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Fastball recognition haunted Starling Marte in June

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The Pittsburgh Pirates’ most talented player was challenged in June; Results were not in his favor.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates CF Starling Marte is widely considered to be the club’s best overall player, yet he was anything but in June.

Many agree that the best overall player — or most talented, at the very least — on the Pittsburgh Pirates is Starling Marte.

The funny thing about “best” players is that they are expected to produce as such, and Marte certainly did not do that in June. With a wRC+ of 47 for the month, Marte was producing at the plate 53 percent less than an accepted “average” player.

That’s hard to fathom from the guy who put up a 152 rating in May. It’s hard to take from a hitter who improved his walk and strikeout rates month-to-month. It is inexplicably hard to understand a drop of this level from a player who looked reborn over the season’s first month and change after what amounted to a lost season in 2017.

Yet that is exactly the position that Marte finds himself in. The talented outfielder has always been something of an enigma but after digging in to find an answer to his struggles, a more sobering thought sprung to mind.

As we’re about to show you, Marte was challenged in June, and his response could be considered lukewarm at best.

Oblique to blame?

Before diving in, it’s important to note that the oblique injury that beset Marte earlier in the season is still a factor. Marte himself as reported the issue as something that will linger with him the rest of the season. While it may be hard for us to determine exactly how much of the conversation that fact should color, it is important to note nonetheless.

Also of note: the Pittsburgh Pirates clearly felt that Marte needed to “unplug,” to borrow a famous Hurdle-ism. He sat for a few games as of late, and may just be coming out of his funk on the heels of a two-hit game last night.

But, more likely, it was this...

That’s all well and good, but the bigger concern for Pittsburgh Pirates fans is that Marte saw more fastballs in June and did less with them:

Marte fastball data

Month FB % Whiff % wOBA xwOBA
Month FB % Whiff % wOBA xwOBA
Mar/April 54.1 14.8 .349 .326
May 56.6 17.1 .380 .298
June 62.7 37.5 .209 .381

Pitchers decided to challenge Marte with more fastballs in June. While there are some pretty wide splits here in terms of what was expected from Marte’s performance against the heat by way of a much higher expected weighted on base average versus what he actually posted, There is no arguing that Marte just flat out did not see fastballs as well. His whiff rate was more than double the rate he posted against fewer fastballs in May.

Is that good? My gut is telling me that’s not so good.

Pitchers are specifically challenging Marte to lay off the fastballs on the edges. Here’s a look at his overall pitch heatmap on fastballs in May and June:

If we isolate this down to just Marte’s swings and misses on fastballs in June, here’s what that looks like:

Seems like a pretty simple hole to close. And if he can force pitches back into the zone or closer to it when they do try to hit an edge, good things happen. Marte carries a .381 xwOBA on fastballs he swings at that are in the zone or on the edges, with a heatmap as shown:

Marte’s performance against fastballs — specifically his fastball recognition — in June simply does not tell the full story of why he struggled so mightily, but it is a great place to start the conversation.