In a post-Moneyball era, the strategy of signing risky free agents at the top of the market can sometimes be dismissed in favor of the “safer strategy” of developing your own talent internally. But you don’t have to look any further than Starling Marte’s 2022 season for an example of what adding elite free agents can still do for a team. The Mets’ signing of Marte last offseason carried some risk, but of the available outfielders at the time, he was the one most likely to provide elite production for the Mets in 2022. And he did just that.
Marte was worth every penny in his first season in Queens, slashing .292/.347/.468 with 16 homers in 118 games, which is almost identical with his career .290/.346/.453 batting line. Marte had his prototypical season, while actually finishing with a career-high 136 wRC+, and in doing so was a consistent force out the two-hole all season long. When he broke his finger in early September and missed the rest of the regular season as a result, the offense was noticeably worse off without him. Marte finished the regular season on the IL, but his was a key cog throughout the first five months of the season for the Mets.
Marte returned for the Wild Card series before his broken finger was fully healed, but he still managed to collect two hits in Game 1. He didn’t wind up making a difference in the series, but Mets fans surely appreciated his effort to go out there and fight through the pain in the playoffs.
As excellent as his season was, it was not without a few red flags. Most notably, his health was an issue all year long, as the 33-year-old battled injuries to his oblique, quad, groin, and core which slowed him down and caused him to miss brief time at various points throughout the season his finger finally did him in. Marte hasn’t played in 130 games since 2019.
Hampered by those maladies and protecting his lower half much of the season, Marte was rarely able to use his speed as a weapon this year. He only stole 18 bases, the fewest full-season total of his career, and registered a Statcast sprint speed in just the 68th percentile, which is also the lowest of his career. He also had an infield hit rate of just 9.7%, the second-lowest of his career and way off his career average of 13.9%.
On top of that, Marte’s exit velocities in 2022 also dipped to career lows, with an average exit velo in just the 12th percentile according to Baseball Savant. So Marte hit the ball weaker than he ever has, and beat out ground balls at an lower rate than he usually does, but he somehow still had the best offensive season of his career while riding a BABIP of .344, right in line with his career mark of .340.
Traditional analysis would tell you that Marte just got extremely lucky on balls in play this year and is due for serious regression, which used to be the only way to explain an offensive profile such as this one. However, Marte has never been a champion of hard contact. His high-water mark for exit velo was in 2018, when he ranked in the 41st percentile, but every other season in his career has been in the 35th percentile or below. Despite that, Marte still maintains decent power outputs every year and has been one of the best hitters for average in the game over the last decade, almost always outperforming his xBA on the strength of strong BABIPs.
So how does he do it? While his speed certainly plays a part, it can’t be the only carrying tool for a hitter as good as he is. Instead, Marte’s offense might not come from how hard he hits the ball, but where he hits it. We tend to associate the “hitting it where they ain’t” strategy more to slap-hitters like Luis Guillorme and Jeff McNeil than hitters like Marte, but bat control is a skill for all hitters. We are only just learning about the true importance of horizontal spray angle and how to measure it publicly, but the easiest way to explain the concept is that shooting the ball through holes in the defense is actually a repeatable skill, contrary to more primitive sabermetric belief, and there are players who possess that skill more than others.
There aren’t many ways to measure it publicly yet, but Marte has been doing this long enough with no hint of batted ball regression that there’s a strong chance he possesses that skill as well. Watching Marte this year would lead one to agree, as he seemed to get his hits by spraying the ball through holes and dropping it in places where he could find grass, while still identifying the pitches he could drive and launching them to the pull side for his annual 15-20 homers per year.
This advanced approach to could lend Marte the ability to age more gracefully into his mid-30s than other speed-centric players have, as long as he can stay healthy. That would would be huge for the Mets, who have three more years committed to him, and will once again rely on the outfielder to be an anchor of the lineup next year in his age-34 season.