Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte is one of the more interesting young players in major league baseball right now. With all the hoopla surrounding big-bonus international players right now, it is useful to remember that players like Marte don't necessarily cost lots of money to sign.
Marte was signed by the Pirates out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, earning a relatively small bonus of $85,000. At the time he was considered quite athletic but also quite raw. He hit just .220/.307/.288 in the 2007 Dominican Summer League, but improved to .296/.367/.455 in a return engagement in 2008.
Coming to the United States in 2009, Marte jumped to full-season ball in June and hit a quick .312/.377/.439 with 24 steals, 12 walks, and 55 strikeouts in 221 at-bats. That performance prompted this report entering 2010:
He made his North American debut in ’09 and was very impressive in the South Atlantic League, showing devastating speed on the bases and in the outfield. He has the range and arm strength for center field, though he needs more work on the finer points of defensive play, something that will come with experience. Offensively, he has terrible strike zone judgment right now, but his speed is so good that he runs his way into base hits. The Pirates think he has power potential in his wiry frame, but he’ll need to sharpen his strike zone judgment and contact ability for that to manifest itself. I’m not enamored with his poor BB/K ratio, and there’s a chance Marte could be easily overrated due to his pretty batting average. But he’s very young, and overall he did well considering that he had virtually no rookie ball experience. Grade C+ with higher potential.
A hamate injury limited Marte to just 60 games in 2010, hitting .315/.386/.432 with 22 steals, zero homers, 12 walks, and 59 strikeouts in 222 at-bats for High-A Bradenton. The lack of power was disappointing and I was still concerned about his strike zone judgment, but there was some optimism in the report entering 2011:
Starling Marte missed much of the ’10 season with a hamate injury, and he was never really healthy. That makes his +19 percent OPS in the Florida State League all the more impressive. A speedy line drive hitter, he’ll probably never be a home run producer, but he should hit plenty of doubles and triples. He is impatient and his strike zone judgment will become an issue at higher levels, though so far he’s shown enough bat speed and running speed to have a high BABIP. If he wants to lead off in the majors, he’ll need to strike out less and draw at least a few more walks. Marte has the tools to be an excellent defensive outfielder with more experience. As these kinds of players go, I like Marte, but I worry about that BB/K/AB ratio hampering his production at higher levels enough to stick with the Grade C+. He’s got the upside to get beyond that if he makes some adjustments.
Marte was healthy in 2011 and played 120 games for Double-A Altoona, hitting .332/.370/.500 with 12 homers, 38 doubles, 24 steals, 22 walks, and 100 strikeouts in 536 at-bats. Scouting reports noted an increase in distance power, which showed up sabermetrically in a higher ISO,as well as good progress on defense.
I had a chance to see him play in person and he was quite impressive, oozing athleticism as well as hustle. Concerns persisted about his aggressive approach but otherwise he took a step forward with the grade:
After an injury-plagued ’10 season, Starling Marte moved up to Double-A in ’11 and continued to hit well, posting a +20 percent OPS, very similar to the +19 mark he generated in ’10. He showed more power last year, knocking 12 homers, but his game is still based mostly on speed and he’ll never be a big home run guy. Plate discipline is still a serious weakness for him, and while no one is asking him to draw 100 walks, improved selectivity would help him keep the other production numbers going at higher levels. As it stands, he’s relying on a high BABIP that might not always hold up. If his batting average drops below .290 at higher levels, his low walk rate will make him a drag on the offense despite his speed. Marte has developed into an excellent defensive outfielder, with a strong and accurate throwing arm combined with terrific range in center field. He plays hard and is fun to watch. Marte needs some Triple-A time to work on the strike zone, but we’ll see him in the majors sometime this year. I still worry about his lack of patience, but I’m buying into his other skills, and the tools have always been here. Grade B
The Pirates gave him that Triple-A time, 388 at-bats at Indianapolis resulting in a .288/.347/.500 line with 12 homers, 21 steals, 28 walks, and 91 strikeouts. Promoted to the majors, he hit .257/.300/.437 with 12 steals, eight walks, and 50 strikeouts in 167 at-bats.
He exceeded rookie qualifications so there was no book report entering 2013. Instead I wrote a "rookie review" article in October.
Marte's major league slash line is exactly what we should expect: his actual big league .696 OPS is right in line with his MLE .688 OPS. His walk and strikeout rate have deteriorated against better pitching, exactly as we would expect them to for a guy with bad plate discipline moving up the ladder.
Sabermetrically, there are no surprises here at all.
Stats aren't the whole story, of course, but the scouting stuff lines up well too.
Marte passes the eye test: he looks like a good player, being fast, athletic, wiry-but-strong, with an impressive throwing arm and great range. Scouts have always loved his defense. The glovework is showing up with WAR in the early going, the system giving him 5.7 UZR already and a 33.2 UZR/150. Obviously the sample size of 40 games and 313 innings is very small and the numbers probably exaggerated, but it is always nice when the early numbers do match up with the scouting reports: the guy can field.
Scouting reports also say that he's got significant problems chasing pitches outside the strike zone, particularly breaking pitches. So far, that's exactly what's happened in the majors. He got away with this in Triple-A, but major league pitchers have exposed this weakness. Right now, his OBP is unacceptably low.
So far, Marte is exactly the player we should expect him to be based on his scouting reports and track record: physically talented, exciting to watch, a fine defender, but with significant flaws that crimp his offensive value. He turns 24 later this month and still has time to work his problems out, but there is no guarantee that he will. Many similar players have failed.
My take is that Marte will scuffle along for another year or two at his current level of inadequate offensive performance, then make some adjustments and have a run as a solid hitter in his late 20s. He won't be an offensive star or a tremendous OBP source, but I think he can get to the point where he hits enough to play regularly for a decent team. However, when he ages and starts to lose his defensive skills, his value will slip quickly.
That was too pessimistic: the two seasons since have been much better than "scuffling," showing steady improvement and making those adjustments sooner than anticipated: .280/.343/.441 in 2013, then .291/.356/.453 in 2014. The fWAR values are solid at 4.8 and 4.3. He's made gradual but consistent improvements in his approach at the plate and while he is never going to draw a bunch of walks, his broad base of tools and skills gives him multiple category value. His career wRC+ is very good at 123 and by no means is he a drag on the offense.
Looking for historical parallels, Sim Score is confused by Marte and brings up some strange names: Rip Repulski, Aubrey Huff (really?), Jackie Brandt, Danny Litwhiler, Terrance Long, Alexis Rios, Ray Lankford, Tony Perez, Wally Moon, and Steve Henderson are the top ten. Some busts there, some disappointments, some stars, a Hall of Famer, and mostly names you need a history book to know about.
Baseball Prospectus' Comparable Players list is equally diverse but has more modern names with greater meaning for the average fan: Carlos Gonzalez, Hunter Pence, Matt Kemp, Adam Jones (logical), Nolan Reimold (?), Peter Bourjos, Justin Upton, Ryan Braun (huh?), Rico Carty, and Cameron Maybin pop up on that list. Again, a diverse list with some really good players and some disappointments too, although more optimistic than the SScores.
My thinking now is that Marte is going to continue steady improvement and end up making some All-Star teams. Even if that doesn't happen, he's a damn fine player as-is for just an $85,000 bonus. What do you think?