What happened to Ketel Marte?

Marte 2In early May, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto made his feelings clear regarding his starting shortstop when told “Danny, Dave and Moore” of 710 ESPN Seattle “I’ve said from the day I got here, maybe the most surprising player of those that I was fortunate enough to inherit is Ketel Marte.”

Dipoto had good reasons for heaping praise on Marte. After a sluggish start to the season, the 22-year-old had a .303 batting average and .328 on-base percentage (OBP) on May 10, plus his defense had significantly improved.

It looked as if the Mariners had finally found something they had been lacking in recent seasons — a legitimate leadoff hitter. Then, the rest of the season happened.

Since those heady days in mid-May, Marte has struggled to reach base on a consistent basis and currently owns a .292 OBP. How bad is it going for the native Dominican? The only Mariners regular who reaches base less often is first baseman Adam Lind.

What’s the root cause of Marte’s problems? I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s look at a leading indicator of his on-base woes — a low walk percentage (BB%).

Ketel Marte’s On Base Success
Year Teams BA
OBP
BB %
 2013  High Desert/Clinton .295 .322 3.8%
 2014 Jackson/Tacoma .304 .335 4.8%
 2015 AZL/Jackson/Tacoma .321 .366 7.0%
 2015  Seattle .283 .351 9.7%
 2016 Seattle .263 .292 4.1%

As you can see, Marte’s BB% had been increasing at each level of his professional career, until this year. Now, his declining walk rate is torpedoing his 2016 OBP.

Marte is a great example of why batting average is a limited, yet overused metric. The switch-hitter is batting .263 — about league-average for shortstops. But, his anemic OBP isn’t not good enough for any position in the lineup, let alone the leadoff spot.

What can the Mariners Opening Day shortstop do to get back on track? Do a better job of controlling the zone. It’s something that Marte has a history of doing.

In 2014, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted Marte “understands the strike zone, handles the bat very well and, again, can run.” Dipoto even remarked his young player possesses “good zone judgment” during his May interview with the 710 crew.

So, what happened to Ketel Marte?

The sample sizes are small, but a comparison of Marte’s rookie season to this year reveals increased aggressiveness at the plate in 2016. Take a look for yourself.

Ketel Marte’s Plate Discipline
Year PA Pit/PA 1st Pitch Swinging O-Swing Z-Swing O-Contact Z-Contact
Pull Cent Oppo
2015 249 3.82 16.9% 26.6% 62.7%  69.3% 88.4% 39.4% 35% 25.6%
2016 317 3.78 25.8%  32% 66.5%  73.3% 89% 44.2% 30.9% 24.9%
O — Outside Strike Zone                                   Z — Inside Strike Zone

I’ve highlighted four stats that caught my eye and illustrate a change in Marte’s strategy at the plate. Most prominently, he’s swinging at the first pitch 8.9-percent more often than last season. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, he’s also chasing balls outside the strike zone (O-Swing) at a higher rate.

Could his expanded strike zone be responsible for the youngster walking less frequently, pulling the ball (Pull) more often, and hitting fewer balls up the middle (Cent) this season? Absolutely.

I’m not suggesting that Marte shouldn’t be aggressive at the plate. Quite the opposite. But, he’s widened his zone without delivering a positive outcome in the form of a higher OBP. Rather, the opposite has occurred.

In all fairness, it’s worth noting that Marte has endured two stints on the disabled list this season, including 20 missed games due to mononucleosis. Two extended absences certainly do not help a young player.

Also, Marte doesn’t turn 23-years-old until October and is only 135 games and 566 plate appearances into his big league career. There’s still plenty of time for him to develop into an everyday major leaguer.

On the other hand, the immediate issue for the Mariners is whether they can wait for their shortstop to find himself while they compete for the postseason with just six weeks remaining in the season.

It’s possible that Marte and the team would be better off if he were able to refresh his skills during an assignment to Class-AAA Tacoma — much like Mike Zunino and James Paxton did earlier this season and what Taijuan Walker is currently undergoing. Sending Marte to Tacoma wouldn’t be easy though.

The Mariners don’t have an adequate replacement available on their 40-man roster. Luis Sardinas appeared to be that option at the beginning of the season, but he’s been designated for assignment. Shawn O’Malley is an adequate fill-in, but he’s not an optimal choice to be the everyday shortstop for a postseason contender.

Another option would be to acquire an established shortstop in order to give Marte more time to develop. Perhaps, that’s why the Mariners were reportedly interested in picking up Zack Cozart of the Cincinnati Reds at the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

The presence of Cozart —  or another established shortstop — would present Dipoto with an opportunity to send Marte to Tacoma and not risk this season’s playoff hopes. Conceivably, the 48-year-old executive could still snag someone before August 31. But, there are no guarantees.

Without a suitable replacement, the Mariners will likely stick with Marte as their everyday shortstop and hope he can better control the zone in the midst of a postseason push.

That’s not a best-case scenario for the team or the player.

About the author

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team.

You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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