This is the first of a weekly three-part series highlighting the Pittsburgh Pirates’ three outfielders.
Before the start of the 2016 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were predicted to have one of the best outfields in Major League Baseball: center fielder Andrew McCutchen won the National League MVP in 2014, left fielder Starling Marte won a Gold Glove last year and former top prospect Gregory Polanco was set to start in right field for his second full season.
The group hasn’t been quite as good as analysts thought they would be this year, mainly because of McCutchen’s uncharacteristically poor play all season. Marte and Polanco, however, have held their own thus far and are quickly becoming stars in the outfield.
Starling Marte had a pretty solid season last year hitting .287/.337/.444, but he really shined on defense, leading the league in outfield assists. He also won a Gold Glove due to his outstanding range and arm. His defense hasn’t fallen off this year as he continues to make spectacular plays both in center and left field, and he currently leads the NL with 12 outfield assists. He continues to patrol the large expanse of PNC Park’s left field well.
The biggest change from last year has come at the plate. He is currently hitting .319/.377/.470, those are career best numbers for Marte. Marte has hit less home runs this year thanks to a large decrease in his HR to flyball ratio (18.6 in 2015, 8.5 this season). Although he has hit less home runs, his slugging percentage is up thanks to an almost career high number of doubles with 59 games left to play. That is not the whole story though. Marte has never been the most disciplined of hitters, but he’s made improvements this year. His soft contact rate is down slightly, but he has upped his hard contact percentage by 7 points.
Marte isn’t just hitting the ball harder, he is waiting for strikes. In 2015, pitchers only threw 45.8% of their pitches in the strike zone to Marte, and he swung at 39.4% of them. This year pitchers have thrown pitches in the zone at 41.7% to Marte and has swung at a slightly less rate (37.9%). Also, he has seen more balls than last year. He is taking more pitches for balls and has increased his contact rate on all pitches that he has swung at. Marte has become a better hitter by upping his contact rate and lowering his swings on pitches outside the zone. When he does this he hits the ball harder and farther which is leading to better numbers.
Currently the only negative thing that you can say about Marte is that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is extremely high (.395) which is .035 higher than his career average and .06 higher than last year. One thing to consider though when trying to consider Marte’s “luck” is that he is an extremely fast runner and will have a high BABIP, but also, he has seemed to change his approach. The BABIP will likely come down, and so will his average, but the average will probably not fall by much.
Marte is a base stealing machine, and he has become both smarter on the base paths and has gotten more opportunities to steal thanks to his improvements at the plate. He has stolen 39 bases this season and has been caught only 10 times. At this rate, he will steal 52 bases, a career best in bases and steal percentage.
Marte is only 27 years old and he is signed through the 2019 season, not including two team option years. By keeping up his stellar defense and becoming smarter both at the plate and on the bases, Marte has become the Pirates’ most valuable player, as determined by WAR, at 3.1. The closest to Marte, at 1.8 WAR, is right fielder Gregory Polanco.