A year ago, Ketel Marte was putting the finishing touches on what was truly an incredible season. In fact, in September of 2019, Marte had his best month of the season as he had a 201 wRC+ in the month. He had finally put it all together and had the breakout season that he always had in him. His game truly went to the next level as he accumulated 7.1 fWAR and easily smashing his previous career-high mark. Fueled by great defense and massive offensive improvements including pulling the ball more and getting better as a left-handed hitter, Marte was looking like a true star.
While Marte’s 32 home runs still looked a little eye-popping, there was little doubt coming into the season that Marte would continue to produce like the star-level player that he was a season ago. 2019 probably was the best-case scenario and the career season for Marte, but there was still a lot to like about him as a player. Some regression from his smashing 2019 season was definitely baked into the preseason projections, but when looking at Marte’s performance in the shortened 2020 season, it is doubtful that even his biggest detractors would have predicted this type of offensive performance from him.
To be fair, Marte is not having a bad season and is still productive overall. He currently has a 101 wRC+ and an overall triple slash of .299/.333/.420. He is still definitely a plus in the batting average department, but the real concern is over where his power has gone. Remember, Marte had a .592 slugging percentage and a .243 isolated power mark a season ago. These are significant drop-offs, as those numbers would be the lowest single-season marks for Marte since 2017, a season in which he was not yet an everyday player and split time between the majors and AAA. It still is significant even when compared to the rest of the league as he has one of the largest decreases in both slugging and isolated power among all qualified hitters:
|Name||SLG 2020||SLG 2019||SLG Diff.|
|Name||ISO 2020||ISO 2019||ISO Diff.|
What exactly is going wrong for Marte this season? It is still a short season, and it will be difficult a lot of players after the season considering the small sample sizes we’re dealing with, but there is no doubt that Marte looks like a different hitter so far this season. Looking at his Statcast profile, the immediate red flag is that his barrel rate has completely dropped, again to his 2017 levels, which is a scary sign to see. It definitely is significant but is that on its own enough to explain Marte’s struggles this season? It is certainly playing a role, but there needs to be a reason behind his lowered barrel rate. After all, his hard-hit rate of 39.7% is nearly identical to where it was last season at 40%, and ditto for his overall average exit velocity mark. He’s even getting a bit more lift on his batted balls and his whole batted-ball distribution looks just as good, if not better than a season ago, with him hitting a lot more line drives this season and continuing his trend from a season ago and keeping enough balls off the ground. As an additional oddity, Marte is among the league leaders in maximum exit velocity this year. His 115.9 max exit velocity is good enough for a tie with Vlad Guerrero Jr. for the number four spot among qualified hitters. A lot of things still look good for Marte this year, but it has yet to translate into good results. Why then would this be happening? When evaluating Marte this season, there are a number of things happening in his profile that help explain some of his struggles, perhaps even more so than his lower barrel rate. Let’s dive into them.
Pull Through It
My first and main hunch as to why Marte was struggling this season relative to last year was that perhaps he was being pitched to a little differently this season. After all, he was tearing up the league last season and pitchers did not want to continue that trend into this season, so it was probably a good idea for pitchers to try and adjust the way they pitch to him and change things up to try and limit the damage done. It was mentioned in the introduction that one of the reasons why Marte broke out last season was because he started to pull the ball more. He did not all of a sudden turn into Miguel Sano and start pulling half of his batted balls, but he did set a new career-high in pull rate at 40.2% in 2019, a rate that is above the league average. More specifically and perhaps more importantly, he pulled his fly balls more. Of his 32 home runs in 2019, 25, or 78% of them, went to the pull side. This was one of the highest rates in all of baseball, as Marte ranked inside the top-20 of all qualified hitters in this regard last season. There is not anything overly wrong with this approach but it is significant to know. Hitters that are able to pull more of their home runs do not necessarily need to hit the ball all that well or far, as usually pulled home runs have less distance to travel to clear the fence than a home run hit to the center portion of the field. This was part of the overall package for Marte last season, and a big reason for why his home run total spiked. Well, what happens then when a hitter that relied on this approach in the past is no longer able to do it as much because of the way he is now being pitched?
