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Matt’s Stats: Marte’s steroid use a miscalculation on multiple levels

It was my professional opinion that Starling Marte was going to hit for more power this year. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been.

Starling Marte rounds the bases after a walk-off homer earlier this season. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

It was my professional opinion that Starling Marte was going to hit for more power this year.

Upon further review, perhaps it shouldn’t have been.

I don’t say that because of his 80-game steroid suspension, although that’ll limit his ability to reach career highs in home runs, extra-base hits and slugging percentage.

No, I say it because his batted-ball profile in recent seasons doesn’t indicate a hitter primed for a power outburst, even as he resides in his athletic prime.

Before I get into the details, perhaps that explains why Marte decided to seek unnatural assistance for his natural gifts. Maybe he realized he wasn’t well positioned to ride the fly-ball wave taking over the modern game, so he got desperate.

But enough of this amateur psychology. Who knows what really motivates a person? Let’s talk physics instead.

Typically, an athlete boosting his (or her) testosterone levels via pharmaceutical means does it for gains in muscle strength, power and endurance. For a hitter, increasing those attributes would theoretically result in increased swing speed and higher exit velocities on batted balls.

As it turns out, the quick-footed Marte could use a little more speed off the bat. Using the information publicly available on Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s Statcast database, Marte’s average batted-ball exit velocity in 2016 was 87.9 mph, ranking 193rd in the majors among batters who put more than 190 balls in play. Not terribly impressive, and good for just seventh-best on the Pirates. (For reference, Seattle’s Nelson Cruz led the majors with a 95.9 mph average, and the closest teammate to Marte was Jordy Mercer, at 87.1 mph.)

Looking back to 2015, the first year exit velocity was recorded by Statcast, Marte’s output was close to the same. He was 184th among that same peer group, at 87.7 mph. Taking into account 739 batted balls over the past two seasons, we have a solid baseline for how hard Marte hits the baseball. Frankly, he’s below average in this area.

But, Marte’s overall hitting profile is a little more complicated than that.

Despite ranking in the bottom half of qualifying batters in hard contact over the past couple of seasons, Marte still has managed to hang with some of the game’s elite power hitters in one category: Home run distance. Believe it or not, but Marte ranked 15th in the majors last season with an average distance per dinger of 413 feet. He slugged just nine in 2016, but that didn’t appear to be a fluke, as he ranked 30th (409 feet) in 2015, when he spanked 19.

When I discovered this, I was immediately taken back to late March, when Marte drove an impressive opposite-field grand slam into a strong wind at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. Through interpreter Mike González, Marte told me he wasn’t surprised by the accomplishment.

“Even though I’m not recognized as a power hitter,” he said, “people do know that when I hit the ball, I hit it hard.”

Technically, that’s not all the way true, as we saw above with the exit-velocity data. But, you do have to strike a ball purely to get it to travel 400-plus feet, so there is some validity to his confident statement.

If we can put aside semantic arguments, Marte undoubtedly has the bat speed to hit more home runs, if he were only able to launch more balls in the air. Thus, any attempt to increase his power through chemistry was not only in violation of MLB’s Joint Drug Agreement, it also was apparently misguided. If Marte wanted to hit more extra-base hits and homers, he would’ve been better served refining his hitting technique, not trying to get stronger.

To wit, over the past three seasons, Marte ranked 32nd among 235 qualifying hitters in line-drive rate (23.5 percent) and 37th in ground-ball rate (50.1 percent), but 212th in fly-ball rate (26.4 percent). These indicators suggest his swing path is too horizontal to launch the ball at an optimal angle and velocity for power.

As local baseball instructor Brian Barca told me recently, a hitter must swing slightly upward in order to maximize power potential.

“It allows a player to get more barrel in the zone, longer in the zone,” Barca said. “There is no better technique for squaring a baseball. Squaring a baseball that way provides chance for best launch angle for a particular pitch as well as highest exit velocity consistently.”

The old hitting coach Clint Hurdle likes to say that “home runs are thrown.” He means that it’s difficult for a batter to rip one over the fence if the pitch isn’t in a drivable position. That goes extra for a player with a level swing plane like Marte.

