The Diamondbacks in the offseason made a big trade with the Seattle Mariners. In the deal, the Dbacks received Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte. Walker was considered the big piece at the time to help the rotation, which he has, and Marte being the lesser piece with the organization having a lot of middle infield depth already. Two broken hands by the St. Louis Cardinals later, Marte is the Diamondbacks’ last man standing at the shortstop position.
Marte spent the first three months on the season working on his swing for the Dbacks’ AAA affiliate, where he hit .338/.391/.514 in 338 plate appearances. The goal was for Marte to add more lift in his swing, to help him drive the ball considering he had an ISO of .082 with the Mariners. That goal seems to have paid off so far, as Marte is putting up a .258 ISO in 70 PA for the Dbacks. I don’t expect that number to sustain because Marte is nothing like Jake Lamb, Paul Goldschmidt, or JD Martinez at the plate. However, the power surge has been a welcome addition to his offensive game, because he really needed it. So far in 2017, he’s looked very good at both the plate and in the field, putting up about 0.5 WAR in 25 games.
70 plate appearances is hardly a strong enough sample size to judge Marte’s work at the plate. He’s changing leagues, where most of the pitchers have never faced him before. The first numbers that usually stabilize for a hitter are walk rate and strikeout rate. He’s currently sitting at about 20% strikeout rate and 10% walk rate, which is perfectly acceptable considering the improvement in batted ball skills. I don’t expect Marte’s ground ball rate to stay as low as 36.7% or his line drive rate to stay as high as 26.5%, but I do expect his BABIP to improve from .244 if he keeps a high line drive rate. Even with some batted ball regression in terms of ground ball and line drive rates, Marte is hitting the ball in the air more, which is a welcome sign because I hate ground balls.
In terms of batted ball data, Marte’s batted ball numbers have also improved. Last year, Marte had an average exit velocity of 83.7 MPH and 87.2 MPH on fly ball and line drive contact. This year, those numbers have jumped to 88.1 MPH and 94.7 MPH on fly ball and line drive contact. Those are very encouraging signs if he’s able to keep that up. In the Dbacks current lineup, only Paul Goldschmidt, AJ Pollock, and J.D. Martinez have higher exit velocities on fly balls and line drives. So not only is he getting the ball in the air more, he’s driving the baseball when he makes air contact.
Another issue with Marte coming into the season was his defense. Last year, Marte was -2 DRS and -15.3 UZR/150 for the Mariners at the shortstop position, but we can blame injuries and mono for that. In the other two seasons, Marte has graded positively in both categories. So far in 120 innings at shortstop, Marte has been worth +2 DRS and a UZR/150 of 9.2. In terms of the eye test, Marte has also looked more competent than Chris Owings in a limited sample size. We’ll take that.
It’s hard to say whether or not the improvements we’ve seen in a small sample of games has any lasting power for Marte, but he’s looked solid out there. He’s lifting the ball more frequently and driving it to the gaps and the seats. Strikeouts are up, but so are walks and with the improvement in batted ball skills, we can tolerate the high strikeout rate. His defense has also taken a major step forward, his arm not really being an issue and he’s made some fantastic plays in the field, just ask Bryce Harper about that. With Owings likely done for the regular season at least and Nick Ahmed also recovering from a broken hand injury, Marte has a chance to win the everyday shortstop job. Hopefully he wins it, because the Dbacks control Marte through the 2022 season.