base ability proved to be a moot point as he posted a .395 OBP through the season’s first month and never relinquished the spot. Our optimistic projection, a preseason ranking of 144th overall as compared to more conservative estimates by the big boys, actually wasn’t optimistic enough.

Still, the 2013 season wasn’t all sunshine and puppies for Marte despite Pittsburgh’s bittersweet ending, and there are significant questions to answer regarding Marte’s prospects for 2014, most notably:

  • Will he be able to duplicate a .280 average?
  • Should his 2nd-half numbers (.254 BA, 24 R, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 13 SB in 40 games) worry us entering next season?
  • There’s gotta be more than 12 HR in that 6’1 frame, right?

It would be unlike us to propose questions and not offer answers, so let’s dive into the numbers underlying Marte’s surprising season.

(And that last one is especially interesting to me.)

2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings

Note: Rankings are listed as Preseason | End-of-Season.

  • Baseball Professor: 144 | 52
  • Yahoo!: 212 | 72
  • ESPN: 268 | 42

Is Marte a .280 hitter?

Sorry, but I don’t see it.

You’re not new to batting average analysis. Obviously the first place I ran was Fangraphs’ BABIP leaderboards. In fact, I created my own custom leaderboard that groups together the stats I feel most affect a batter’s batting average: BABIP, K%, LD%, GB%, FB%, and SB (a proxy for speed).

Ranking 8th of 140 in a stat most associated with luck portends a certain amount of batting average doom.

Among all qualifying batters, Marte’s .368 BABIP finished 8th-highest. While it’s true that BABIP is not a one-size-fits-all stat (there are a lot of things a batter can do to improve his BABIP without luck playing any part), ranking 8th of 140 in a stat most associated with luck portends a certain amount of batting average doom.

What’s worse, still, is that Marte’s LD% clearly stands out as an outlier among that group, and not in a good way. The average BABIP for the 7 guys ahead of Marte and the 7 guys behind him was .367, nearly identical to Marte’s .368, but those 14 players also had an average LD% of 25.3. Marte’s was just 21.6.

True, Marte has some wheels. That certainly helps him close the gap, but how much are those wheels worth?

There were 13 qualifying players who stole at least 30 bases last year, and those 13 players averaged a 21.9 LD%, almost identical to Marte’s 21.6. Their average BABIP? Just .316. Speed is important, but line drive rate is more important. Marte’s line drive rate just wasn’t up to snuff, not compared to his .368 BABIP.

This isn’t to say Marte can’t replicate a .368 BABIP in 2014. Austin Jackson put up marks of .396, .340, and .371 in his first three seasons, but I’d say that’s more the exception than the rule, and I try to make my player projections based on an approximate ratio of 75% numbers and 25% gut. That 25% can swing me a pretty far way in some cases, but not in Marte’s.

Why not in Marte’s case? Frankly, his strikeout rate is too high. Always has been. It was well over 20% in the minors, it was 24.4% overall for the Pirates last season, and in the 2nd half it got really bad — 29.7%.

Color me pessimistic, but unless I see enough next spring or early in the 2014 season to convince my gut that we’ll see the K rate drop precipitously or his line drive rate jump up 3 or 4 percentage points, I have a hard time expecting much more than a .265-.270 average from Marte next year.

What about Marte’s R, HR, RBI, and SB?

There’s more to a player than just his batting average, and Marte can provide above average to excellent production almost everywhere else. A successful rookie campaign, and again, a lack of alternatives, gives Marte the stranglehold on the leadoff spot. And while Pittsburgh’s lineup isn’t much more than average, their 3-4 duo of McCutchen and Alvarez is one of the more underrated middle-of-the-orders in baseball.

Last year injuries limited Marte to just 135 games and 83 runs scored. Assuming more games played but a lower batting average, Marte’s overall times on base should be rather similar. This would lead me to believe his run and steal totals should resemble 2013’s.

Where did Marte's 6 HR at PNC land? Well over the fence. The kid's got some pop.

Where did Marte’s 5 HR at PNC land? Well over the fence. The kid’s got some pop.

But the power? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Marte hit 20 HR. Last year he hit 12 in 135 games, and he pretty much crushed all of them. Marte averaged 406 feet per homer, which is up there with the game’s elites. In fact, here are some other players who also averaged ~406 feet per homer:

Of course, there is a little bit of selection bias and sample size concerns here as you need to hit the ball a certain amount of feet to get it out of the park and Marte was only able to accomplish this 12 times, but that’s still an impressive group to be a part of. Coco Crisp finished last among all players with at least 18 homers (368.9) and renowned sluggers Mike Trout (419.6), Justin Upton (416.3), Giancarlo Stanton (413.8), and Mark Trumbo (413.2) finished 1 though 4, so there appears to be a fairly high degree of correlation between average homer distance and raw strength (duh).

Fly balls will be Marte’s downfall, or rather his inability to generate them, as his 27.5 FB% was 121st-highest of 140 qualifying players. I don’t care how strong Crush Davis is. If he hit fly balls at that rate in 2013, he would have finished with about 25 homers. Of course, Pittsburgh needs Marte to be a leadoff hitter, which means putting the ball on the ground and getting on base, but is a jump from a 27.5% to 33% really that counterproductive?

So will the raw strength of Marte actually translate into more homers? I think there’s a fair chance that it does.

And that’s what I mean when I say 75% numbers and 25% gut.

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