Essentially, home runs like this walk-off from two Sundays ago are happy accidents:

I’m not here to be a pollyanna. Of course Marte could benefit from the increased muscle performance that accompanies higher levels of testosterone. But a faster swing speed doesn’t automatically translate into better power numbers, if that was indeed his goal.

Marte’s offseason risk seems to have been a miscalculation in more ways than one. He’ll have some time to think about it, and maybe he can embrace the hitter he is when he returns in mid-July.

After all, his skill set has been good enough for him to average four wins above replacement over the past four seasons. That’s not star-level production, but simply being Starling has been sufficient.

45 Comments

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45 comments on "Matt’s Stats: Marte’s steroid use a miscalculation on multiple levels"

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Joseph
Joseph

This article by Matt summarizes why I subscribe to DKPittsburghSports. Good sports journalism is not easy to find these days.

amfriedland1
amfriedland1

I remember clearly that in the 1940’s and 50’s almost all the HR’s were high drives that seem to take forever to reach the fence.It seems that it was in the 60’s or 70’s that most of the HRs were were low shots that reached the stands before you could blink your eyes.Reggie Jackson was the first I recall who hit low shots.I remember his famous shot in the 1971 All Star game in Detroit, that a sharp contrast to the high drives hit earlier by Ralph Kiner.However, I do not recall any discussion at that time on the change.

dannyboy
dannyboy

Maybe he’s an idiot.

ledtotheflood
ledtotheflood

That last sentence about Marte just nails it. Instead of trying to be what he wasn’t meant to be, what he was—a defensive gem and an offensive catalyst for hits and stolen bases—was pretty darn good.

Sam Magee
Sam Magee

Very good article. His “agent” or “trainer” probably told him that if you are stronger a “mis hit ball” will go farther. It is easier to juice than refine your stroke.

Milo Hamilton
Milo Hamilton

This is excellent. I have to tell you, this “new” emphasis on launch angle and upper cutting the ball makes me laugh. Ted Williams preached it for years and people dismissed it. Swing level we were all told. I wish Ted were still around to see all this.

jedclampett
jedclampett

Famously against Rip Sewell.

ledtotheflood
ledtotheflood

Well said, Milo!

eckenrode11
eckenrode11

Josh Donaldson has kind of been the modern day detractor of the level swing; really lashing out at it on social media. Amazing what kind of change can happen when you have the right platforms to push the topic.

BubbaBanjo
BubbaBanjo

Rumors of the Marte T-shirt day being cancelled we premature……
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jedclampett
jedclampett

Excellent article.

charzar
charzar

Matt…enjoyed the article and concur with assessment. It would interesting to know “why” he decided to do it but I’m even more curious with his thinking on “how” he intended to get away with it with the testing procedures in place. Quick question Matt, how do you pronounce your name? I’m always butchering it in my head and want to get it right!

Rico
Rico

Do the cheer: “Gajtka Gajtka always RIGHT-ka, never TRITE-ka, he’s out of SIGHT-ka, Gajt-ka Gajt-ka, he’s our man!” 🙂

Paul
Paul

What I would like to know, if it’s possible, is Marte’s exit-velocity data broken down into balls in the strike zone and balls out of the strike zone.

It seems to me that he hits the ball harder than the average player when it’s a good pitch to hit. He just swings at so many bad pitches, which result in slower exit velocities, that his exit velocity is much more pedestrian that you’d expect.

I understand that the slight upward swing will result in more home runs, but I’m guessing that just swinging at strikes would increase Marte’s homerun production.

I also know that it’s pretty much proven that free swingers are always free swingers–it’s a tough adjustment to make–but it seems like it would have been wise to focus on swing control more than muscle power.

TheSeanald
TheSeanald

That last point is what strikes me hardest about what Marte, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The player he is already was pretty darned good. Certainly good enough to give him a long-term deal from the Bucs. Good enough to be one of the most feared – albeit without the best rate of success – baserunners in the game. Throw in 30-plus doubles, 15-plus homers a year and some triples to boot all with a .300-plus average? No reason to think PEDs are worth the risk if your natural ability gives you that kind of line. And that doesn’t even delve into the Gold Glove defense.

