Ketel Two: Marte Signs New, Better-Paying Extension to Stay in Arizona

Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

The free-agent signing bonanza might have come to an end, but that doesn’t mean that this compressed offseason doesn’t have anything left on the transaction front. On Sunday night, the Diamondbacks and Ketel Marte agreed to terms on a five-year extension worth $76 million that could keep him in Arizona through 2028 thanks to a team option.

Articles like this generally contemplate the player who just signed the extension, and we’ll definitely get to that, but the contract sounds so light on the surface that I think we should talk about that first. There’s one obvious reason that the total guarantee doesn’t jump off the page: Marte was already under contract through 2024 thanks to an extension he signed before the 2018 season. He signed that one only 1,000 plate appearances into his career, and it was quite team-friendly: five years and $24 million, with $11 million and $13 million team options tacked on to the end. He broke out in 2019 with a 7-WAR season, which made him one of the most underpaid players in the game.

Those club options are no more, because Arizona ripped them up to sign Marte’s new contract. He’ll receive the $8.4 million he was due this year and then another $76 million from ’23 to ’27. But since the Diamondbacks were certain to pick up those options, we can think of this deal as a three-year extension worth $52 million starting after the last option year.

Three years and $52 million for Marte’s age 31–33 seasons is a great deal for Arizona, which otherwise faced a timing mismatch. A strong farm system should set the team up well as its top prospects graduate to the majors, but by the time Alek Thomas, Corbin Carroll, and friends are established major leaguers, its best current player would be on his way out the door. That imbalance led to speculation that Marte would be available in trade, but I like this route far more for the D-Backs. It’s hard to develop stars, and Marte qualifies as one of those even with a healthy dose of skepticism around his injury history. ZiPS projects him for roughly 2 WAR in each season of the new deal despite limited playing time:

ZiPS Projection – Ketel Marte
2022 .290 .348 .485 489 69 142 32 6 17 63 41 83 5 114 1 3.1
2023 .290 .348 .485 462 65 134 32 5 16 59 39 77 4 114 1 2.9
2024 .287 .346 .488 449 63 129 30 6 16 58 38 73 4 115 0 2.8
2025 .285 .344 .480 435 59 124 28 6 15 55 37 68 4 112 0 2.5
2026 .282 .339 .473 419 56 118 26 6 14 52 34 64 3 109 -1 2.2
2027 .278 .336 .457 396 51 110 23 6 12 47 32 59 3 105 -1 1.8
2028 .270 .324 .430 374 45 101 20 5 10 41 28 52 2 95 -2 1.1

If you’re doing dollars-per-WAR math, the three new seasons of his contract come out to $8 million per projected WAR. That’s not the value that his 2022–24 seasons will be at $3.7 million per WAR, but it’s still a great idea for the Diamondbacks. They expect to be competing from ’25 to ’27, and teams that are competing would all love to add three years of a great-if-healthy bat at a rate that seems quite fair, even with playing time discounts incorporated.

Turning to the projections, ZiPS thinks that Marte will continue to rack up value at the plate, though not at the impressive pace he’s been on starting with his 2019 breakout. Over the past three years, Marte is hitting .318/.374/.543, good for a 137 wRC+. That’s “get MVP votes but don’t win the award”-level production, rather than the borderline All-Star numbers ZiPS expects.

What’s changed with Marte over those last three years? Two things, essentially: BABIP and power. He has always produced excellent strikeout and walk numbers; he’s marginally more selective than the average hitter, and his tremendous contact rate means that he converts advantageous counts into balls in play more often while also avoiding strikeouts in tough counts. But while that’s a great skill set to have, it’s not sufficient for stardom.

To illustrate, let’s compare two pairs of hitters with Marte-adjacent contact rates. In one corner, we have Jean Segura and Tommy Edman. The former is a career 98 wRC+ hitter; the latter checks in at an even 100. They don’t hit for much power, but they don’t strike out much either, and that leads to an average line despite a low slugging percentage. That looks a lot like Marte did before 2019; he had an aggregate 92 wRC+, with a lack of power dragging him down, though he started to show signs of improvement in 2018, his first year with the Diamondbacks.

Now for the other pair: Buster Posey and Justin Turner. Starting in 2015, Marte’s first year in the league, Posey and Turner have made similar amounts of contact and hit for a 119 wRC+ and 137 wRC+, respectively. Neither are the most fearsome power hitters in the game, but they don’t have to be; they make enough contact, and square the ball up often enough, that they out-produce their raw power.

I think that Marte is closer to that second group now, and he did it with one simple trick: getting the ball in the air. Take a look at his batted ball splits in the 2015–18 period as compared to since then:

Batted Ball Distribution – Marte and Cohort
Years GB/FB LD% GB% FB% Avg LA
Marte ’15-’18 1.77 20.80% 50.70% 28.60% 6.7
Marte ’19-’21 1.32 22% 44.30% 33.70% 10.9
Segura/Edman 1.68 20.45% 49.65% 29.90% 8.75
Posey/Turner 1.145 23.30% 40.05% 36.65% 13.9

None of the four hitters is a perfect comparison, but the aggregate numbers tell the story quite well: to add power, you need to cut down on your grounders and get the ball in the air more often. It’s not quite as easy as doing that and profiting, but contact rate translates differently to your batting line depending on whether you put the ball in the air or keep it on the ground.

