Why Starling Marte might be an MVP candidate

Starling Marte was already one of the kings of hidden value. Metrics like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) have loved him, despite his average power, and despite his ugly ratios of strikeouts to walks. One contributing factor has been that he’s played half the time in an extremely pitcher-friendly ballpark, but this goes well beyond that. Marte has done a little bit of everything.

Forcing mistakes? Last season, Marte reached base 14 times on defensive errors. No one else in baseball exceeded 12. It’s an open question as to whether forcing errors is any kind of sustainable skill, but it makes sense that Marte puts pressure on the defense with his speed. Right there, you’ve got 14 outs that turned into non-outs. That’s one example of hidden value.

And while Marte has drawn just 66 walks as a big-leaguer, he’s also reached base another 44 times on hit-by-pitches. No one wants to be hit by a pitch, and Marte has been hurt by getting drilled, but reaching base is valuable, and Marte has this additional means. Over the last two years, Marte is the league leader.

Then there’s the matter of baserunning. Marte’s been caught stealing a whole bunch of times, but he’s also been successful a whole bunch of other times, and baserunning is about more than just stealing anyhow. It’s also about awareness, about being able to take extra bases when opportunities present themselves, and overall, the last two years, Marte has been worth about 13 runs more than average with his legs. That ranks him sixth, between Elvis Andrus and Mike Trout.

Of course, there’s also the defense. Marte is a corner outfielder who’s good enough to be a center fielder. By one metric — UZR — Marte has been worth almost 20 runs more than the average left fielder. By Defensive Runs Saved, he comes in at double that. Nobody questions that Marte is an outstanding defender, covering a lot of ground in a relatively expansive section of the PNC outfield.

Marte has demonstrated that he’s a high-quality player. All that’s been missing have been a few developments within the box. Except, perhaps, those developments might’ve already taken place.

Flash back to last year. Through the All-Star break, Marte was batting .256, with a .708 OPS. Given all his other skills, and given that he played in a pitcher’s ballpark, that wasn’t too bad. But then the second half happened. A second half in which Marte batted .348, this time with a .975 OPS. He was the best second-half hitter on the team by far. He was one of the very best second-half hitters in baseball. Though an injury cost him some time, he came back no worse for wear, and actually I guess you could say he came back much better for wear.

This is no place to end the discussion. That evidence isn’t sufficient for making a convincing argument. Rather, it’s a starting point. Splits aren’t always predictive of what’s to come, but when you see a big split, you might as well investigate, and with Marte, there was a lot going on. All the signs are encouraging. He didn’t simply turn a few outs into doubles.

This is a simple table. You see strikeout rate. You see contact rate, or rate of contact over all swings. You see groundball rate. And you see wRC+, which is a measure of offensive productivity, where 100 is average and higher than that is better than that. In each split, Marte batted a few hundred times, so the samples are small, but they aren’t too small.

Split K% Contact% GB% wRC+
1st Half 28% 71% 52% 104
2nd Half 18% 81% 40% 178

We already knew about the last column. All that says is that Marte was a lot more productive. What makes this so interesting is how Marte was so much more productive. Those other categories — those stats tend to remain fairly stable. Hitters seldom change how often they hit the baseball, or how often they hit the baseball on the ground or in the air. Marte became a very different sort of batter.

The drop in strikeout rate of ten percentage points was the second-biggest in baseball. The drop in groundball rate of 12 percentage points was the seventh-biggest in baseball, and Marte had previously been a groundball hitter pretty steadily. And the increase in contact rate of ten percentage points was the biggest in baseball, by a fair margin. In the first half, Marte was a whiff-prone groundball hitter with some speed and some pop. In the second half, Marte showed more power and a more consistent ability to barrel up. It’s not that this couldn’t have been a fluke; it’s that the numbers are pretty compelling, and we can’t rule out that it’s signal instead of noise.

Wouldn’t you know it, but Clint Hurdle addressed this at one point in September. Now, it’s important to understand that players are always making adjustments. Many of them don’t work. But some of them do work. It looks like something worked for Marte. What might that have been?

"Normally, one of the caveats of hitting is head positioning, head quietness," Hurdle said. "Marte is really quiet in the box right now. The head is really quiet. The eyes are picking spin up early."

And part of that quietness, Hurdle explained, is from his foot staying down, which steadies the whole body.

"As the ball’s coming to him, his foot is down, he’s not late," Hurdle said. "One of the things you hear so often in today’s game is ‘I’m late getting my foot down.’ And then they have to hurry to get their swing to the ball."

Marte added that he’d been working especially hard since coming off the disabled list. He and his hitting coach had a plan, and around the end of July and the beginning of August, it started to come together with consistency. Check out a couple images. First, Marte from earlier in the year, as the pitcher is at his release point:

The thing to look at is Marte’s front foot. Here, we see it off the ground, as Marte had a leg kick. Not a Javier Baez-style exaggerated leg kick, but, this was a part of his mechanics. Now Marte from later in the year:

The foot’s down. Marte actually had a little bit of a toe tap. But he essentially eliminated the kick. He would flash this every so often in June and July, but it wasn’t until August that Marte started to be consistent with it. This isn’t an adjustment that works for everybody, but it sure seems like it worked for Marte, who was able to get himself into a better hitting position, for him.

Interestingly, Marte remained aggressive. He continued to swing out of the zone. He simply made contact a lot more. In the first half, Marte struck out on 22% of all his two-strike pitches. In the second half, 15%. And he was no longer so vulnerable to soft stuff down. In the first half, Marte swung at 47% of low pitches, and 37% of those swings missed. Later on, he swung at 59% of low pitches, and just 22% of those swings missed. Marte became better able to cover the low-away quadrant, with a more balanced swing blending with a stance that was already close to the plate.

Starling Marte couldn’t have done more than he did, and by improving his plate coverage and ability to get bat to ball, he managed to address one of his few weaknesses. As is always the case, what we have to see now is how opponents adjust back, but they certainly couldn’t find the right approach late in 2014. So that’s all extremely encouraging, and it means Marte might have a brighter future than he was already thought to have, as a guy who’s still just 26.

Marte has been one of the league leaders in hidden value for a couple of years. He might now be ready to deliver more obvious value, on top of that. More value on top of what Marte already provided is how you build a legitimate MVP candidate. The problem there would just be splitting votes with the other guy, positioned to Marte’s left.