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Pirates' Marte adjusts free-swinging ways

| Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte is batting leadoff during spring training. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks watches Starling Marte bat during spring training. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
The Pirates' Starling Marte struck out in 28 percent of his at-bats as a rookie. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte is working on plate discipline this spring. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte is batting leadoff during spring training. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Manny Sanguillen smiles when he watches Starling Marte at the plate because he sees a lot of himself in Marte.

When he played for the Pirates in the 1960s and '70s, Sanguillen would swing at any pitch over the plate ... plus plenty that were well outside the strike zone.

“I'd tell the manager, ‘Just let me go,' ” Sanguillen said. “Especially with men on base, I was dangerous. Two outs, I was dangerous. It was fun.”

Being a free swinger didn't stop Sanguillen from putting up a .296 career batting average. He was a .297 hitter with two outs and runners in scoring position.

“If you have great balance and you're a free swinger, you'll hit the ball,” Sanguillen said. “Look at Pete Rose. He could hit balls that weren't strikes. (Roberto) Clemente was great at that. The key is, you have to extend your arms.”

Marte isn't afraid to take a hack when the ball's outside the zone. In the Pirates' intrasquad scrimmage Friday, Marte reached out to rip a two-run homer over the left field bleachers.

“He looks great,” Sanguillen said. “We Latinos are free swingers, and we hit the ball.”

Still, management would prefer if Marte had a bit more discipline at the plate. Without it, Marte might never evolve into a top-notch leadoff batter.

“There are guys who've been successful as bad-ball hitters, but the odds are against it,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “We don't want to take away his aggressiveness. We want to improve his selectivity.”

Marte already is blessed with great bat speed and strength; the ball jumps off his bat. But many major league pitchers start him off with breaking balls out of the zone and are rewarded with outs when Marte pounces.

Marte swung at the first pitch he saw in the big leagues and homered into the Crawford Boxes at Houston's Minute Maid Park. Most of his at-bats weren't as dramatic, though. In 47 games, Marte hit .257 with a .300 on-base percentage and struck out in 28 percent of his at-bats.

“He's one of those guys who (in the minors) has been able to put a lot of balls in play and thinks he can get to a lot of things,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's got to understand that up here, the level of pitching is improved.”

Hurdle said he believes Marte can become a solid leadoff guy, and he plans to use him there this season.

Improving his plate discipline was Marte's goal in winter ball this past offseason. He batted .301 with a .381 OBP during the Dominican Winter League season, then hit .422 with a .481 OBP in the playoffs.

“I was able to dominate the strike zone down there,” Marte said through an interpreter. “I'd played there before, so I knew a lot of the pitchers.”

Although the Dominican League features mostly fastball pitchers, Marte saw plenty of breaking balls.

“There were a lot of situations when he showed much improved discipline,” Hurdle said. “They'd try to get that first strike down and away. Then they'd try to get him a little further off the plate and chase. He was able to hold his posture, hold his swing, not fire.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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