Should Starling Marte Stay Away From the Leadoff Spot in the Pirates' Lineup?
Would you rather bat behind the worst positional hitter and the pitcher in the Pirates lineup, or the reigning NL MVP and the reigning NL home run champ?
Do I need to answer that question?
Imagine seeing the pitcher out of the windup nearly twice as often. Imagine rarely having baserunners on to distract the pitcher, let alone runners in scoring position. Imagine always feeling the pressure of having to be the guy to get on base for the muscle of your lineup. Sounds like an arduous task for anyone in the big leagues, right?
Then imagine signing a six-year, $31 million contract extension during the off-season to raise these lofty expectations. See Starling Marte. Good luck with that, kid!
Many may pose the question: Wouldn't you rather have him hit in front of these dudes? And at first glance, I completely understand the argument. But Marte is currently crushing the ball out of the five-hole, and until that success can be duplicated in the leadoff spot, I'm going to fall back on the old cliché: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!
Take a look at some quick hits from last season's batting order splits for Pittsburgh: Pirates number eight hitters had a .198/.264/.294 (29th/29th/28th) slash, and number nine hitters had a .157/.204/.215 (11th/13th/13th - NL rankings due to the DH) slash. For comparison, Pirates number three hitters (Andrew McCutchen 99% of the time) had a .313/.399/.507 (2nd/3rd/4th) slash and number four hitters had a .258/.328/.433 (20th/20th/17th) slash. Again, where would you prefer to be penciled into the lineup, leadoff or in the five-hole?
Since inking the big contract extension just prior to opening day, the 25-year-old Pirates outfielder has been looking to hit pay dirt on the diamond as well. Marte came into this season as the clear-cut leadoff hitter in the Pirates lineup, but after a disappointing April, Clint Hurdle moved him back to the bottom half of the order to work out some of the kinks. Since the so-called demotion, he has simply taken a newborn approach to the plate. He seems to be picking up balls and strikes at a much better rate than he did in the past. His recent plate discipline and offensive production are a true testament to this new approach. Only a quarter of the way into the season, we are still dealing with an extremely small sample size, especially as we further breakdown his production while hitting at the top of the lineup versus the middle of the lineup. But the splits are pretty fascinating.
With 118 plate appearances as the leadoff hitter, Marte held a .224/.297/.299 slash, hitting only one home run and leading the league with 38 punch-outs during that stretch. After being punted from the one-hole, through 57 plate appearances in the latter half of the order, he's had five multi-hit games in 13 starts, and launched three home runs while boasting a slash line of .346/.404/.635. While we can't put too much emphasis on these minute samples, it'd be crazy to think that Marte hasn't been happy hitting in the middle of the Pirates lineup.
He finished his 2013 campaign, his first full season in the bigs, ranking 61st in the league with a batted ball average distance of 290.82 feet. This year, despite his early season struggles leading off, he's currently sitting sixth in the league in batted ball distance, averaging 309.60 feet, up 18 feet and some change from last year.
Marte has seen an increase in his home run to flyball rate as well, from 12.2% last year to 16.0% this season. That 3.8% increase is substantial, as it would have moved him from 60th to 34th in last year's HR/FB rate leaders. If nothing else, this shows us that when Marte is putting the ball in the air, he's really flexing the lumber in doing so. Average batted ball distance has a strong correlation with HR/FB rate, and a boost in both metrics indicates that Marte may have some hidden upside in the power department. Combine this with the slight increase in his line-drive percentage over the past three seasons (18.4%; 21.6%; 22.5%), and his untapped power potential becomes even more apparent.
His walk rate has increased from 4.4% to 6.3% this year, but then again, his strikeout rate has also spiked from 24.4% to 29.1%. There is definite concern regarding his increased punch-out rate, as he seems to be swinging and missing at a much higher rate thus far this season. Shockingly though, his O-Swing percentage (the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) is down from last year's 36.9% to 33.3%. Again, he seems to be picking up balls and strikes better than he did in the past; now it's just a matter of putting the bat on the ball.
His plate discipline will only increase as he continues to mature at the plate. Last season, as an above average leadoff hitter for the Pirates, he maintained a 0.18 walk to strikeout rate in 135 games. Through 41 games this season, he's held a 0.22 walk to strikeout rate. To no one's surprise, his baserunning skill set remains fully intact. He's swiped 12 bases on 14 attempts this season, and will continue to do so no matter where he finds himself in the batting order. Last year he totaled 41 stolen bags, and I wouldn't put it past him to flirt with 50-plus this year.
Whether it be the added pressure of his contract extension, the pressure of the Pirates desperately needing him on the base paths, or an unknown variable affecting his performance in the leadoff spot, the change of scenery in the lineup has done wonders for Marte's production. He is now coming into his own in the fifth spot of the order, but where will he find himself hitting for the remainder of the season? For now, Jose Tabata and Travis Snider will continue to hold down the leadoff role until the Super Two deadline passes in June and the highly touted right fielder, Gregory Polanco, is promoted to 'The Show' to join the likes of Marte and Cutch in the Pirates outfield. Then there are two likely scenarios that can follow for the Pirates:
Polanco's call-up will send current leadoff hitters Tabata and Snider to the bench, and Clint Hurdle will reinstate Marte at the top of order. At the moment, Marte fits the leadoff role better than any other ballplayer in the Pirates system, which only complicates his newfound success in the five-hole. Marte is not your normal leadoff batter though. Sure, he maintains the speed of your standard leadoff guy, but Marte is proving this year to have the power of a two through five hitter, similar to what is to be expected of Polanco when he arrives in Pittsburgh. Realistically, we can assume that at some point down the road Marte will get a second go around at the top of the lineup. Holding onto that role will be up to him and his production when the opportunity presents itself. Similarly, Neil Walker has been handling his share of the load out of the lineup's two spot, but it's only a matter of time until Polanco makes his way into that role for the foreseeable future, bumping Walker back into the meat of the order.
Realizing Marte's comfort and success in the five-hole, I wouldn't put it past Hurdle to give Polanco a shot at batting leadoff when he's called up, leaving Marte in the fifth spot which would boost his RBI value while slightly decreasing his runs scored. Once Russell Martin returns from the DL, the combination of his bat and the Ike Davis/Gaby Sanchez platoon should slightly protect Marte sitting on deck behind Pedro Alvarez. The problem here lies in the fact that Polanco may very well end up having the most power out of the Burgh's big three (Marte-Cutch-Polanco), but only time will tell. We can expect a lot of shake up in the Pirates lineup over the next month or so, but once these young stars settle into their summer roles, an offensive explosion may be set to detonate.
Make one last ditch effort to buy low on Starling Marte before the Pirates right their ship, get healthy, and promote Polanco in the coming weeks. I fully expect both Marte's power and speed to shine in the leadoff role once he has earned his way back to the top of the order. Otherwise, if he remains in the five-hole for the long haul, the addition of Polanco and Martin to the heart of that order will only boost his value, which has been trending upward since the beginning of May.