Pirates' Starling Marte Makes Strides In Triple-A Debut
INDIANAPOLIS—Alternating between halting English and the flowing cadence of his mother tongue, Starling Marte
talked about his first three months with the Indianapolis Indians.
Results have been mixed.
"When I first came (from the Dominican Republic), I spoke no English," said Marte, turning to Indians' Spanish-speaking broadcaster Will Flemming, for occasional help with the right words. "When I went to restaurants and I heard somebody ordering food, I would order the same thing, not knowing what it was. Sometimes I got something I didn't like.
"I'm working on my English, but it's hard for me. Very hard."
On the other hand, he's made strides while playing center field at the Triple-A level and hitting in the three-hole, where he had a .286/.349/.490 average with 10 home runs, 55 RBIs and 18 stolen bases.
And he keeps getting better.
"He's a kid who's eager to learn," said Howard Kellman, the veteran half of the Indianapolis broadcast team who called his first game in 1974. "He can run, hit for average, hit for power, field and throw. Man, he has a high ceiling."
Born in Santo Domingo, Starling is the oldest of Ramon and Salutriana Marte's three children. "Growing up there was great," he said. "It's a beautiful city."
It's also a hotbed for baseball. "A lot of people there don't have much," Marte said. "Baseball is really what guides them through. They watch the big leagues primarily, and it brings them a lot of joy."
Marte's father played third base for local amateur teams, and Starling started out as a shortstop. He began turning heads while playing for youth teams. "By the time I was 8 years old, I heard from people that I was a special player," he said.
Impressive From The Start
Major league scouts began showing interest when Marte shifted to the outfield as an 18-year-old. "I had offers from several teams," he said. "But they had poor relations with my buscon (literally, "he who seeks," someone who connects players with big league clubs)."
His buscon, Ramon Genao, had a good working relationship with Pittsburgh, and Marte signed with the Pirates in January 2007 for a reported $85,000. That year he played for the Bucs' Rookie-level Dominican Summer League team, batting .220 with one home run in 45 contests. "I was young and inexperienced," said Marte. "I never saw that kind of pitching before."
Back in the DSL for 2008, he adjusted his batting stance. "My manager, Esteban Beltre, changed how I placed my hands and my feet to help me be a little more steady," Marte said. The result was a .296 average with nine homers in 65 games.
He developed into one of Pittsburgh's top prospects in 2009 at low Class A West Virginia, batting .312/.377/.439 with 24 stolen bases.
"I prepared by working hard in winter ball," he said. "When I got to West Virginia, it was the same thing. I kept working hard."
Playing for high Class A Bradenton in 2010, Marte was diagnosed with a broken hamate bone in his left hand and underwent surgery in May. He continued to work hard during convalescence. "My overall performance improved after the operation," he said. "All the extra work made me better."
He finished the year with a .315/.386/.432 average, earning a promotion to Altoona (Eastern) for 2011. With Aguilas Cibaenas that winter the Dominican League, Marte sought out major league players, asking about the jump to Double-A.
"I got some very good advice," he said.
The conversations paid dividends. Marte topped the EL with a .332 average, including a 54-for-142 (.380) rampage over his last 33 games. He was named the top position player in the Pirates chain, and there were rumblings that one day he might force Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh's all-star center fielder, to a corner post.
But not quite yet.
Work To Do
Heading into 2012, Marte had just 73 career walks versus 303 strikeouts. Indianapolis hitting coach Jeff Branson has been tutoring him on pitch selection and technique. "I'm working on keeping my left front hip closed when my foot hits the ground," Starling said.
"It's something they work at every day," Indians manager Dean Treanor said. "When he keeps that (hip) in there, and stays behind the ball, the ball comes off the bat. He's getting more of a feel for pitchers at this level. There are still too many swings and misses, but he has a better plan at the plate. He's still a work in progress."
Marte also needs to take more advantage of his quickness on the basepaths. "His speed makes up for so much," Treanor said. "If he doesn't get a good jump in the outfield, he just outruns the ball.
"So we're trying to get that into play on the bases. He's still a little timid with his leads at first base, and he's a little timid about stealing third. We're trying to get him to be more aggressive out there."
In another organization, Marte might already be playing in the big leagues. "I don't think about it," he said. "I can't make that decision, so I just focus on the things I can handle."
Treanor believes Marte will benefit from his time in Triple-A. "They're doing the right thing by him," he said. "He's a thoroughbred. And I don't use that word very often. This guy has a chance to be very special."
Pete Cava is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis