Nick Markakis, Disappointment, and Managing Expectations

MarkakisWhen Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis broke into the league in 2006, he looked like he could be the Next Big Thing in Baltimore. Unfortunately, Markakis had apparently not heard the marketing adage “underpromise and overdeliver,” because his first few years in the league now appear to have been his best. This is a sore subject for many Orioles fans who simply want to see Nick be the player he could have or should have been based on his early results. In fact, every offseason now comes with a healthy optimism from the Orioles faithful that this might be the year that Nick fulfills his promise and returns to 20 home runs and a .300 average. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen this year or ever again, but that’s no reason to shun Markakis. In a different light, he’s a capable veteran bat that injects a balanced approach to an otherwise overly aggressive Orioles lineup and a plus outfield arm, if an average defender.

Markakis came on the Major League scene in 2006, playing in 147 games for an Orioles team that went 70-92 en route to a fourth place finish in the AL East. That year, Markakis batted .291/.351/.448 while crushing 16 dingers. Things only got better in 2007, when Nick upped the ante and batted .300/.362/.485 and hit 23 homers. Orioles fans rejoiced; despite their perpetually (at the time!) under-.500 squad, they had a homegrown talent that was budding into a young superstar! By 2009, Markakis’ fWAR had already peaked and plummeted to just 2.0, his second best fWAR total in the years since.

Discuss Nick Markakis’ career on the BSL Forums.

What changed during that time? Descriptive statistics can only tell so much. On face value, 2009 looked much like Markakis’ incredible 2007 and 2008 campaigns, when he was worth 4.3 and 6.1 fWAR, respectively. He slashed .293/.347/.453 and hit 18 home runs, all admirable figures. His wRC+ dipped to 107, about where it was in his promising rookie season, but well below the 121 and 138 figures he recorded in between.

Nick did walk in 14.2% of his at-bats, an unusually high rate, in 2008, contributing to his stellar 6.1 fWAR. Predictably, that rate didn’t last, but his drop back to normalcy in this rate statistic left him walking at the same rate in 2009 and beyond that he did in 2006-2007. He even cut his strikeout rate, which was just over 16% in 2008, to hover in the 13% range in 2009-2010, and again to the 10% range from 2011 on.

Nick Markakis did not steal home in this picture. He did have to run to reach home safely, though.

Nick Markakis did not steal home in this picture. He did have to run to reach home safely, though.

One of the things that Markakis stopped doing after 2008 was stealing bases. In his first three promising seasons, Markakis stole a total of 30 bases. From 2009-current, he’s stolen just 28. At the same time, Markakis’ baserunning runs above average (BsR), based off of stolen bases and number of times caught stealing, was nominal and in fact a minimal contributor to his overall offensive runs above average.

Markakis is also swinging at a few more pitches outside the zone than he did early in his career, which is generally the opposite of the narrative fans and team officials like to see. Markakis has been swinging at over 25% of pitches out of the zone since 2010. Prior, he was showing an ability to stay under 24% in O-Swing%, dipping as low as 18% in 2008. More importantly, he’s making more contact outside the zone, which… well, I mean, contact is good, but, like, if you’re going to miss pitches, miss the bad ones, right? Markakis is touching over 80% of pitches outside the zone since 2010, and most years are quite a few percentage points over 80%, while he made contact with less than 70% of balls in 2007 and 2008. Sure, his overall rate of contact has improved throughout his career and his swinging strike rate is down to 3.3% in 2014, but making contact on pitches destined to be easy grounders isn’t really the way to live up to the lofty standards set by Orioles fans.

Based on PITCHf/x data, Nick Markakis’ strike zone shifted a bit too. From April 1, 2007 (the earliest available date) to 2008, called strikes and balls against Markakis looked like this:Markakis Called Zone 0708

Notably, most called strikes Markakis saw in the beginning of his career were in the middle and outside of the plate. A lot of balls were called on the inside of the plate and within the strike zone area. From 2011 to 2014, Markakis still sees a number of called strikes on the outside of the plate that are outside of what is traditionally defined as the strike zone. He now sees an increased density of called strikes on the inside of the plate, some inside the zone and some not, and fewer balls called on the inside of the plate:Markakis Called Zone 1114

First, a caveat to a comparison of these two graphs: the first is over a season and a half. The second is across two and a half seasons, so there is significantly more information on the second graph and we have to be careful comparing visual density for that reason. Called strike zones are also based on opportunity: if Nick was swinging at pitches on the inside in the beginning of his career and laying off of them later in his career, the graphs aren’t going to represent that change, but they will show more called strikes inside. When pitches are being thrown inside against Markakis, pitchers getting strikes where they were being given balls or giving up hits before. Markakis’ career isolated power chart gives a possible reason why Markakis’ power levels have plummeted:

Markakis ISO career

He’s letting pitches go that reach the zone in his best power zones.

I will admit that when I first saw the change in Markakis’ strike zone, I thought the narrative would be that he is now forced to swing at pitches that he’s bad at hitting for average or for power. These zone charts show quite the opposite. He’s not swinging at pitches he could hit.

Markakis’ power outage coincides with a diminished run scoring environment across Major League Baseball. Runs are harder to come across now than they were in 2006, possibly driven by a desire for teams to have the best pitchers and finding that stopping a run was less expensive than scoring one (which may not be the case as the market catches up to its previously hidden inefficiencies). He also no longer needs to be the team’s primary run producer – the team did hit 212 home runs with only minimal contribution to that total from Nick Markakis in 2013 – and can focus on reaching base ahead of true power hitters like Chris Davis and Adam Jones. That’s not really an excuse for his significant drop in power between 2009 and 2012, though, as the makeup of the team was not nearly as threatening as it is now, despite the employment of Luke Scott, Aubrey Huff, Adam Jones, and it pains me to type this, but All-Star Ty Wigginton.

