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Leading off for the Pirates, outfielder Marte has been the best

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 11:33 p.m.
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The Pirates' Starling Marte bats during the fourth inning against the Phillies on Tuesday, April 23, 2013, in Philadelphia.

MILWAUKEE — Through the first month of the season, Starling Marte has been known best for what he has done early in games.

The Pirates' leadoff batter is hitting an MLB-best .608 in the first inning. But it was in the eighth inning Tuesday at Miller Park when Marte had perhaps his most impressive at-bat of the season.

Marte has the bat speed to turn on even the best fastballs. But as a rookie last season, Marte struggled at times to recognize and contact off-speed pitches. On Tuesday, Brewers reliever John Axford tried to put away Marte with an 0-2 slider. Marte lined the pitch, which was elevated and on the outside part of the of the plate, into center for a single.

It was one sequence in one at-bat over the course of a long season, but it is evidence of the maturation of a hitter.

“I think he's actually at the point now where he can feel fastball in his mind but also be cognizant of a breaking ball,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “That really wasn't in play for him last year. It was one or the other.”

Through April, Marte ranks 23rd in baseball in effectiveness against curveballs, according to Baseball Info Solutions. He trails Bryce Harper and Lance Berkman on the list.

“I prepare for everything. I know (Axford) throws a fastball. If he throws me a breaking ball, I'm ready for that, too,” Marte said. “It depends on the count. If they are up in the count, I'm looking for everything. Any other count, I'm looking fastball.”

Perhaps the growth of Marte's ability to handle off-speed pitches is best seen in his command of the strike zone.

Last season Marte swung at pitches out of the strike zone at a 34.8 percent rate. This season his out-of-zone swing rate has fallen to 29.7 percent, according to Baseball Info Solutions. When Marte swings at pitches in the zone, he makes contact 90 percent of the time, an above-average rate.

“The biggest thing is he's not chasing,” Hurdle said. “He doesn't miss in the zone. If you're going to punch him out, it's outside the zone. He's been in a very good place. He's holding his backside. And what I mean by that is, as a hitter you'll see hitters chase, their back foot actually leaves the ground when they swing. He's standing tall, holding his backside, which makes him see everything.

“You don't expect him to hit .600 all of the time, but to carry it for a month is pretty interesting. The numbers are eye-opening.”

Hurdle doesn't believe Marte will ever walk much, which is less than ideal for a leadoff batter. But if Marte continues to cut his strikeout rate — 27.5 percent last season, 21.8 percent this season — he still can be a dynamic, if unconventional, presence atop a batting order thanks to his blend of improved contact ability, speed and power.

“He's not going to be your Rickey Henderson, cookie-cutter leadoff hitter,” Hurdle said. “But he has a chance to be a very dynamic leadoff hitter with the skill set he has.”

Hurdle believes Marte, 24, will continue to refine his other tools.

“He's going to improve in a lot of different areas right before your eyes just because of the reps,” Hurdle said. “Whether it be breaks, leads — you see now a lot of hesitation goes and stops (when stealing) — it's going to come with experience.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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