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2018 Player Profile: Starling Marte

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With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, a speedy outfielder coming off a suspension-marred season who is, perhaps ill-advisedly, showing well in early fantasy drafts.

Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

2017 statistics: 339 PA, .275/.333/.379, 7 HR, 21 SB

General Overview

Given the leaguewide scarcity of speed, Starling Marte entered 2017 as a high fantasy target, particularly in roto leagues, as one of only four players from 2014-2016 to have stolen over 100 bases. Couple that rare stolen base output with a solid .296 batting average and 41 home runs over that stretch (third-most out of any player with at least 80 combined stolen bases in the same time), and Marte offered elite production in one key category with otherwise solid production across the board. After a dismal 2017 season, however, Marte’s fantasy stock should be trending sharply downward, thanks to a significant drop-off in all three of his triple slash categories as well as, more alarmingly, some signs of a physical decline. Whether or not Marte’s poor on-field production was related to his 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug usage cannot be determined; using Statcast data, however, one can determine that Marte’s physical skills showed some disturbing signs last season.

2017 Results/Statcast Data

Marte’s batted-ball data supports the drop-off in results that he weathered last season. After posting batting averages north of .285 and slugging percentages north of .440 every year from 2014-2016, Marte’s production, particularly his power output, cratered, as his isolated power fell to a measly .104. Alarmingly, his average exit velocity fell by nearly five miles per hour from his two years prior, to an 81.8 MPH mark which ranked 275th out of the 284 players’ with at least 200 balls in play. After building a reputation as a burner with an assortment of well-rounded tools as a hitter, Marte much more closely resembled a speed-only player last season, with batted-ball data right in line with such players as Jose Peraza, Delino DeShields, and Jarrod Dyson. Further, Marte’s in-zone swing rate fell by nearly eight percentage points from previous years, as he adopted a more passive approach than he had in years past, perhaps another factor in his significant drop-off in power output.

Fortunately, Marte’s bat-to-ball skills remained intact, as he posted (ever-so-slightly) the highest contact rate of his career last season, and, because of an all-fields, ground-ball approach, he has long shown a sustainable ability to run high batting averages on balls in play. Even here, however, Marte’s declining impact on contact could affect him negatively. His average exit velocity on ground balls dropped by six miles per hour last season; unsurprisingly, his batting average on ground balls in play fell from .319 in 2016 to only .291 in 2017, as softer-hit grounders failed to clear the infield more often. For a player whose offensive game is predicated upon a high BABIP, this appears a disturbing development. A free-swinger, he has never drawn walks at a high rate and he strikes out a fair amount for a player so dependent on his batting average. As a result, Marte runs the risk of becoming a speed-only fantasy play if he proves unable to continue to rack up ground-ball singles at an extraordinary rate.

Even on the basepaths, Marte showed some signs of a decline, albeit one not as extreme or as obvious as his drop-off in the batter’s box. On the surface, it appears that Marte’s base-stealing prowess should remain intact moving forward; he is coming off a year in which he went 21-for-25 on stolen base attempts, a fantastic 84% success rate. Further, his 21 stolen bases in 77 games are not far off of his career-high pace from 2016, in which he stole 47 bases in 129 games. Again, however, Statcast offers a bit of an ominous outlook. Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric, which measures each player’s peak running speed at max effort, has tracked Marte as rather quickly falling off in recent years. After ranking as a very good to elite pure runner in 2015 and 2016, he ranked only tied for 108th in maximum speed in 2017, covering 28 feet per second at full sprint. This is still above-average, to be fair, but Marte no longer seems to offer the elite foot speed that he had shown in prior years. Pure speed is not everything in stealing bases, of course, and Marte’s success in the past in that regard seems to indicate that he offers plus base-stealing intangibles. However, given that there is a possibility that his bat has declined to the point that he is more of a stolen base niche play in roto leagues than a multi-category stuffer at this point, it is perhaps alarming that he is significantly below the league’s true burners in terms of maximum speed. Additionally, his batted-ball data could indirectly negatively impact his stolen base output as well. If his decline in BABIP, and consequently, his drop in on-base percentage, proves permanent, Marte will lose some opportunities to run that he previously had had. While he continues to offer a solid stolen base floor, his upside in that category may not be as high as many owners would be inclined to believe if they looked only at his previous totals.

2018 Outlook

Despite these trends, fantasy owners appear to be back on the Marte bandwagon for 2018. He currently ranks 47th overall on Fantrax’s early ADP tracker, just ahead of Anthony Rendon, Robbie Ray, and Justin Upton. It appears, in short, that he is still seen in most leagues as a four or five category contributor with elite stolen base upside, as he ranks rather significantly in front of most of the league’s other speed-first players, with Billy Hamilton, Byron Buxton, and Whit Merrifield tailing behind Marte by a couple of rounds. (Among the stolen base grabs, only Dee Gordon, at #31 overall, ranks in front of Marte.) Given the questions that he now has to answer with the bat, this draft position seems particularly high. From an upside perspective, Buxton, with significantly more raw power and speed than Marte has, seems a higher-ceiling bet, while Hamilton is about as safe a play for stolen bases as there is in the game today, even if he offers nothing with the bat in his hands. Looking only at the batted ball data from 2017, Marte seems to lack the high floor or ceiling to justify him trending as high as he currently is.

This is not to say that he is useless as a fantasy target, of course. He does profile as a relatively dependable 30-35 stolen base target for next season, even with his slight drop-off in speed, given his solid efficiency in that regard last year. It is also somewhat possible that 2017 was merely a blip, not the start of a long-term trend, and that Marte’s batted ball data will rebound such that he offers more production in the batting average and home run departments that his 2017 peripherals would predict; at age 29, he certainly need not have hit a career cliff.

Fangraphs’steamer, for instance, projects Marte to rebound next season with a .287/.341/.442 line with 16 home runs. The projections, however, cannot account for the uncertainty of the authenticity of his 2015-2016 production, which is in doubt as a result of his steroid suspension last season. Given the risk that his prior numbers were inflated somewhat by a banned substance which he will no longer be using, and given how significantly his batted-ball data (and, to a lesser extent, his Sprint Speed score) declined last season, the risk seems too high to bet on as early as Marte is currently being selected. Spending a fourth or fifth round draft choice on Marte, when one might be able to grab a player like DeShields or Dyson for potentially similar production toward the back of end of most drafts, seems to be an unwise move.

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