If I could be anyone on the Mariners, without question, I would be Ketel Marte.
Part of that is something we have in common. We have the same birthday, down to the year: October 12, 1993. I have no idea what time he was born, but if he was also delivered at 3:50 p.m. in Swedish Hospital, then we're actually the same person. (Spoiler alert: Pretty sure that's not where he was born.)
I also really admire his playing style. The dude loves baseball, and he loves playing with guys like Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz.
He's listed officially as 6'1", 165 lbs., and while I'm not going to come close to his height, I like that he, too, seems to rely on speed, defense, and contact skills. Sure, he's a much more accomplished player (though I did post a career .515 OBP in high school varsity play, albeit on 35 recorded plate appearances). But there's something there, and we've all spent hours imagining, "What if I played in the bigs?"
Ketel Marte is my "What if?"
So when he was called up last July 31, I got pretty excited to see him play. It was hard to tell his future on the team, as second base was held down by Robbie Baseball and shortstop seemed blocked by Brad Miller and maybe even Chris Taylor. Center field was an obvious need, especially once Austin Jackson was no longer a Mariner, but Marte only ever played a few games there.
Either way, Ketel (remember, it's kuh-TELL, not KEH-tuhl) was a revelation last year:
His bWAR is even more impressive, at a robust 2.3, with the vast majority of that coming from his offense, which is especially important since defense can be much more variable in small sample sizes. Yet despite that stellar debut, which is far less than even half a season, the question remains: What should we expect this year from the youngest Mariner regular?
First, let's look at the most obvious sign of luck: Marte's batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Given that league average is roughly .300, his .341 mark seems to be far too high and a clear indicator that his numbers could take a bit of a nosedive this year. Yet Marte did run a high BABIP throughout his minor league career, and a player who relies on speed and contact would be expected to have a higher-than-average mark.
So I did a quick search of similar player seasons, looking for guys that:
- Were in their rookie seasons
- Debuted in 2000 or later
- Had a batting average of at least .280, and
- Had a slugging percentage of less than .410.
The first thing that stands out is Mike Leake at #10. He's definitely a good hitter as pitchers go, but I'm not sure I would've expected a .333 average, even in only 48 at-bats.
Next, of course, is Austin Jackson at #1. I don't think Jackson is actually a great comparison because of that strikeout rate (yikes, he led the league in his rookie season?). But the players right around Marte - Rafael Furcal and Starlin Castro - are pretty interesting guys to look at.
Furcal played just three games in AA, and none in AAA, before he made his major league debut. His BABIP never reached that level for a full season again, though it did remain at a lifetime .310 mark, and though his rookie season was one of his better offensive years for his career, he provided plenty of value as a shortstop who could play strong defense.
Castro, of course, has never quite made The Leap that many expected him to make after a stellar rookie season. But his career BABIP is .321, and he's been a solid hitter for the most part (ignoring his 2013 and 2015 campaigns, where his wRC+ finished at 74 and 80, respectively).
This is an encouraging list. Guys like Furcal, Castro, and Christian Yelich have, for the most part, maintained their value from their strong debuts. Jackson, for all his warts with the M's, was a highly productive player in Detroit, and Joe Panik has evolved into an elite second baseman.
So, yes, Marte will likely see a lower BABIP this season, but it could (and likely will) remain above league average. As Brendan put it in his 40-in-40 piece:
Marte’s situation isn’t a case where the pessimists can yell "regression!" and totter off to their local comment section.
Current projections have Marte worth somewhere between 1.6-1.9 fWAR, right around his 1.7 figure from last year - but he accomplished that in just 247 plate appearances. This projection seems low to me. Maybe I'm a homer. Okay, I'm definitely a homer. But the guy's barely played two months in the majors, and it's certainly logical that it wasn't until last year that he figured out how to walk more and play better up-the-middle defense.
Ketel Marte is 22 years old. I'm 22 years old. I have no idea what I'm doing with my life. Ketel Marte, on the other hand, is hitting near the top of the lineup for the Seattle Mariners. He's got diehards, like me, salivating over the prospect of a four-win shortstop under team control for six more years. If the Mariners are going to contend this year, they'll need at least one of their younger players to break out. That could easily be Taijuan Walker, as many have postulated. It could be the Z-Train, Tony Zych, who has a ridiculous 14 strikeouts to just one walk in 7.2 spring innings. But it could also be the Dominican shortstop who dazzled last year, the one that convinced Jerry Dipoto and company to trade away the incumbent to make way for him.
Of course, we've all seen half-seasons that seem to indicate stardom, only to fizzle out. Bucky Jacobsen. Bobby Madritsch. And, most recently, Dustin Ackley. There was really no way to predict that Ackley, especially, would fail to live up to the hype. Sometimes, in baseball, it just happens. One day, you're a right fielder on a Little League team; the next, you're trying out as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs (Rowenfurter!). But we're here because we want to believe. So let's put our faith in Ketel as the Shortstop of the Future, because the signs from last year are undoubtedly positive.