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.