If you missed it, you should read Joshua Choudhury's excellent article about Starling Marte's aggressive hitting approach. Joshua shows that contrary to some conventional wisdom, Marte is not a good ‘bad ball' hitter. As Joshua writes, "Marte is indeed capable of making contact with pitches out of the strike zone — it's just that the contact he makes tends to be overwhelmingly of the 'soft grounder' variety."
Joshua concludes that, while Marte is an excellent, five-tool player, his ceiling is even higher than what he has shown. If he were to become more selective at the plate, Marte could evolve into one of baseball's elite offensive players. To quote again: "But if he wants to elevate his game to an MVP-candidate level, it might be worthwhile to take a second look at whether swinging at everything is really worth it."
After reading Joshua's piece, I was curious if the Pirates coaching staff felt the same way. Specifically, I wondered if they were actively trying to tweak Marte's approach to make him more selective. If they were, how do they go about teaching selectivity and patience without disrupting the fundamental aspects of his approach that got him to the majors and made him a solid offensive performer?
Hurdle and Branson discuss coaching Marte's offensive game
Both Clint Hurdle and Jeff Branson said that they never try to fundamentally change an aggressive hitter's aggressive mentality.
"I don't think you're ever going to talk to a guy about not swinging or you got to swing at strikes," Hurdle said. "[Instead] You talk about plate discipline and about the balls you hit well."
Branson noted that, to some extent, a hitter's approach is his approach and the last thing he wants to do is try to turn a major-league hitter into something he is not.
"As far as taking aggressiveness away from any player, that isn't something we talk about," Branson said. "Marte is a guy that is going to go up there and swing. I compare him to Josh Harrison. They're not guys that are going to go up there and see six, seven pitches in an at-bat. They are aggressive hitters and, like I say, we don't take that away from any of our hitters."
According to Branson, the key to working with hitters of Marte's profile is to not confront overaggressiveness head-on, as that may lead to unnatural passivity that defuses his explosiveness. Instead, the Pirates work on simplifying a hitter's understanding of the strike zone and funneling his aggressive instincts into a smaller region. The idea is to preserve the attacking mentality, while narrowing the field of vision.
"We talk about narrowing our sights," Branson said. "Splitting the plate in half and narrowing our sights and staying up and over the plate. Rather than trying to cover the whole 17 inches, we try to cover eight inches instead of 17 inches, and that simplifies the game plan."
The mantra they repeat to Marte to reinforce a more simplified and selectively aggressive approach is, "One pitch, one spot."
"If the first pitch is where you want it, be ready to hit and get after it," Branson said. "If the fifth pitch is where you want it and you don't get one where you want it [before], hit the fifth pitch. But again, it's more or less about trying to narrow your sights to simplify your plan and simplify your approach."
Hurdle emphasized that the most effective way to get a hitter to make desirable adjustments is by helping him arrive at his own conclusions. It is essential that a batter feel comfortable at the plate, and in order to be comfortable, he must approach each at-bat with a mindset that feels natural. Just telling a player what to do is far less effective in this regard. A better way to get the desired results is to show him where his weaknesses are and then let him internalize the information and organically come up with own physical and mental adjustments.
"You show him the hot areas and the balls that he's striking what his averages are," Hurdle said. "You show him maybe the chase areas that are being problematic. Then they can usually get a better grasp of it from there. ...Overall, you take it systematically. You just show him when he's going best what he's doing to get those results that he's getting."
According to Hurdle, the approach the coaches are using with Marte is working. He is slowly internalizing some of the adjustments the coaches are emphasizing and rounding into a hitter that may eventually reach the ceiling that Joshua forecasts as realistic.
"I think we have a very good feel [for] the type of hitter that Starling is right now," Hurdle said. "He's gotten better as an overall hitter since he's gotten to the big leagues. He has a better understanding of his strengths and what he needs to look for at the plate. He's still developing. I think there is going to be some strength in there that he'll find. It's been fun to watch his development."