In Marte’s case, his pull rate this season is down to just 33.8%, and in a now recurring theme, the lowest for him since the 2017 season. It appears that the primary reason for this is that Marte is indeed being pitched to a bit differently this season. It looks like it is definitely more so the case when Marte is batting right-handed as opposed to left but it still does show when he is hitting as a lefty. See for yourself, here are two heat maps showing the pitches Marte has seen as a left-handed hitter in 2019 compared to 2020:
Again, it is not a super dramatic change, especially compared to when he is batting righty, which will be shown next, but overall it does look like Marte is seeing a lot more pitches on the outer half and in the upper portion of the strike zone compared to 2019. These are not pitches that a hitter would generally want to pull, as it is difficult to make strong contact on them and it is difficult to consistently pull outside pitches for power. Marte, being a smart hitter with tremendous contact ability, knows not to try and pull those pitches. He is able to take what is given to him and still put the ball in play and have plenty of balls fall in for hits. This difference though is not doing Marte many favors in the power department and overall, his left-handed pull rate is down from where it was a season ago:
|Year||LH BBE||LH Pull BBE||LH Pull %|
It is also a similar, yet more extreme case for Marte when he is batting as a right-handed hitter. Here are the same two heat maps as from above, but this time looking at when Marte is standing on the right side of the plate:
There is no doubting the differences here. So far this season, pitchers have been pretty much hammering Marte almost exclusively on the outside portion of the zone, making it extremely difficult for Marte to pull the ball, thus further contributing to his lower pull rate:
|Year||RH BBE||RH Pull BBE||RH Pull%|
The real unfortunate part about it is that, similar to last season, when Marte is actually getting a pitch to pull as a right-handed hitter, he is doing a substantial amount of damage on them. Marte is among the best right-handed hitters in the game when he pulls the ball, both in terms of wOBA and slugging. Marte has a tOPS+ of 384 this season when he pulls the ball as a righty, meaning that he is nearly four times better than his overall performance when he is going to the pull side as a righty. The problem though is that Marte has just 15 of these batted balls this season, which ranks 116th out of 140 qualified right-handed hitters. This matches up with the lowered pull rate as seen in the table above, but Marte is still performing well in this one aspect, but he is just not being pitched to in a way that would allow him to take maximum advantage of his strength. Again, Marte has such excellent contact ability that he’ll still be able to have hits fall in, but they just maybe won’t be the high-quality hits that we were accustomed to seeing from him in 2019.
Left and Right
However, we are only talking about just one aspect, a small one at that, of the pitches Marte sees. While him pulling the ball more was a big part of his breakout last season, the improvements that he made as a left-handed hitter from 2018 to 2019 were an even bigger part of the equation:
This, of course, corresponds with the increase in pull rate as a lefty that was mentioned in the previous section. This season though, the story has changed and Marte has reverted back to his pre-2019 form so far. Here is the same table as the one above, with the only difference being that 2020 is now included:
From this, we see that Marte’s performance as a left-handed hitter is nearly identical to his 2018 one, with essentially the same wOBA and wRC+ marks as his pre-breakout self and it is quite the drop off from where he was a season ago. Obviously, this is also a pretty significant difference considering Marte sees over twice as many pitches when he is batting left-handed as opposed to right-handed.
For some additional context, here is how Marte ranks as a left-handed hitter in terms of overall wOBA and wOBA-on-contact relative to the rest of the league’s lefties, and then the same for him as a righty:
|wOBA (LHH)||wOBAcon (LHH)|
|Rank (out of 102)||86||91|
|wOBA (RHH)||wOBAcon (RHH)|
|Rank (out of 136)||2||23|
It is definitely a dramatic difference. While this does explain quite a bit of the reason why Marte’s numbers are down on the whole this season, it still doesn’t quite explain the whole story.
While we likely know now that Marte’s struggles this season can be at least partially attributed to his large performance drop as a left-handed hitter, there is still the reason as to why this is the case. This then brings us to the overall batted-ball metrics for Marte this season.