Marte has an additional skill that makes this approach sing: tremendous raw power, which means that elevated contact is simply worth more for him than it is for the Seguras and Edmans of the world. You might not think it, because he’s a switch-hitter who plays second base and center field, which sounds like the profile of a slap-hitter. But he finished in the 97th percentile for maximum exit velocity in 2021, and you can see why when he swings:

That’s a power hitter’s swing: short leg kick for timing, followed by an explosion through the ball and a powerful, high-bat finish. Was that a mistake pitch? Indubitably. But they all count just the same, and the combination of power and contact rate means that he’s turning a ton of mistakes into extra bases. And he does it from the right side, too:

Another mistake — middle-middle curveball isn’t where you want to be. Old Marte might have smashed those on the ground; New Marte gives fans a souvenir. I’m not saying that he’s the second coming of Turner, who elevates the ball more than Marte and has done it for a long time, but he has both more raw power (Turner’s career-high exit velocity is 109.8 mph, as opposed to 116.3 for Marte) and a higher barrel rate. This isn’t a case of a low-power hitter spiking a few good home run years, in other words.

If Marte’s batted-ball distribution going forward resembles his last three years, he’ll continue to churn out doubles and homers at a high rate. Will he bat .318? Probably not; he’s batting .289 on grounders over the last three years (the league checks in at .240) despite a standard spray distribution. If he were impossible to shift on, that would be one thing, but he pulls the ball at an average rate and isn’t particularly fleet of foot. That explains the ZiPS average projections; it’s hard to bat .300 even if you don’t strike out very often and make loud contact when you do connect.

A Turner-lite who can play second base (Marte’s natural position, and where he’s likely to remain going forward) is a star, deserving of a star’s contract. The reason that he signed this one, instead of waiting for free agency and cashing in with a longer-term deal, likely boils down to health. In 2021 alone, he twice missed a month of games with hamstring injuries, and a balky hip bothered him down the stretch. In 2020, he played in 45 of 60 games but was hampered by a wrist injury. In 2019, he missed the last two weeks with a stress reaction in his back.

That risk of injury is baked into the ZiPS projections; by the time the extension kicks in, it thinks he’ll average fewer than 500 plate appearances per season. That’s a probabilistic forecast; in some futures, he’ll be the picture of health, and in others, he’ll miss big chunks of time or an entire season. But that risk matters, because the Diamondbacks will be without the services of their best player due to injury more often than the average team.

If I were Marte, I might have held out for a bigger deal; regardless of his potential for injury, three years and $52 million for what will likely be his last high-production years is below rate in today’s game, and that’s before considering the team option at the end of it. But I can see why he took it. When his current contract and its two team options ran their course, he would have earned $46.2 million dollars in his major league career. That’s a sizeable pile of money, but he doubled it with the stroke of a pen and without having to stay healthy-ish over the next three years.

I’m all for players getting their market value rather than going full Ozzie Albies, but this isn’t the same kind of deal. Marte’s last contract paid him like a steady regular rather than a star because that’s what he was at that point. This extension pays him as less than a star, but not because of production; there’s simply an injury discount baked in. Perhaps he could wait out his market, perform well over the next three years, and cash in, but he’s not getting rinsed on this deal, and if I were an injury-prone player, I’d rather take a 100% shot at, say, 80% of my non-injured value than an 80% shot at 100% of it.

Those numbers are simply for illustration; I don’t have an exact actuarial table for Marte’s plate appearances. In a world where he plays mostly full seasons in each of the next six years, this deal is going to look like a steal. But if he misses time with injury in two of the six… well, okay, the first three years will still look like a steal, but he signed those away long ago. The last three will look like a hair under market value, and that’s a reasonable compromise for a talented but injury-prone player.

For the Diamondbacks, this relieves the greatest tension on their team-building plans. Having one standout player while the rest of the team isn’t ready for prime time is fine as long as you’ll still have that player when reinforcements arrive, but Marte’s timeline didn’t work perfectly with that. Without an extension, they would likely be looking to trade him; he’s one of the most desirable combinations of player and contract in the league, and he’d likely be plying his trade for a team with a losing record in at least two of the three years remaining on his deal.

With another three years locked up, Arizona can pencil Marte in at second and build a team around him and the incoming outstanding crop of outfield prospects. That doesn’t even consider the team’s record of trading Martes; when the D-Backs dealt Starling Marte in 2020, they got very little in return, and it was widely reputed to be due to ownership’s reluctance to pick up his affordable ($12.5 million) team option for 2021. A good-value option that was traded for pennies on the dollar because it wasn’t going to be exercised? I think you can see where this is going.

I’m rambling, but here’s the skinny: I like this extension quite a bit for both parties. Arizona can’t keep churning good players on the rebuilding treadmill; when you have a young star, you should keep them for as long as possible, especially when you have three top-100 hitting prospects who will be reaching the majors soon. Marte secured generational wealth without sacrificing much expected value and got to do it without changing teams to boot. And hey, as an added bonus, now we don’t have to talk about whether the Diamondbacks are willing to exercise wildly favorable team options. Everybody wins!

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

Nice article. He’s always been a tough on to peg- changed profile, injury history, crummy teams, and his fantasy profile is reliant on avg rather than counting stats- kind of a forgotten guy. He’s such a good player, glad he doesn’t have to worry about health or money anymore.