As the Indians quest for a long-term solution goes on, I think it’s worthwhile to step back and try to understand the failure of Andy Marte. He came to Cleveland on the cusp of the majors and now, more than 3 full season’s later, he’s put in less than a full season of ABs in Cleveland and has a batting average right around .220, OBP of about .270, and a SLG of about .345. Fail.
In thinking about why he has failed, I came up with a couple of different possible categories.
Marte simply wasn’t ever any good – his minor league numbers were somehow misleading (skills weren’t there)
Failure to adjust to the challenges of top competition (makeup problems)
Playing time and promotion decisions (handling of player development)
Coaching (failure to connect with Marte)
These obviously aren't mutually exclusive and many of these things are closely related to one another. Nevertheless it gives us some structure for which we might assign guilt for Marte's failures.
Let’s look at the first idea, that Marte really wasn’t as good a prospect as everyone thought he was. As Paul recently reviewed, Marte was very successful at AAA as a 21-year old. Not too many guys do that. We can go back and reconstruct Andy’s Prospect Progress scores as a prospect and he looks very much like the real deal (these are estimated as I couldn't get Marte's neutral OPS). As a 19-year old in A+ (2003) he registers a 7.5, the next season in AA a 9.2, his final season with the Braves in AAA he scores a 10.0. As a 20 and 21-year old he was a better looking prospect than anyone we currently have in our system (sobering news). And his peripheral numbers were good. He showed good power, he had a healthy walk rate, his strikeout rate wasn’t high, and he didn’t have significant problems or show much deterioration as he was promoted. Marte was a stud, no doubt.
Skills weren't there: Rejected
I don’t know if Marte’s ability to adjust to the higher competition at the major league level is something that can easily be examined. Anecdotally, I think most of us who have watched Marte would say that he’s got some significant hole’s in his swing and doesn’t do well against off-speed stuff. Personally, I thought Marte’s swing was looking more compact and better at times when I saw him last season, but the results obviously weren’t an improvement. As mentioned above, Marte didn’t show any problems adjusting to competition as he progressed through the minors. His numbers in his first appearances at A+, AA, and AAA were the equivalent, if not better, than his numbers at his previous level, with not significant jumps in K% or drops in BB% or ISO.
Fangraphs lets us look at what kinds of pitches Marte gets thrown and not surprisingly, he gets a very high proportion off-speed stuff. Over his three seasons in Cleveland the % of fastballs he sees has declined from 53.5, to 52.5, to 49.2 last season. Cleveland’s regulars saw about 57% fastballs on average, with Marte’s 49% actually the lowest on the team. Gutz, also with a bad reputation for off-speed stuff, was 2nd lowest at 52%. I think players see a lot less and a lot lower quality breaking stuff in the minors and its possible Marte’s fairly rapid ascent meant he actually didn’t get exposed to a lot of it before reaching the major league level. Another adjustment Marte seems to have failed to make is his ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field. His spray chart data from the Prog last season suggest only 3 of his 22 hits at home were to the right side of the field (2 singles and a HR). More telling, even most of his fly balls to right field were weak pop-ups that didn’t even make it past the shallow part of the field. This failure to adjust to breaking pitches and failure to use the whole field effectively helps explain why Marte’s best BABIP over the past 3 seasons, despite pretty decent LD%, is the .299 he put up in Buffalo in 2006. Marte is pretty good at making contact, but more than most players he struggles to make solid contact effectively.
Failure to adjust: Likely
The coaching and handling issues are also hard to try and quantify. One thing we can do is look at his playing time. This comes with some caveats, though, as we all know that even when he played last year he regularly got the 6th or 7th inning trip to the bench. So…all told last season Marte had about 1 day between games…so he played about every other day. This is misleading, though, as it really came in two parts. Before the All-Star break, Marte averaged 2 days between games, so playing about every third game (I didn’t take the time to factor in off days), averaging 2.5 plate appearances in those games. So a true part-time player. The s.d. on that number, 1.7, also suggests there was a fair degree of volatility to his playing schedule. After the break he averaged just 0.5 day between games (s.d. 0.8), averaging 3.6 PAs per game, so he was basically an everyday regular. Before the break he sucked big-time (.143/.182/.175, 2.9 BB%, 24.6 K%). After the break he sucked, but not so massively (.250/.299/.366, 6.4 BB%, 18.6 K%). Those still aren’t good numbers, aren’t consistent with the numbers he put up coming through the Braves system, but actually are similar to what he’s done ever since he arrived in Cleveland. I think this suggests that playing sporadically hasn’t been good for Marte, but even when he’s gotten a fair shot he has still not looked like the player we thought we were getting.
Playing time and handling: Minimal effect
It is true that Marte’s numbers dropped off considerably with his arrival in Cleveland for the 2006 season. Repeating AAA, his OPS dropped from 878 to 784, his BB% dropped from a very good 13.9 to an average 8.7, and his K% went from a pretty good 18.0 to a much more average 20.6. These drops largely continued in 2007 when his BB% dropped to a downright bad 5.5 and his OPS dipped even further to 766.
So why did Marte’s numbers drop when he entered the Cleveland system. Did Cleveland somehow (verb) him up in his development? I have no idea how to answer that question, but we can look at an alternative idea, mainly that injuries hampered Marte beginning in 2006.
What about Marte’s injury history…he ended last season on the DL with a strained calf. In 2007 he spent a couple of weeks on the DL with a strained hamstring. But these aren’t major injuries. What I was really interested in was whether Marte had any injury questions when he was first traded from Atlanta. Marte’s winter league performance that off-season actually (2006) wasn’t great, but he was still very young and had just been traded to Boston. Still…trading with Atlanta seems to have the tendency of working out badly for the other team. Scanning MLBs database I couldn’t find anything about any earlier injuries for Marte and his playing time (133 games in 2005, 146 in 2006) would suggest injuries weren’t a big factor. It’d be nice to think the Indians got damaged goods, but there’s no evidence, aside from Marte’s statistical collapse, to support that idea.
So…injuries don’t seem like a good explanation for any major aspect of Marte’s failure. Perhaps then his connection with the coaching staff in Cleveland has been. Obviously a player’s ability to make adjustments, receive coaching and the coaching presented to a player are interlinked. But I think there’s some reason to suggest Cleveland didn’t ever find a way to effectively communicate to Andy the adjustments he needed to make.
I'd be interested in others takes, but Marte just seems like a guy with makeup problems. His inability to adjust to his own deficits at the plate have allowed opposing pitchers to increasingly take advantage of his deficiencies. It's possible the coaching staff shares some of that blame, for simply never effectively finding a way for him to make those adjustments. My only hesitation in this conclusion is how good Marte was in his early development and how little he struggled against progressively better competition. Also, the fairly large and immediate degradation in his performance from 2005 to 2006 makes me want to find an injury explanation, but as far as I can find, one doesn't exist.
At various times with various degrees of enthusiasm I've advocated for more playing time for Marte. Given our lack of a 3B at the moment, it would seem obvious. And reports that Marte's defense scored well above average last year only add to this sentiment. But putting this together made me more fully appreciate Marte's significant and worsening deficits at the plate. He's really shown no signs of correcting for these short-comings and I really don't think there's more than the slightest hope of him putting up something more than a .650 OPS in a full season of action.