For several years a friend and I been engaged in a running debate over the Major League viability of Ketel Marte. This might seem like a strange thing to have been doing with our time, as indeed it was, but having strong opinions on Seattle Mariners prospects (whom the organization will inevitably break or discard) is one of the few ways of staying sane in the face of the slow-burn disaster that is my favorite team.
I’m pleased to say I was the Marte admirer, as my friend — we’ll call him “Simplicio,” as is tradition in these sorts of spats — looks quite silly in the wake of his starting the 2019 MLB All-Star game. Simplicio insisted the bat was too lightweight to carry him to sustained success, even at shortstop, and his contact ability wasn’t nearly good enough to make up for the lack of power. For me he’d demonstrated enough plate discipline to get his contact skills to play even without any pop, and he had the glove at short to provide real value to a team. This year I’ve been vindicated by Marte’s transformation into ... one of the more dangerous power hitters in baseball. Wait, what?
Marte first made the majors in 2015 as a lanky 21-year-old. The Dominican had shot through the minors, but while his contact and speed were both impressive, his record and approach hardly suggested a future as a slugger. Even bafflingly optimistic reports, such as Ben Carsley and Christopher Crawford’s at Baseball Prospectus, expected Marte to mature into a little more than a useful slap-hitter:
The swing is simple; getting through the zone quickly with a slight load and very little movement before dropping into the contact zone. His hand-eye coordination is outstanding ... he’s willing to get on base via walk. There’s some natural loft from his hand drop, but his light build and lack of weight transfer makes hitting for power unlikely. He’s a borderline plus-plus runner though, so any ball hit into the gap has a chance to turn into a triple.
That is not what happened. Marte had a strong debut season, but his productivity collapsed in 2016, and the Mariners dumped him on the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of the endlessly fascinating Jean Segura trade. But during his three years in Phoenix, he reinvented himself. As of this writing, Marte is currently hitting .310/.363/.563, with 21 home runs. His slugging percentage is 10th in the National League. In many ways, Simplicio was closer to the mark than I was — the contact and plate discipline weren’t enough to carry Marte to success. Instead, he’s become something else entirely.
What’s different? Not his build, certainly. Marte is generously listed at 6′1 and 165 pounds, presumably when wet, and he looks virtually the same now as when he arrived in Seattle four years ago. The current version of the MLB baseball flies farther than previous incarnations, which helps, but is probably insufficient to explain how Marte has hit almost as many home runs in the first half of this season as he had in his whole career combined.
Marte is hitting the ball in the air more, and hitting it harder. Both help, but for the old Marte, raising his launch angle would simply have resulted in more soft fly-outs. And saying that he’s hitting the ball harder — Fangraphs has his rate of hard-hit batted balls at 43 percent, almost double where he stood in his Seattle days — is mostly restating what’s happening rather than providing any insight. Devan Fink has perhaps the best explanation in that he’s now concentrating more on pitches in his middle-away wheelhouse than he used to, but that still feels too much of a second-order answer than a straightforward explanation of how Marte is now capable of doing damage in the heart of the order.
Ultimately, the question is more important than the answer. That a player who for years looked as though he’d have been lucky to put up Juan Pierre’s power numbers can learn to drive the ball consistently enough to produce an All-Star calibre half season is another example of the endless surprises baseball can deliver. Statistical projections and scouting reports are useful tools, but they can also provide the illusion of a certainty which doesn’t really exist. Marte is just one of the more surprising of a slew of recent breakouts across MLB, and the sport is also littered with the failed careers of can’t-miss players who did just that. Even obvious statements of future fact, such as the assertion a man with the build of a stick figure was never going to hit 480-foot-plus bombs, are liable to blow up in your face.
All of which makes arguments like mine with Simplicio (I should, at this point, admit you were right about Chris Taylor) futile adventures in time-wasting. At least we didn’t have any fun.