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2018 Breakout Player: Ketel Marte

Marte’s solid 2017 season has him potentially on the cusp of a big season in 2018 as the everyday shortstop.

MLB: NL Wildcard-Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Diamondbacks in the previous offseason swung a big trade, getting back both Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte. The Diamondbacks sent Marte to AAA to work on his swing after losing a competition for a middle infield spot. The team brought him up after Nick Ahmed was hit by the pitch in the wrist at the end of June. Chris Owings was the primary shortstop in July, but he struggled and the month ended with him breaking a finger on a bunt attempt which left Marte all alone at the position. He handled it well, posting 1.1 bWAR in 255 PA with most of his value coming from defense. Barring a blockbuster deal involving a certain Orioles 3B, the SS position is Marte’s for the foreseeable future.

Of the shortstops on the current 40-man roster, Marte is the most dynamic player at the plate and on the field. He’s got the chops to stick at the shortstop position if he can cut down on the errors. The athleticism, range, and arm are all adequate enough for him to be an above average defender at the position like in 2017. In 507 23 innings, he was credited for +4 defensive runs saved and a UZR/150 of +3.4. Last season Marte was -2 DRS and -15.3 UZR/150, so we probably need more of a sample size of him playing shortstop for the Diamondbacks to figure out if he’s going to be an above average defender considering half his innings there are during that miserable 2016 season.

At the plate, Marte took a major step forward. Marte’s overall batting line doesn’t look impressive with a .260/.345/.395 slash (89 wRC+), but the numbers beyond the surface suggest he’s easily capable of more. His ground ball rate dropped from 50% to 45%, hard hit rate spiked from 21% to 28%. That combination could end up predicting a potential surge in power numbers, although not necessarily in the form of home runs, as Marte gets older and has better pitch recognition. While Marte’s .319 wOBA looks unimpressive, Statcast credited him for a .342 xwOBA in 2017, which would put his offensive productivity on par with David Peralta’s 2017 season (.342 wOBA/104 wRC+). The difference between the two figures is roughly 11 runs over 600 plate appearances, or roughly 1.1 more wins although outside a vacuum could contribute to more than just an extra win for the team if those 11 runs come at the right time.

There’s more power in his bat than his .135 ISO suggests. Marte’s exit velocity topped out a 112.8 MPH, but also ranked 164th out of 387 in batted ball rate of 95+ MPH exit velocity amongst MLB hitters with 100+ batted ball events. He’s had his course of bad luck on a handful of them and if he can continue to improve exit velocity on fly balls, we should see his wRC+ spike from 89 to well over 100. Of course that’s not the takeaway from his 2017 improvements. Jeff Sullivan from Fangraphs in another Marte breakout article notes the big changes in Marte’s productivity. In 2017, Marte had the 7th best xwOBA increase in MLB while having the 4th best improvement in K-BB% (K-BB% getting lower).

The K-BB% improved 12.0% with a 4.5% reduction in strikeouts and a 7.5% improvement with walks. In addition his xwOBA improved from .250 to .342, a 92 point increase. I’m not sure how much lasting power these changes will have, but if they do, Marte goes from a bottom of the order type hitter to a top/bottom hitter depending on who else is in the lineup. I could see him batting 1st, 2nd, 7th, or 8th given who the Diamondbacks are playing. Marte’s most productive spot in the order was 7th, where he put up a 107 wRC+ and a .239/.346/.463 slash. Offensively, he profiles more as a table setter than a run producer, although that’s something the Dbacks lineup doesn’t have enough of.

Another underused facet in his game is baserunning, particularly in terms of stealing bases. Marte had the highest sprint speed on the Diamondbacks at 28.9 ft/s. That’s faster than AJ Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt, who combined for 38 stolen bases in 2017. Marte’s 3 stolen bases is not an indicator of his speed. If he can develop the instincts to be a good base stealer, then that completes the package for his offensive game. The Dbacks have the right man for the job in Dave McKay, a legendary 1B coach who’s very good at figuring out tells from the pitcher. Marte has multiple 20 SB seasons in the minors, so there is some history in base-stealing in his days with the Mariners organization. Having an elite base-stealer changes the entire game and I believe Marte has the tools to be that guy, it’s just a matter of him willing to develop them. Pollock and Goldschmidt are two guys to lean on for advice since both of them are great base-stealers.

If the baserunning and base-stealing parts of his game improve, that should also lead to him getting more hittable strikes because the last thing an opponent wants is a base-stealer on with the middle of the order up. The pitcher can’t put his undivided attention on a very good hitter like Goldy because Marte may swipe a bag and get into scoring position for one of the best hitters in the game in that situation. Adding that dynamic to the lineup makes everyone better and I hope he’s able to tap into that speed as a weapon on the bases.

The biggest area of concern going into 2018 are his platoon splits (93 wRC+ vs. RHP, 78 vs. LHP). That’s the only thing I could see being an impediment to him developing into an everyday shortstop. Ahmed does have a track record of production against LHP with a career mark of 96 wRC+ along with outputs of 114 in 2015 and 174 in 2017. So if Marte continues to struggle against the run of the mill LHP, then the team can platoon the shortstop position and get good value from it. I still think Marte deserves to prove his abilities to hit from both sides of the plate and against LHP it makes sense to play both guys. Whether or not that means Marte moves to 3B or 2B is something to be determined although 3B seems to be the more likely scenario.

Marte’s likely floor is a 2 WAR shortstop with a slightly below average bat, slightly above average defender, and an above average baserunner who makes his mark on advancing the extra base on hits to the outfield. There’s a lot more left in his game to develop, coming in all the major facets and it’s something that will get better with more reps. His upside falls just short of All-Star caliber, but I see him developing into a key cog in the organization’s future. He’s only 24, so I expect him to continue on an upward trajectory overall. The Diamondbacks control him for five more seasons (2022), so they should be able to get a lot of value from him on the field. Here’s to hoping I’m successful in calling out another breakout, since I was right with both Godley and Ray last year.