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Starling Marte's base running has declined

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At the plate, Starling Marte has continued his roll in 2015; after reaching base, he hasn't excelled as much as he did in years past. What's behind this dropoff?

Marte's superiority on the basepaths has evaporated.
Marte's superiority on the basepaths has evaporated.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In analyzing a hitter's offensive performance, many pundits overlook base running. While it definitely doesn't account for the majority of the player's value (except for some rare cases), it can separate the bad from the good, and the good from the elite. In the case of Starling Marte, it put him into the elite category in the two seasons before this one, but has since dropped him down to the ranks of the good.

Over 2013 and 2014, Marte ranked 11th in the National League with a 9.1 fWAR. The driver of his overall value? Offense — his 49.9 offensive runs also placed him just outside the top 10. The driver of that value? It wasn't hitting, as fifteen others had more wRAA than his 33.7. No one else, however, could top him when it came to baserunning: His 16.6 runs in that regard led the Senior Circuit by an immense margin.

Given that, we would probably expect Marte to maintain his excellence on the bases. He's gone in the opposite direction this year, with the seventh-lowest BsR in the league. Will he turn this poor start around, or has the old Marte disappeared for good?

We can break down BsR into its three components: wSB (stolen base runs), wGDP (double play runs), and UBR (baserunning runs). The former hasn't changed much for Marte, so we'll ignore it. With the latter two, though, he's become significantly worse, warranting further investigation.

Marte's ability to avoid double plays helped his game a lot in his first two full seasons. Out of 1,111 plate appearances, only eleven concluded with two outs recorded on one grounder; that made for a 1.0 percent double-play rate, about half the major-league average. Season three has seen that rate spike to 2.1 percent in 330 opportunities for Marte, an unacceptably high number for someone with his speed.

A bit of the blame for that rise should go to Marte's teammates, who have given him slightly more double play opportunities this year. Per Baseball-Reference, 55 of Marte's plate appearances in 2015, or 16.7 percent, had a runner on first with less than two outs. That represents a slight increase from the two preceding years, in which 175 (15.8 percent) of his trips to the dish had that distinction. Consistently batting cleanup this season has meant Marte's seen more action in the heart of the order, and he hasn't necessarily responded well to that.

Opportunities don't comprise all of Marte's decline, though. To ground into a double play, you have to put the ball on the ground, something that Marte has done a lot more often thus far. His ground ball rate has increased from 49.1 percent  to 56.8 percent, meaning he's put himself in double-play situations much more often than he used to. Unless he knocks the ball in the air more often again, opponents will likely continue to turn two against him.

But the real difference for Marte hasn't come from double plays. For that matter, they really don't count as base running — the player debited for them hasn't actually reached base. By contrast, UBR, or [booming announcer voice] Ultimate Baserunning, lives up to its name: It takes into account virtually everything that happens on the basepaths, and gives out credit accordingly.

With that in mind, let's scrutinize Marte's UBR, and the factors that have influenced it. These include, but are definitely not limited to:

  • Advancing an extra base on a base hit by another player (going from first to third on a single, scoring from first on a double, or scoring from second on a single)
  • Moving ahead on a wild pitch, passed ball, or fly ball
  • Not getting out while doing any of the above

The first thing of note: Marte has actually made fewer outs on the bases this season. Twice this year, the other team has forced him out after he's reached base; on a per-plate appearance scale, that's a 0.6 percent rate — far lower than the major-league average of 2.3 percent, and the 1.6 percent mark that he posted in the two years before this one. Marte's problem hasn't been that he's run into trouble, but that he hasn't risked doing so often enough. And the areas in which he's played more conservatively may give us a clue as to the cause.

In terms of creating extra base hits (i.e., stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples, an element of baserunning not directly included in UBR), Marte's performance has depreciated a bit in one way, and fallen off a cliff in another:

Year(s) 2B/(1B+2B) 3B/(2B+3B)
2013-2014 22.4% 22.5%
2015 20.8% 0.0%

Marte still goes for two, and succeeds, at about the same clip that he did before this year. He has yet to pull off a triple in 2015, though, suggesting that something about third base has kept him away.

Moreover, he's still taken an additional base on one type of hit by his teammate, but has played it safe on the other two:

Year(s) 1st, Single, 3rd 1st, Double, Score 2nd, Single, Score
2013-2014 42.9% 61.1% 71.1%
2015 46.7% 28.6% 45.5%

Marte hasn't had any difficulty going to third here, but has encountered some problems with moving ahead past there.

We can't really break down the other opportunities for Marte to display his speed — wild pitches and the like — but we can note that there, too, he's lagged behind, with only 6 bases taken (1.8 percent of PAs) as opposed to 33 in the prior two campaigns (3.0 percent). What does this mean for his play?

Marte has struggled with a few ailments in 2015, ranging from severe dizziness in May to an oblique strain yesterday. Most players won't run as well without a clean bill of health; thus, Marte might have tried to compensate for that by exercising more discretion on the basepaths. Then again, he's played hurt in the past: He hurt his hand last year, and his head the year before that. While injuries haven't helped his case, he's done well despite them in the past.

The interesting thing here for me, and the element of the case that might have set in motion Marte's change, is the coaching behind him. After the 2014 season, the Pirates swapped third base coach Nick Leyva with first base coach Rick Sofield. It didn't make waves, obviously, but this kind of move can impact the players on a team. One coach might err on the side of caution, while another might roll the dice. Parhaps Leyva allowed Marte to reach his potential, and Sofield has reined him back in, in a costly manner. Whatever the case may be, Marte has lost his baserunning temerity, and it's unclear that he'll ever regain it.

In the end, Marte has still performed exquisitely, as the Pirates expect of him, and he'll most likely keep that up in the future. A certain, undercredited element of his game might not return, though; the combination of more ground balls, injuries, and coaching changes has conspired to rob him of his baserunning ability. All we can do is hope that he'll find himself again.

. . .

All data as of Monday, July 6th, 2015.

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time), and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.