We saw back in the introduction that Marte has held steady or improved upon most of his batted-ball metrics, including overall hard-hit rate, average launch angle, and the distribution of his batted balls. Well, those things aren’t as important if a hitter is not hitting the ball well, and this season, Marte is not quite getting the most out of his fly balls and line drives. This is likely due in part to his lower pull rate, but even when evaluating them on their own, they’re not looking too good.
Starting first with his fly balls. The short of it is that Marte’s fly-ball metrics are down from where they were a season ago, and are, frankly, quite bad. Here is a table showing just how much they’ve fallen off compared to last season:
|Year||Exit Velocity||AVG Distance (ft.)||SLG||wOBA|
The drop off is incredibly obvious when looking at it this way, and no, that .120 slugging percentage and .100 wOBA on fly balls are not typos. Marte is actually towards the bottom of the league in each category in 2020. The total is just three hits on fly balls for Marte, and of those, all three were weakly hit and just fell in between an infielder and an outfielder (his two home runs are classified as line drives). That’s not to say that Marte was particularly strong in this department in 2019 either, but he was at least closer to the pack, and in part, because he was able to pull a lot more of his fly balls, he was still able to get good results despite not hitting the ball all that hard.
His line-drive metrics are better but are still down slightly from where they were a season ago, and he does not stand out relative to the rest of the league but is instead right around the middle of the pack in this area:
His performance on line drives is infinitely better than his results on fly balls without a doubt, but they are still down slightly, relative to last season.
Additionally, when looking at Marte’s hard-hit rate broken out by batted-ball type, there are some red flags that start to pop up. Consider the following table, which is a comparison between Marte’s hard-hit rate by batted-ball type from 2019 to 2020:
|Year||Hard-Hit Balls||HH GB||HH GB%||HH LD||HH LD %||HH FB||HH FB %||HH LA|
When broken out by batted-ball type, we see some mixed results. Marte is hitting a lot more hard line drives, which is excellent, but those haven’t come with fewer hard-hit grounders, but instead a lot fewer hard-hit fly balls. That then is part of the reason why his hard-hit launch angle is down from a season ago. It’s important to know that because while Marte’s average launch angle is up from last season to 12 degrees when he is hitting hard-hit balls, his launch angle is substantially less than his average one:
|Group||HH LA||AVG LA||Difference|
From this, we see that the league as a whole generally does not stray too far from the average launch angle when they hit the ball hard. In fact, the league average hard-hit launch angle is slightly higher than the average one. In the case of Marte though, he loses four and a half degrees of launch angle on average when he hits a ball in play hard. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but the a ball hit at around 12 degrees has a nearly 300 point jump in wOBA than one hit at around seven degrees, which is a legitimate and serious difference. Marte’s four-and-a-half-degree difference is the 21st-largest among all 214 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this season, which is noteworthy. Keep in mind that last season, Marte’s average launch angle was 11.5 degrees and his hard-hit launch angle was 9.3 degrees, so while it was still lower than his average, the difference last season was about half of what it is this season, and with a far-less dramatic difference in average wOBA at those two points.
Speaking generally again about Marte’s hard-hit balls and now knowing that he is hitting more of his hard-hit balls on the ground and less in the air, it then perhaps explains a bit more about why Marte’s hard-hit balls are underperforming compared to the rest of the league:
|Marte Rank (out of 214)||193||200||181||200|
So, while Marte’s overall hard-hit rate is pretty much equal to last season, some additional context shows that Marte is not getting similar results on them as he did last season, and when compared to the rest of the league, he is towards the bottom of the overall leaderboards, and at least some of it is due to him hitting more hard-hit balls on the ground and a lot less of them in the air.
