Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Young Guns - Starling Marté

Starling Marté grew up outside Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. His mother died when he was 10 and he was raised by his grandma. She brought him up right. Starling became a pretty decent ballplayer, modeling himself after Vlad Guerrero, and signed with the Pirates as a teen in 2007 for $85,000.

After a couple of seasons in the Dominican League, Marté got the call to come stateside. The 20 year old zipped through the levels, starting at the Gulf Coast Rookie League, moving to Low A West Virginia, and then getting a cup of coffee at High A Lynchburg. The plan was to get him some playoff experience with the Hillcats, but a sprained ankle during his first game killed that idea. He hit a combined .309 at his stops with 24 swiped sacks

Marté started 2010 in extended spring training for some work, then joined the High A Bradenton Marauders, where he played in 60 games and hit .315 with 22 stolen bases. He missed a big piece of the season with a wrist injury, having hamate surgery in May and not returning to action until August.

He moved to Altoona the following season. In mid-year, Marté made the cut to play in the All-Star Futures Game, where he hit leadoff and went 1-for-3. He won the Eastern League batting title with a .332 batting average and was selected to both the mid and post season All-Star teams while named the EL Rookie of the Year. He also had an OBP of .370 and a slugging % of .500 with 12 HR as his wrist was back to normal, he bulked up some and was a bit less free-swinging.

Marté was a Baseball America AA All-Star, a Topps AA All-Star, and a organization All-Star.  Not too surprisingly, he was added to the Pirates 40 man roster on November 18th, 2011. Going into the 2012 campaign, Marté was ranked # 73 by Baseball America, #56 by Baseball Prospectus and #32 by on their prospect lists.

The Dominican was promoted to Indy, where he hit .286 in 99 games, and went through and recovered from a couple of slumps, apparently satisfying the FO that he could deal with adversity, part of their call-up punchlist. His OBP remained good at .347 and he hit 12 more homers with a slugging % of .500 again.

On July 26th, 2012, Marté was promoted from the Indians to the big club, becoming the first graduate of the Pirates' Dominican Latin American Baseball Academy to reach the show. No one was quite sure if he'd debut in Pittsburgh. Beside the brass' reluctance to rush him, Marté was such a hot prospect that he was rumored to be in play during discussions for Justin Upton, Hunter Pence and Shin-Soo Choo before the deadline. But he made Bucco fans forget about hot stove rumors in a hurry.

Marté drilled a home run on the first pitch he was served, a fastball from the Astros' Dallas Keuchel. He became the third player in club history to homer in his first big league at-bat and the first since Don Leppert in 1961. Marté  was the first Pirate to homer on the first MLB pitch of his major league career since Walter Mueller did it 1922, and just the 28th player in MLB history to perform the feat.

He was batting .253 with four homers in 101 PA before he felt a tweak. On August 19th, he went on the DL with an oblique issue and returned September 7th. He started 17 games after his return, hitting .264. Marté's first MLB slash was .257/.300/.437 with five HR, 17 RBI, 18 runs and 12 SB in 17 attempts (71%) with an OPS of 104 in 182 PA. In the field, he ended up with an UZR of 6.3, the best of any Bucco OF'er, with 3 assists.

For Pirate fans, he was the most heralded rookie call up since Cutch, and the Bucs tout his four-tool package. But while the homies are willing to be patient with him, other baseball guys see a darker cloud.

John Sickel wrote in his Prospect Preview that "...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...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..."

The flaws Sickel referred to can be boiled down to one major deficiency - plate discipline. Marté fanned 50 times, and that's a 27% K rate, tolerable for Pedro but not for a guy who the Pirates hope to pencil in at the top of the order. He hit leadoff or in the two hole for all but seven pinch-hitting or late inning sub appearances for Pittsburgh. Marté walked just eight times, a 4% rate, the same as Clint Barmes and the result was a disappointing .300 OBP.

We're not as hard on him as is Sickels. Marté had lots of trouble with off speed stuff, but he also has a history of improving his pitch recognition over time; we'll see if that holds true at the MLB level. He showed enough power - he had the best slugging % of any Buc outfielder not named Cutch or Jones - and proved he's a threat on the bases and can cover some ground in left. He should only improve in those areas.

While we thought the Bucs could have called him up sooner, he does only have 99 AAA games under his belt and 129 at AA. 2013 should be his first full season playing cat-and-mouse with MLB pitchers, and we'd expect some rough sailing and inconsistency. But from what we've seen, Marté is a keeper. The only question in our mind is whether he will ever become a top of the order hitter.

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