After he appeared in 47 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, Starling Marte burst onto the scene the following year when he became a full-time starter in the outfield. His success was so immediate that the Pirates signed him to a six-year contract extension before the 2014 season even began. He even played like he deserved it last year. Marte boasted a .358 wOBA, created 32% more runs than league average and finished the campaign as a four-win player. It's no wonder the Pirates like this kid.
Much of his success has to do with an incredibly high batting average on balls in play. Since 2013, only Chris Johnson of the Atlanta Braves has a higher BABIP than Marte's .368 average. Marte's .373 BABIP in '14 led the league, with the next closest hitter coming in at .360. League average was .299.
Marte strikes out a ton (24.7 K%), meaning he doesn't put the ball in play all that often. Fewer opportunities means a lesser chance of getting a base knock, but Marte has started his career with two seasons of stratospheric BABIPs. So the question has to be, is it sustainable?
BABIP is based on multiple factors (the opposing defense, luck and a player's talent level) and those factors vary from year to year. So, at least for a player's first few years in the league, it's tough to tell how sustainable his BABIP is. However, Derek Carty of Baseball Prospectus studied when certain statistics begin to stabilize and came to the conclusion that BABIP stabilizes after around 2.4 years (a year being 650 plate appearances). That means Marte, who has been in the bigs almost exactly 2.4 years, should have already seen his BABIP stabilize. Given what we've seen out of Marte, if nothing substantial changes, we could expect around a .350+ BABIP year in and year out from him.
That's scary for opposing pitchers. Marte's career BABIP sits at .363 in 1293 plate appearances. If he were to walk away from the game and hang up his cleats for good, he would finish with the 11th-highest BABIP in MLB history, among players with a minimum of 1000 PA.
We can also dive a little deeper by going over his minor league numbers to see if we can establish any history. In the four seasons in which Marte had a minimum of 200 PA down on the farm, he posted a BABIP of under .350 only once. In the other three seasons, his BABIP looked a little something like this: .400, .424 and .390. As you can see, he continuously hit for a high average when he put the ball in play as a minor-leaguer, so it's really not that surprising he's doing it now with the big boys.
Now that we've traveled into the past, let's look at Marte's batted ball profile to get a better understanding of what type of hitter he is.
To have a high BABIP, a player usually needs speed (Marte has speed), especially if that player hits a lot of balls on the ground (Marte hits a lot of balls on the ground). However, ground balls haven't been too kind to Marte. He has only a .292 BABIP when he hits into a grounder; that's a pretty normal ground ball BABIP compared to the rest of the league. Luckily for him, his ground ball rate has decreased every year, while his line drive rate has risen every year, and that has been instrumental in sending his BABIP through the roof in '14. Just look at his BABIP on line drives.
|LD BABIP||GB BABIP||FB BABIP|
When Marte hits a line drive, which he doesn't do often, he's going to get a hit around 70% of the time. That's actually pretty close to the league average, maybe slightly higher. But being able to hit more line drives...that improvement is why his BABIP has continued climbing the ladder. Now, his line drive BABIP has decreased every year, but he's hitting more of them, so who cares? As far as fly balls go, as long as Marte continues to hit them at a low rate, his BABIP shouldn't suffer too much.
In terms of lefty/righty matchups, Marte's BABIP is predictably better versus southpaws. He owns a .467 BABIP versus left-handed pitchers, including an astonishing .523 BABIP in 2013. However, he hasn't seen many lefties in his young career, as he has just 249 plate appearances against them. Against righties, his BABIP comes down at a .340 clip, and that should be close to stabilizing with over 1000 plate appearances.
The fact that he's hitting more line drives bodes well for him, but the increase in fly balls -- despite his BABIP on flies growing each year -- could bring his BABIP down. It's pretty clear that Marte will continue to be a high BABIP hitter, but expecting him to hit .370 on balls in play far into the future may be a little far-fetched.
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Justin Schultz is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also founded his own sabermetric website, The First Out At Third. You can follow him on Twitter at @JSchu23.