Just a tremendous shame.

dannyboy
dannyboy

Maybe He’s Been Juicing Since The Minors. I don’t know why it’s all caps. Go pens.

Rico
Rico

Barry Bonds Syndrome

ledtotheflood
ledtotheflood

Agreed whole-heartedly!

BillF'nMurray
BillF'nMurray

Matt, great article.
Question: Are you going to write an article soon about the eye test with an athlete’s use of anabolic steroids? This in regard to Colin Dunlap’s picture tweet you commented on.
In my experience as an athlete, those veins Marte displays are juiced out. He may be on the lean side, but inside the weightroom he isn’t fooling fellow teammates, average gym rats, or experienced juicers.

Patrick
Patrick

This is why Matt G. has such a high WAR. 😇

BubbaBanjo
BubbaBanjo

I am not all over Starling. Man he made a dumb move. Lets hope he learns. He can be an awesome ball player with a high batting average and an awesome arm. HRs are great. But if you can hit at a high rate and be a defensive asset you are a really good player too. I still wish Roids administered by a doctor should be allowed for chronic injuries. Catchers, pitchers, all can use help to stay in the game. Older player too. That should be allowed if done safely.

Sciotto41
Sciotto41

Matt, The walk off homer two Sundays ago was a true moon shot with unbelievable hang time. I attended that game –my first reaction based on trajectory was it would be a can of corn ( to borrow a Bob Prince description). Wondering what the exit velocity was on that homer and if it materially exceeded last year’s average. Regarding average length of homers, Marte’ s average will always be high because he gets few cheapies due to distance of left field wall at PNC

eckenrode11
eckenrode11

Launch angle is key… take a look at Jose Altuve’s swing adjustment over his career.

rkordella
rkordella

A very nice job of, again, making the metrics relevant, Matt, a task that not every writer is up to these days.

Diber
Diber

Great job, Matt! Could you copy this article to Marte? He’s going to have some time on his hands.

Yokesoverez
Yokesoverez

Better yet, one of us poor schlubs could gift Marte a subscription … if only we had his email address.

paulnage01
paulnage01

Matt… perhaps his average exit velocity is low-ish because he hits so many infield dribblers. Part of his problem is his crowding the plate so much and hitting inside strikes either 70 feet down to third for an infield single or hitting those incessant ground ball fouls.

Skip
Skip

Paul and TWM – I completely agree with both of you. When he hits it hard, he hits it about as hard as anyone. But he seems to have an inordinate amount of soft contact too, so that skews his exit velocity average.

Very astute and thought-provoking analysis, Matt.

TWM in CLE
TWM in CLE

Great point. When you swing hard all the time and you don’t square up, weak contact with low exit velo are the result.

Would be interesting to see the dispersion of his exit velo – he’s probably very inconsistent. His highest exit velo might be among the league best, but his avg exit velo clearly isn’t impressive.

kr70
kr70

I wish you could have wrote this just for Starling before the shots. Don’t the Pirates have someone that could have done what you did? (and done it)

Kevin Connors
Kevin Connors

That’s great journalism. #teamDKΔpghsports

jkoury27
jkoury27

Matt- a fantastic job; the ability of MLB to provide this type of advanced analysis with the laser systems now in all ballparks is truly changing the game- your article showed the hows and whys- can’t wait for your nrxt column!

coachhorse
coachhorse

Great article Matt.I love these kinds of stat breakdowns.

kliuch
kliuch

That’s great analysis, Matt. Fantastic stuff. Thanks for this.

I would really, really like it if we could know more if how Marte’s PED consumption happened. I mean, Nandrolone is one of the oldest doping agents, it’s been banned worldwide since 1974. The accurate, reliable testing is available, and the athletes simply don’t take it now because there’s no way you can mask it or trick the testing. So I am wondering if Marte’s case was one of unwilling consumption (which would be consistent with his statement, referring to a mistake and neglect).

I guess MLB doesn’t make this stuff public?

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