The Heart of the Matter
The final area of Marte’s game this season that explains the lack of power this season can be attributed to how he is performing on pitches in certain zones of the plate. More specifically, how he is performing on pitches in the “heart” of the strike zone, as defined by Baseball Savant. Essentially the heart of the strike zone just means pitches in the centermost part of the zone. These are, theoretically, pitches that hitters should do a lot of damage with. See the top-10 hitters by wOBA on contact and then their overall wOBA on pitches in this part of the zone:
|Player||wOBAcon Heart||wOBA Heart||SLG Heart|
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||0.719||0.509||0.902|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||0.668||0.545||0.986|
It is likely not a coincidence then that these names are some of this season’s best hitters. Now, with that in mind, here is how Marte is performing on pitches in these locations:
|wOBAcon Heart||wOBA Heart||SLG Heart|
|Rank (out of 214)||179||167||175|
With some additional context, we see now just how much Marte is lagging behind in this department. And yet again, Marte is towards the bottom of this leaderboard, which is definitely not a good sign. Now, for some even more context, let’s compare Marte’s numbers this season to how he did on pitches in the heart of the zone last season:
|Season||wOBAcon Heart||wOBA Heart||SLG Heart|
Once again, we now see how much Marte is trailing his 2019 results this season. Additionally, we run into the same problems as we did previously. First, when Marte hits a ball in play in the heart of the plate, the majority of them are ground balls:
|Batted-Ball Type||Heart BIP||% Heart BIP||EV||SLG||wOBA|
Marte has put 58 balls in play that were in the heart of the strike zone (he has also hit four pop-ups, thus why these numbers do not add up to 58), and over half of them have been ground balls. We see that when Marte hits a line drive in this area of the plate, he generally hits them well, and that he is not hitting many fly balls and that when he does, they aren’t doing much, which is essentially what he is doing when he hits all fly balls, regardless of where they are pitched. Then, just as was the case with all of his hard-hit balls, the majority of his hard-hit balls in the heart of the zone have been hit on the ground, as Marte has hit 27 balls hard in the heart of the plate, and 14 of them, or 51% hard-hit balls have been grounders.
It’s never the most optimal thing to have a good amount of hard-hit balls end up on the ground, but especially not on pitches in the middle portion of the plate where it is expected for hitters to do the most damage. It is also difficult to hit for a lot of extra bases when these balls are going on the ground, so once again, this looks like another explanation for Marte’s decreased power output this season. The point can be made that, in a way, Marte’s performance on pitches in the heart of the zone this season has been a microcosm of his overall performance on batted-balls.
So, this was a lot. It was a whole lot of numbers and of charts, and I didn’t even get into his plate discipline, where he is swinging a lot less, but it is not translating into more walks. That can be looked at later as the focus of this was mostly about where Marte’s power has gone this season and I think this pretty much covers it. What does this ultimately do for the future outlook of Marte? There is still a lot to like about Marte, with his excellent ability to make a ton of contact, not strike out very much, and his still good looking batted-ball distribution. He has shown what the best version of himself as a baseball player can look like and that version was one of the most valuable players in all of baseball.
It is not so outlandish to believe that he can get back to that level, especially since it is still so recent, but the differences so far this season have been staggering. He has essentially given back the gains he has made as a left-handed hitter from last season into this one, and part of that is due to how pitchers are pitching him, as he is not getting as many pitches that he can pull as he did last season. Even as a right-handed hitter, Marte is being pitched to differently as he is also not getting as many pitches to pull, but he is still performing well as a righty, just not with as much power, and is ultimately dragged down by just how little time he gets to act as a right-handed hitter in games. Additionally, Marte’s fly balls are not having anywhere close to the same impact as they were a season ago and while his hard-hit rate is nearly identical to last season, he is hitting more of those on the ground, which does not bode well for power numbers. Finally, Marte is not having as much success on pitches that hitters should be causing chaos on, especially compared to last season and the league overall.
Some of this may be approach based, as Marte has said that he would prefer to win a batting title than a home run title, and while it is still true that he is contributing positively in the way of batting average, there is no doubt that the rest of his game is trailing behind. There is definitely no reason why there can’t be a little bit of both, as last season he only trailed Christian Yelich by fractions of a percentage point for the National League batting title, all while hitting 32 home runs. While he may never be expected to hit as many doses of home runs as he did last season in future seasons, he wasn’t expected to fall off to this drastic level that he has this season. He can get back to expectations, but it will depend on whether he can improve again as a left-handed hitter and better maximize the batted balls that are supposed to do the heavy lifting for the majority of hitters.