What makes an MLB player stand out?
Unfortunately, a lot of this is dictated by market size. Naturally, the average player on the Yankees or Dodgers is going to garner more attention than someone in Cincinnati or Tampa Bay; they’re going to be participating in games one is more likely to watch, while also earning more media coverage as well. This is the case with all sports, but, unfortunately, it does mean that some athletes don’t get celebrated the way they ought to be.
On the bright side, there are positive signs that this is changing. Practically every sport now allows the average fan to buy a package to watch games from all different markets, while the growth of interest in statistics also allows players from every team to start to earn more public spotlight. Will there ever be a situation where a player on the A’s earns as much exposure as a player on the Yankees? Certainly not, though it’s up to us to make sure that players in small markets don’t fall under the cracks.
With one of the game’s best farm systems featuring prospects such as Corbin Carroll, Jordan Lawler, and Druw Jones, there may be a time when the Diamondbacks rise to the top in the National League. Unfortunately, after finishing with the worst record in the NL last season and ranking dead-last in the NL West heading into the All-Star break, that time is certainly not now.
That’s not to say this isn’t a team that is exciting to watch, however. Zac Gallen remains an efficient young starter, Daulton Varsho is quite interesting as a catcher/outfielder hybrid, and Alek Thomas figures to be a staple in their outfield moving forward. At the end of the day, though, there has been one player that Diamondbacks fans have been able to consistently rely on, even during the darkest of times.
That would be Ketel Marte. One of the best pure hitters in the league, to say that Marte is a joy to watch at the plate would be a dramatic understatement. That being said, over the past few years, while there have been some very peaks, there have also been some very low troughs as well. So far this season, we’ve seen the entire roller-coaster in one half, but will it be smooth sailing ahead? Let’s take a closer look!
The Rise of Ketel Marte
There are many ways for an MLB franchise to build a sustainable winner. One of the easiest ways, though, is consistently investing in the international free agency market. As long as the team’s owner is willing to open up their checkbook, they can easily help create a pipeline of potential future big leaguers. Now, not every owner is willing to do it, but for teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Padres, though, their willingness to commit to bringing in amateur free agents from all areas of the world has helped them get to where they are now.
The Mariners have never been shy when it comes to signing international free agents. That was made quite clear in 2010, as they spent an MLB-high $6.5 million during that year’s international free agency period. Yet, little did they expect it to be the player they signed for $100K to become the impact player from that class.
Coming out of the Dominican Republic, Ketel Marte was as close to “non-prospect” as it gets. Over the first three years of his career, his 87 weighted-runs-created-plus (100 is league average) between Rookie-Ball and High-A didn’t help matters; the combination of not walking or hitting for power is difficult to overcome. Despite this, though, Seattle continued to promote him aggressively to the system, and he reached Triple-A as a 20-year-old. In spite of this, he was able to perform at an above-average level, leading to his promotion to the MLB at just 21 years old.
Meanwhile, Marte did not disappoint. I mean, how many players can come up to the big leagues at age 21 and perform 12% better than league average (112 wRC+)? Even if he was on the right side of some batted-ball luck (.341 batting average on balls in play/BABIP), him holding his own offensively while playing strong defense at shortstop did enough for Seattle to entrust him as their starting shortstop moving forward. Unfortunately, that is where things started to fall off the rails. Marte regressed mightily to a 67 wRC+ in 2016, hitting a grand total of one home run in 466 plate appearances. Add in worse defense up the middle, and the Mariners, desperate to make the postseason for the first time since 2001, simply did not feel as though they could count on him anymore.
Hence, the need to acquire Jean Segura from the Diamondbacks to be their starting shortstop. At the time, Segura was coming off of a six-win season for Arizona, which meant the cost to acquire him was steep- a controllable young established starting pitcher in Taijuan Walker. That wasn’t all though; Arizona clearly still saw promise with Marte, who was still only 23 years old with up-the-middle athleticism and contact skills, making him the only piece in this transaction. Remember, they were giving up a six-win player; you don’t do that unless you’re acquiring players you’re confident will impact your organization in a notable way.
Still, Arizona wasn’t quite sure Marte was truly ready to be a consistent big-league player, sending him to Triple-A to start 2017. Nevertheless, after showing plenty of signs of an offensive breakout there (135 wRC+), he earned his way back up to the MLB level, where he showed signs of progress with strong plate discipline (11.4% BB, 14.5% K) with improved quality of contact numbers. In 2018, the strong plate discipline matched a mini outbreak from the power department (.177 isolated power/ISO), allowing to be an above-league average hitter (104 wRC+). All of a sudden, the Diamondbacks were starting to reap the rewards of their faith in him.
At that point, many teams may have wanted to see more from Marte. Arizona, rather, decided to sign him to a five-year extension with two option years, thus covering all of his arbitration years and up to three free-agent years as well. Clearly, Arizona saw him as a key part of their future, though even they probably couldn’t imagine what was soon to follow.
The Birth of a Star
The 2019 season was supposed to be a point of difficult transition for the Diamondbacks. After all, they had just traded away franchise icon Paul Goldschmidt, lost Patrick Corbin and AJ Pollock in free agency, and had a preseason win total of just 74.5. It can be difficult for smaller-market organizations to find sustained success, and this seemed the be the time for Arizona to take a step back.
Instead, the Diamondbacks rallied for an 85-77 record, which may not have been good enough to make it to the postseason, but considering the initial expectations bestowed upon them, this season was still a massive success for them. Now, in order to exceed expectations, you need to get greater contributions from certain players than anticipated. Players such as Nick Ahmed, Christian Walker, and Carson Kelly did their part, but, let’s be real, there was one player who clearly stood out above the rest.
