It’s been more than an internet minute since the Starling Marte suspension startled Pirates fans and Major League Baseball as a whole. The internet is full of hot takes, and steroids users have been vilified over the past 20 years in Major League Baseball (but maybe not as much as they once were). I’ll steer clear of most of that, because anything I would write has already been written a hundred times over.
Rather, I’d like to take a look at this from a more personal, or perhaps logical, perspective. My entire relationship with Starling Marte is severely one-sided. I know him as the great baseball player, the guy who hit a home run on the first pitch he ever saw in the Majors, the guy who wins Gold Gloves and runs really fast and makes incredible catches. Starling Marte knows absolutely nothing about me other than the abstract idea that there is a group of people who root for the Pirates and, despite not knowing any of them individually, the group must be composed of individuals in order to exist, so in a way Marte knows me, but really he doesn’t know me at all. I did run into him in a hotel lobby in Pittsburgh once, told him he had a good game after a 3-4 day against the Phillies, and patted him on the back (which in retrospect was rude).
Since the only context in which I know Starling Marte in is as a baseball player on my favorite team, I’m angry. He’s pretty unobjectionably their best player at this point, both offensively and defensively, which is why he got moved to center field this season. I, along with Bucco fans throughout the country, was counting on Marte to be a significant contributor this year. To maintain his performance from previous years which, in conjunction with a resurgence by Andrew McCutchen and some good pitching from some young guys, possibly propel this 2017 Pirates squad into the playoffs and maybe even make a push for a division title against a Cubs team that will not be as good as they were last year (and are possibly already showing that). Marte with the cool demeanor, quick swing, and blazing speed in the outfield. Marte, the 11th best position player in baseball from 2013-2016 by bWAR (at 20.8, just behind Kyle Seager and just ahead of Nolan Arenado and notably ahead of Andrew McCutchen by 6 spots). That guy was supposed to be the biggest contributor this year to the Pirates finding themselves in the playoffs again and trying to take advantage of the window of opportunity they have to win a World Series.
Instead, we’re left with nothing. Emptiness. Anger, for many, at being let down by one of their favorite players. Parents will think twice about letting their kids wear a Marte shirsey to school because he’s no longer a role model. Your reaction is something along the lines of that he’s a bad man and did a bad thing. The baseball consequences of this (selling at the deadline, rebuilding for 2019, etc.) can be discussed later (and certainly will be, likely ad nauseam, as the internet is wont to do). The ramifications are already apparent in some ways, like John Jaso seeing time in the outfield and having games in which a converted outfielder (Josh Bell) is playing first and a converted first baseman (José Osuna) is playing outfield. There are positives, like Gift Ngoepe making history as the first African player in the Majors; his callup would at least have been deferred by Marte’s continuous tenure with the squad. We’ll have to see how the season plays out in order to make any sort of final analysis of the longer term impact of this suspension and I don’t want to speculate much more than people already have on Twitter.
But let’s try to think about this rationally. It seems like that Marte took some tainted substance, and unfortunately for him, it was tainted with a banned substance detectable at parts per trillion levels and that stays in your system for more than a year. (It is possible that Marte injected nandrolone and knew he was taking it, but that seems so exceedingly stupid that I'm not sure that could actually be what happened, but who knows.) There’s no excuse for not knowing what you’re putting into your body, and ultimately it’s your responsibility. Along the same lines, individuals have the ability of self-determination as it pertains to their own health and their own bodies (mostly) and on a basic level, I could care less if anyone, including any given baseball player, is doing steroids. The repercussions are, at most, some health changes for Marte and the Pirates not making the playoffs this year.
Rather, I’d like to put Marte’s actions into context, and make a comparison to the Pirates other top hitter from 2016, Jung- Ho Kang, who was the Pirates’ top offensive contributor by wRC+ (at 133) and second in Baseball Reference oWAR (at 2.5). Jung-Ho Kang has repeatedly endangered others by driving drunk. There’s no excuse for drinking and then operating a motor vehicle, especially in the extremely obviously impaired state that Kang was in based on the dash cam footage from his car. You can say what you will about Marte, but what he did is meaningless compared to what Kang did or when a pitcher throws at a hitter’s head, both of which actually endanger the lives of others, something that is unfathomably and inexcusably worse than simply endangering your own life.
Major League Baseball needs to take a serious look at the relative punishments they hand out to players. Matt Barnes was only suspended for 5% of the games that Marte was suspended for and did something inexcusable rather than something personal and is quite frankly ridiculous. Steroids possibly aren’t even that much of an issue; Joe Sheehan pointed this out in an excellent FanGraphs article. If your reason for the punishments isn’t valid, then what are you really doing?
All said and done, Marte is going to be out past the All-Star break and the repercussions will likely be felt for years to come. But perspective is everything, and in the scheme of “bad things” a person can do, this is pretty low on the list, even if you only know Marte in the context of being a Pirates fan. We’ll just have to wait and see how things play out to understand the baseball implications of Marte's half-season playing video games.