Pirates' Marte getting noticed for defensive prowess
Rick Sofield had a secret to tell.
Sofield, who coaches the Pirates' outfielders, lowered his voice and leaned in close. He glanced left and then right, scanning the visitor's clubhouse at Great American Ball Park to make sure Starling Marte was out of earshot.
“Let's be honest,” Sofield whispered. “Marte has a chance to become the best defender in the league.”
Sorry, Rick. That secret's already out.
Marte had sent the message the night before, when he threw out Brandon Phillips at home plate in the ninth inning to preserve a 5-4 victory against the Cincinnati Reds.
Phillips was on second base when Todd Frazier bounced a ground-ball single to left field. As he watched the ball skip on the infield grass, then the dirt, then again on the outfield grass, Sofield — who doubles as the Pirates' third base coach — did a quick mental calculation of Phillips' chances.
“When it's grass-dirt-grass, the runner normally will score,” Sofield said. “Those are do-or-die moments. Cincinnati's got a hard ballfield, so Marte has got to use the hard surface and give (catcher Francisco) Cervelli something he can handle.”
It wasn't even close. Marte fired a rocket, low and accurate, and the ball beat Phillips to the plate by several steps.
“I was surprised he was out by that much,” Sofield said. “That was a (heck) of a throw.”
Marte wasn't done. The Reds had runners on first and second with two outs when Marlon Byrd hit a blooper into shallow left. Marte took a straight line to the ball, accelerating to a blur over the final 60 feet to make a lunging, tumbling grab.
“He has a fourth gear that I haven't seen from anybody else,” Sofield said. “He gets things done when other guys can't.”
The acrobatic catch made all the highlight reels, but Marte was especially pleased with his throw to nab Phillips.
“I'm happy I got a chance to throw the guy out for the team,” Marte said. “I'm happy for me too, because (I'm in) competition for a Gold Glove.”
A Gold Glove finalist the past two seasons, this might be the year Marte finally claims the award. Working with Sofield, Marte is learning to tame his powerful arm and not make over aggressive throws.
“Sometimes before, I threw it everywhere,” Marte admitted, sheepishly.
The play on Phillips was Marte's 10th outfield assist, tops in the National League. His nine assists as a left fielder are the most by a Pirate in that position since Jason Bay had 13 in 2007.
Of course, looking only at assist totals is not the best way to evaluate a player's defensive skills. A more reliable metric is defensive runs saved, which gauges the number of runs above or below average a player is worth based on plays made.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, Marte this season has a defensive runs saved rating of plus-12. In 2007, Bay — who had a mediocre arm and limited range — produced a minus-11 rating.
“Marte is the one guy I take measure with,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Marte's aim has been true lately — to home, to second. He's playing as good a left field as anybody in the game right now.”
Marte's excellence seems to be rubbing off on his mates. The same night as Marte's ninth-inning heroics, right fielder Gregory Polanco made a fantastic running catch in the corner and doubled a runner off first base. A few days later, center fielder Andrew McCutchen and shortstop Jung Ho Kang teamed for a flawless relay play to nail Addison Russell of the Chicago Cubs at home.
That doesn't mean opponents are going to stop challenging Marte, Polanco and McCutchen.
“There are certain kinds of players who are just going to try to run on outfielders,” Hurdle said with a shrug. “It comes down to game situations and the personality of the runner. There's always going to be somebody who's going to see if he can get it done.”
Even so, no runner should be surprised to round third base and find the ball waiting for him at the plate.
“They probably know by now because we've made a lot of plays,” Marte said with a grin.