Who would we be referring to? Well, who else but Marte! I mean, who could have seen him annihilating opposing pitchers with a 149 wRC+ and a .329/.389/.592 slash line, enough to finish 4th in NL MVP voting? Remember, this is a player that hit ONE home run in 2016. Sometimes, growth can be linear, but, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense. I mean, when does anything in baseball make complete sense?
Still, something had to change for this to happen, right? Of course! Not only did Marte hit fewer balls on the ground (52% to 43.7%), but he simply hit the ball harder, resulting in a barrel rate twice as high (9.3%) as his previous career-high. Yet, he didn’t have to sacrifice any bit of contact (13.7% K) to tap into his power, which truly created the best-case scenario. Research has shown that power is the one characteristic that tends to develop the latest for hitters; whether it was simply mechanical-based or growth physically, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that the hitter with a strong foundation of contact skills and athleticism eventually came through in the power department.
Right when you’d think it be smooth sailing for Marte, however, 2020 happened. I think we can all relate to having our plans thrown off during this tumultuous year, and, from a baseball perspective, Marte was no exception. With a power drought (3.7% barrel, .122 ISO), he regressed down to a below league-average hitter (94 wRC+) during the shortened season. While this normally wouldn’t be concerning in a small sample size, this wasn’t a player with an established track record of success, and the 2020 season looked a lot like his pre-2019 self. Thus, it was impossible to know which Marte the baseball world could count on seeing in 2021. Fortunately, we got the right answer to that question.
If 2020 was a replication of Marte’s early seasons, then consider 2021 an exact carbon copy of 2019. If anything, he hit the ball harder (48.4% of his batted balls were 95 MPH or harder), while he boasted a similar barrel rate (8.9%) as well. Add in still strong plate discipline and batted-ball ball sprays, and it all came together for a 139 wRC+. Although the strikeouts (16% K) slightly ticked up, everything you could want offensively from an up-the-middle player was there. At this point, there clearly was no reason to think of him as anything other than a pillar to any lineup.
Marte’s Mixed Bag of a 2022 Season
As you’d expect with a star player on the team that finished with the worst record in the National League, Marte found himself subject to a significant amount of trade rumors. Instead, Arizona chose the opposite route- they signed him to a five-year, $76 million extension, making him one of the clear pillars of their rebuild moving forward. Simply from an entertainment value, it was encouraging to see them opt to keep their best player around, while Marte got the stay in the place where he had blossomed into a star. Sounds like a win-win maneuver to me!
On one end, with a 130 wRC+, it’s been a typical year for the star second baseman. At the same time, it certainly has been a steady journey to get here. For instance, Marte’s barrel rate (6.2%) and whiff rate (21.7%) have regressed negatively, leading to his expected numbers being more in line with his non-peak years. On the surface, that’d be concerning, no?
Not quite. For starters, it’s important to acknowledge the abysmal first month that Marte went through. As he looked to get his timing back intact, he boasted a paltry 35 wRC+, combining poor plate discipline (5.3% BB, 25.5% K) with very little power (3.2% barrel). Since then? A 167 wRC+, more walks (13.9% BB) than strikeouts (13.5% K), and much better quality of contact (7.2% barrel, 43.4% hard-hit). Visually, the changes are alarming:
More power with fewer strikeouts and chases? Yep, that’ll do the trick. It’s unclear what caused Marte’s slow start to the season, but, really, all that matters is where he is now. After all, slumps happen in baseball; Marte’s just happened to take place right out of the gate. Sure, maybe his 7.2% barrel rate since May 1st isn’t exactly where you’d want it, but that’s starting to change with a 14.6% barrel rate in the month of July, which also has come with his standard amount of contact in the zone (89.5%). No matter what way you slice it, this is the star player we have come to love and appreciate, which is tremendous news for the game of baseball as a whole.
He may not play in New York or Los Angeles, but Ketel Marte has clearly established himself as a true offensive star, and it’s time he be recognized as such.
Now, this wasn’t always the case. I mean, who expects a player with one home run in a full season to eventually develop into a true slugger? Yet, the power has come, and with the contact skills and athleticism he has, it’s led to him becoming the complete package. Surely, the Mariners wish they could go back and be a bit more patient with his development, though everything happens for a reason- there’s no guarantee Marte becomes this player if he didn’t have an organization that could give him the ideal time to develop.
Is it concerning that Marte’s sprint speed metrics have cratered, as has his defense? Sure, but when you can produce 30% above league average or better offensively, those concerns suddenly wither away. Very rarely do you get a combination of contact skills, power, plate discipline, and strong BABIP skills. Yet, that’s what we’re seeing from Marte. Consider him a reminder that development is not linear, and stars can come from where you least expect it. Never count out any player; sometimes, they’re just one adjustment away from greatness.
With the unknown that comes with prospects, even the best of the best, who knows what the future has in store for the Diamondbacks. Nevertheless, general manager Mike Hazan has done everything he can to escalate the rebuild through shrewd construction of the team’s farm system, and, hopefully, that results in a winning ballclub not before long. At least, soon enough for Marte to perhaps get the exposure he deserves while still in his prime. Still, we don’t have to let that stop us from enjoying one of the game’s more fascinating players. Next time Arizona is playing a late-night game, tune in and keep an eye on that switch-hitting second baseman they have. Last I checked, he’s pretty good at this baseball thing.