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Better selectivity at the plate has propelled Starling Marte to a hot start in 2020

MLB: Houston Astros at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Diamondbacks went into the past offseason looking to solve their center field problem. In 2019, the team ham-and-egged the position with a combination of Ketel Marte and others. Marte had a strong season at the plate and looked competent in the outfield, but saw his season end two weeks early due to a stress reaction in his back. With that in mind, the team was looking for someone to ease the burden on their young superstar.

The opportunity came about when the Pittsburgh Pirates, who completely revamped their front office and on-field leadership, put Starling Marte on the trade block. The D-backs initially balked at the Pirates’ asking price in the Winter Meetings, but eventually both sides hammered out a deal about a month later. In order to get Starling Marte, who had $11.5MM left plus a $12MM option for 2021, the D-backs had to part with two high-upside teenage prospects in Brennan Malone and Liover Peguero. It’s a steep price and one could remember five years down the road if Malone and/or Peguero become quality big leaguers for the Pirates and Starling Marte is in another team’s uniform. For a team with playoff aspirations in 2020, they were willing to pay that price.

Marte would deal with a lot of personal adversity during the shutdown with the death of his wife and considered almost retiring from the game, but was encouraged to continue on. For both Marte and the D-backs, it’s been a good decision as Marte has gotten off to a blistering start in this abbreviated 2020 season. Through August 8th, he is batting .362/.464/.532 mark with career best marks in strikeout (14.0%) and walk rate (10.7%) in his first 56 plate appearances for Arizona. This obviously isn’t going to last given that this is propped up by a .421 BABIP that isn’t sustainable given his quality of contact on the season to date, but there are some encouraging things to take note of.

The first obvious improvement comes in walk rate. Marte had entered the season with a reputation of being a free-swinger with a 5% walk rate and average 3.75 pitches per plate appearance. I don’t think Marte will finish the season with a double-digit walk rate, but there is some underlying improvements beyond just results. Marte has shown to be more selective at the plate, reducing his first pitch swing rate to 55% and offering at only 48% of pitches. He’s also chasing out of the zone less, posting a 25% chase rate on Statcast and a 30.7% O-Swing on Fangraphs, both career lows. As a result, he’s seeing more pitches (3.95 P/PA) and is among the MLB leaders in OBP to start the year.

His approach at the plate also had historically lead to a lot of ground ball contact, which hovered around 50% according to Fangraphs and 52% on Statcast. That number is down to 45/49 in 2020 so far. The overall exit velocity hasn’t quite caught up yet, but it’s trending in the positive direction as it improved from 83.8 to 86.9 MPH in the second week of the season. Starting the in Houston series, he’s been squaring up balls and hitting them into the gaps for doubles before launching his first D-back homer last night. We’re not deep enough into the season where batted ball data becomes more or less stable and we might not ever get to that point, but an improvement in the rate of air contact will lead to a higher extra base hit rate for Marte moving forward.

When it comes to evaluating hitters, the idea is for hitters to avoid making outs and/or drive in runs. Being more selective at the plate has allowed Marte to succeed more in this early start to the season, as he’s making fewer outs when he’s not hitting the ball and when he does is hitting it in the air more. I’m not sure how much more staying power there is over the course of the season, but this has been a welcomed development for the team’s second biggest acquisition of the off-season.