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Starling Marte is exactly the hitter the A’s needed

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What does he do? He gets on base.

MLB: AUG 01 Athletics at Angels
Extra OBP on the Matt Sandwich
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In his first plate appearance for the Oakland A’s, Starling Marte drew a walk. A few minutes later, he came around to score.

That’s not the most exciting sequence of events in baseball, but it’s a productive one. It’s also one the A’s could use a lot more of in 2021, which is why Marte was exactly the hitter they needed to add at the July trade deadline.

Oakland’s biggest weakness on offense this year is that their lineup hasn’t gotten on base enough. It was true at the beginning of June, and it remained that way as the sun set on July. When Oakland acquired Marte last Wednesday, they held the following rankings among the 30 teams in the majors:

  • Homers: 12th in MLB
  • Average with RISP: 11th
  • Sac flies: 3rd
  • Strikeouts: 13th-best
  • OBP: 19th
  • Batting average: 23rd

They can hit for some power, and despite fan perception they are better than average at hitting with runners in scoring position. They’re Top 10 in getting the run home from third base with less than two out. They strike out less than average (good!), and they do so even less in the clutch (great!). But when nobody is on base? All the dingers are solo, and you don’t get enough opportunities with RISP to cash in consistently.

Here are some of the A’s other rankings, entering today (PA stands for plate appearances):

  • Solo homers: 3rd in MLB
  • PA with bases empty: 3rd
  • PA with RISP: 20th
  • At-bats with RISP: 22nd
  • PA with bases loaded: 21st

Much has been made of their disastrous .526 OPS with the bases loaded, which is second-worst in the majors, but even that wouldn’t be quite so much of an issue if they weren’t one of the worst teams at loading the bases in the first place. They’ve had 85 such plate appearances, while MLB average is 100 and the MLB leaders (Dodgers) are at 160, nearly double Oakland’s tally. Can’t knock ‘em in if they ain’t there, no matter what OPS you post in that situation.

Case in point, the A’s are good overall with runners in scoring position, but how much has it helped to be good at a thing you rarely get the opportunity to do? Despite clutch hitting, lots of sac flies, and more homers than the average team, they still rank just 17th in runs-per-game, slightly below league-average.

So given all of that context, how do you score more runs? You get on base more often, in front of all that power and clutchiness.

And how does Marte fit into that plan?

Here are the MLB leaders in on-base percentage, entering today (minimum 250 PA):

  1. Soto: .428
  2. Posey: .424
  3. Vlad Jr: .423
  4. Harper: .416
  5. Muncy: .413
  6. Marte: .406
  7. India: .401
  8. Acuña: .394
  9. Freeman: .393
  10. Gurriel: .388
  • A’s leaders: Canha (.384), Olson (.373), Kemp (.369), Lowrie (.330), Laureano (.314)

Granted, this is by far a career-high for Marte, amid a lifetime .345 mark, and it’s come in a slightly smaller sample than everybody else because he missed a month to a rib injury. But it’s not just a bunch of BABIP luck, as he’s within range of his career norm in that department. He’s always made a lot of contact and turned that contact into lots of hits, but this summer he’s barreling the ball more than ever and also walking twice as much as he ever has.

The A’s were already walking at an average rate, though some more free passes at the top of their lineup sure won’t hurt. More so, they desperately needed help with their .234 batting average, which ranked 22nd in the majors at the time of the trade, and Marte fits that bill whether you look at the .305 he sported when he arrived here or his .288 career mark.

  • Marte, pre-trade: .305/.405/.451, 140 wRC+, 7 HR, 11.6% BB, 20.7% Ks, .353 xwOBA

That’s the 11th-best average in the majors, and the 6th-best OBP, which are quite the additions to an offense that needed improvement in both areas. Nobody with a higher OBP got traded at the deadline, with the next-best being Adam Frazier (.377) and Joey Gallo (.374). The only higher batting averages that went were Trea Turner (.322) and Frazier (.315).

But Turner wasn’t a realistic target for Oakland, and Gallo is all power and walks with none of the balance the A’s needed. Frazier would have made sense, but Marte is better, whether you look at career track record or current-year OPS or wRC+ or xwOBA or anything else.

Frazier’s lefty bat could have helped a righty-heavy lineup, but Marte has consistently hit right-handed pitching better than lefties in his career and is still doing so this year. In terms of career, Marte hits righties better than Frazier does, and he also hits lefties almost exactly as well as Frazier hits righties — Marte’s weaker split is close to Frazier’s stronger split. All of that is more or less true if you just look at 2021 alone too, and also nobody on the A’s is hitting righties as well as Marte this year.

But Marte doesn’t just get on base. Once there he makes even more noise, as his 22 steals for the Marlins had him third place in the majors, and at a high success rate (only caught three times). Earlier this season, we got excited about Ramon Laureano running more often than usual, offering hope of a newly aggressive Oakland squad, but it didn’t last and now they rank only middle of the pack in swipes.

Add it all up, and Marte is a hitter who boosts the lineup’s biggest weaknesses, while fitting in with all the other things it already does well. He’s immediately the best on-base machine, and the biggest threat on the basepaths, all while keeping his strikeouts in line and still popping a few homers. He’s everything they needed, with no drawbacks.

He even helps the defense, where he plays such a good center field that Laureano (himself a 2020 Gold Glove finalist) voluntarily moved to right field to make room for him.

So how has the addition gone? Marte played the whole four-game series against the Angels last weekend, beginning Thursday with the aforementioned walk and run in his first plate appearance. Later that day he singled and stole a base, then took an 0-fer on Friday, then reached base a couple times Saturday but nobody knocked him home. Along the way he missed a pair of RBI chances of his own with RISP.

Then Sunday it clicked. In the 1st inning, he walked and stole second and third, though he was stranded. In the 3rd, with a runner already on, he singled to further the rally ahead of a three-run homer — by Matt Olson, whose previous 11 homers had been solo dating back to mid-June. In the 6th, with a runner on and two out, Marte singled to extend the inning, then stole second, and eventually came around to score on a two-run single by the always clutch Jed Lowrie. In the 8th he singled again, just for fun. The A’s won 8-3.

Yep, that sounds like exactly the hitter the A’s needed.

Last summer, Oakland was looking for a lefty second baseman who could make tons of contact and get on base, and they found the perfect one in Tommy La Stella. This summer, it was an outfielder who could get on base, and they found the perfect one in Marte, to help turn this lineup from consistently frustrating to reliably dangerous.