On Starling Marte and Steroids
Each baseball fan has a set of specific events throughout time they remember fondly. Some exist in said group because of their emotional impact on your fandom. Others remain on the peripheral of importance because of a random characteristic that still stands out.
Those peripheral events, for me, are often those I’ve seen on live television. I don’t think of these events often, nor do I keep a record of them, or have some strict guideline for what sticks in my head, but when a story in the present day sparks my memory, a picture often emerges. My teenage years watching baseball were done one of two ways: sitting on the ground in front of my laptop with MLB.tv fading in-and-out, or scouring local stations for a good matchup. These two primary settings allowed for many one-off memories to accumulate.
When I began to think about Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder Starling Marte – due to this offseason’s stagnation – I thought back to the first pitch he saw in his major league career. Just over five years ago, 23-year-old Starling Marte took the first pitch Dallas Keuchel threw on July 26, out of Minute Maid Park. The rarity of that event – a prospect’s debut, leading off a game, first-pitch home run – forces me to remember that bomb whenever Marte steps into a batter’s box. Because I happened to see it live, that memory has stuck.
For the wider population of fans, what now supersedes that milestone is Marte’s run-in with performance enhancing drugs. Suspended for 80 games during the 2017 season, this mistake by Marte will couple itself with any other success he has.
Predicting how Marte would fare upon his return during this layoff in 2017 raised some interesting, PED-related questions. Would his power drop? Would his Would his speed deteriorate? What about his overall durability?
Nestled within all those asks is what exactly the effect of PEDs on an athlete’s body is after stopping use. Much more intriguing is this question: does any use at all matter as much as stopping that use? In other words, do the effects of PED use in the first place help prolong success?
I mention this because Marte joins Dee Gordon as the more prominent speed-first users of prohibited substances in the recent years. The drugs Gordon and Marte took were different from my understanding – nandrolone versus a stacked dose with clostebol – but maybe some intrigue exists in the stats before and after use?
The overall comparison doesn’t show us much. Even in what I highlighted with darkened gridlines – slugging percentage and wRC+ – has more noise within it than signal. Two main questions exist, among many others, that don’t have answers.
- What portion of the “before” PED use window contains tainted statistics?
- What portion of the drop is due specifically to the lack of steroids in the body?
But perhaps our intentions with those questions are incorrect. Think back to the question I asked before showing this dataset: do the effects of PED use in the first place help prolong success?
What if the muscle memory and learning that takes place while a player is under the influence of the drug extends beyond the window where a player can run a positive test?
With some high-level googling, I found one instance where this idea might be a reasonable rabbit hole to dig into (BBC News). Certainty around this topic, however, is impossible given all the variables. Some selection bias brings us the average fan to Nelson Cruz and Bartolo Colon as examples of this idea. But assuming two players with demonstrable skills outside of steroid use represent a wider population is not an appropriate assumption. We’re left in limbo regarding how much one positive test early on can affect one’s long-term production.
Let’s leave the uncertainty around long-term effects of Marte’s steroid use alone for now and focus on what has happened in Marte’s career.
The attribute his value has been tied to for most of his career, like Dee Gordon, is speed. But for Marte, age-induced deterioration of that attribute may be underway as he heads into his 29-year-old season with the Pirates.
It wasn’t too long ago we were concerned about the viability of McCutchen’s long term impact, yet speed has a much greater weight on the impact of Marte as a player than McCutchen. I remain perplexed as to how Marte intends to turn around this decline in sprint speed as he starts to fall away from elite towards the 27.0 feet-per-second average the standard MLB player possesses.
Marte can still produce with his bat, but after seeing this decrease in peak sprint speed, I wonder if he becomes less reliant on his wheels to buoy his BABIP and the resulting average he’ll post. The Pirates’ outfielder might need to adjust.
To counteract this potential speed regression, Marte might want to adjust back to his approach from 2015 where he popped 19 home runs.
What we do know from that year was presides in his tendency to pull the ball above his career-average, which resulted in the majority of his home runs landing somewhere near the corner in a park’s left field seats. He was also more aggressive than he had ever been in his career in 2015, but since, Marte has reverted to a contact-based approach, raising his zone-contact rate by two percent and overall contact rate by three percent.
With all this said, the form and substance of Marte’s swing has been largely the same since the early days of his career. Each of the four videos embedded within the GIF below are base hits to left field for Marte. Instead of focusing on the moments just before contact – where most hitters look identical – focus on his pre-pitch rhythm and timing. Marte has a unique pulse when it comes to the timing mechanism in his hands as his bat. The speed at which he executes this
Marte has a unique pulse when it comes to the timing mechanism in his hands as his bat moves towards the first base line twice prior to his load. The speed at which he executes this varies slightly based on the pitch, but his front foot’s inward turn and hip rotation remain unaltered from this selection of swing in our four-year sample.
My worry is that pushing Marte towards the 2015 version of himself, with pull-happy tendencies and a little bit more aggression, may not lead to the power result we want. With his speed possibly deteriorating, the balls he rolls over on with his sights set on the bleachers will turn into hits less often. We might want Marte to trade some of his contact for power, but if my inclination that such a trade, at present, is not one-for-one will result in a net-negative effect.
This contact approach of Marte’s may be the new normal, and I remain worried about what the ceiling of productivity can be if he doesn’t find a second wind in the speed department. Marte can still be an asset to the Pirates, and isn’t a financial burden, but it might be too late to expect 2015’s power-speed combo that had the chance to nudge Marte towards the elite bracket of outfielders in baseball.
Bill Brink of Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that Marte is making up his lost at-bats in the Dominican Winter League for Leones del Escogido. The results, so far, in a small sample have not been great:
.197/.244/.316 in 76 at-bats, with a 21:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Marte’s evolution as a hitter will become clearer as our post-PED sample size increases. The Pirates’ outfield, once considered the best in baseball with McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco, now finds itself in a pickle, especially if Cutch is traded, Marte’s speed continues to trend south, and Polanco can’t stay healthy.
Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, by Keith Allison, seen here.
Statistics via Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and BrooksBaseball unless otherwise noted.