* * *

BS sp-angels-p9-orioles lamWhile defensive metrics are generally unkind to Nick Markakis, my sense that his level of performance is likely in-between what sabermetrics says and what Markakis’ trophy case says. I’ve given my thoughts on defensive metrics on the BSL Forums, but in a nutshell, I believe that they’re significantly behind offensive metrics. For one, it currently takes about three years for mathematics to determine a player’s quality of defense when it’s relatively apparent when watching a player whether he’s a good fielder. Some of that is related to how often each position has the opportunity to make a play on a batted ball; it might take three full seasons to gather enough data on how well Nick Markakis fields routine and difficult batted balls. What I find lacking in metrics like UZR are the other aspects of defense that generally go unnoticed, like positioning or route to the ball. It’s easy to tell that an outfielder is too shallow when a fly ball sails over his head, but little attention is paid to his position when the batter hits a ground ball. Current defensive metrics take a no harm, no foul approach to positioning: if the ball isn’t hit to the fielder, he’s not penalized for being in the wrong position. Without getting too deep into a defensive statistic manifesto, FanGraphs provides fielding graphs for 2012-2014 for Nick Markakis and measures how often he makes plays that other outfielders also make. These graphs are below:

Nick Markakis fielding dataAs you can see, Markakis is terrific at fielding plays that everyone makes. Occasionally he’ll make a rare play in right field, as evidenced by a handful of yellow, orange, and red dots on the left hand graph representing plays made by Nick that 60% or fewer of right fielders would make. He tends not to make many of those plays, as shown by the chart on the right. He’s not as fast as he once was, but FanGraphs has only rated Markakis’ defensive runs above average once, in 2008. Really, he makes the plays he should make and not much else. That’s not really what Major League teams look for when trying to find an above-average fielder. Most replacement-level outfielders will field the green dots and miss the red ones; good outfielders make the yellow dots look routine.

But that’s okay. In right field, Markakis is steady. The Orioles know exactly what to expect from his defense. He’s going to make the plays he should make, and he might even be risk-averse, electing to give up a couple of light green and yellow dot plays in order to eliminate the possibility of the batter reaching extra bases. And like I mentioned before, I am of the school of thought that Markakis does things well that are not currently quantified by defensive metrics: positions himself well, takes good routes to the ball, plays the caroms well, etc. Since I am not a scout, I can’t intelligently speak to how well Markakis reads the ball off the bat and how good of a jump he gets on fly balls. Since I am a fan, HE’S THE BEST THERE IS. I’d certainly rather have him in the field over some other people on the 2014 roster.

* * *

Did anyone in Baltimore feel worse at any point during 2012 than when they had to watch Nick Markakis sit in the dugout with a cast for the Orioles' first playoff appearance since 1997?

Did anyone in Baltimore feel worse at any point during 2012 than when they had to watch Nick Markakis sit in the dugout with a cast for the Orioles’ first playoff appearance since 1997?

And finally, let’s infuse a dose of realism into the Markakis conversation: he’s on the wrong side of 27, generally recognized as the age at which baseball players perform at their peak, and his age 22-24 seasons now look more like the exception than the rule. Sure, Markakis goes through stretches of relative offensive brilliance, but those tend to be short-lived. His injury in 2012 and subsequent surgery may have led to a down 2013 and gave many Orioles fans hope for a much-improved 2014, but early returns indicate that 2013 might have been the new normal for Nick Markakis. Realistically, removing a bone in the hand of a player with as much mileage as Nick Markakis was not going to return him to 4+ fWAR levels of days past. A year and an offseason of recovery might help to improve his batting average, but the power hasn’t been there consistently enough since 2009 to indicate a return to round-trip glory.

The things that Markakis can do, he does well. He’s about the only player that I feel I can consistently expect to bat around .300 and strike out relatively little. He tends to walk at an okay clip, but without serious power, he’s not going to get walks like Davis might. He plays serviceable defense that I suspect is better than the numbers describe it to be, has a pretty good arm, and something something clubhouse leader. If it weren’t for his age 22-24 seasons, Orioles fans would be looking at a player who has been worth between 1.5 and 2.1 fWAR every year for the duration of his career, save the season immediately following hand surgery. Markakis’ offensive game has risen from 2009 levels to be worth 12.7 offensive runs above average in 2012. If not for being worth 50 offensive runs above average in 2007 and 2008, we’d all be satisfied that the Orioles had a capable, reliable right fielder that has slowly improved, if only marginally, throughout his career. Orioles fans might speculate which free agent or trade target could represent an upgrade in right field, but there wouldn’t be any significant disappointment when Markakis was left in to produce at roughly baseline levels.

Instead, we’re left with visions of what could have been and a player being paid $8.23M per win for his most recent passable season (which would have been lower had Markakis played out 2012 healthy). If we treat Markakis’ earliest years as a pleasant career anomaly – everyone has a career year, after all – and expect a decent average, on base percentage, and contact rate from him, we’ll find that Markakis lives up to expectations and adequately  fills a role on the Baltimore Orioles. 

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Ravens three potential breakout stars

When you go 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the first time in five years, you overhaul the coaching staff. You look for ways to improve upon the year before because clearly, a .500 record doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t sit well. The Ravens don’t settle for mediocrity which a trait you have to appreciate from the front office. The coaching staff overhaul can only do so much. It’s still up to the players to perform. Here are three young guys the Ravens should look to, to step their games up a notch and improve in the areas that need it the most.

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Bernard Pierce – Pierce is entering his third season on the Ravens and has played second fiddle to Ray Rice thus far. In his rookie season of 2012, he appeared in all 16 games, carrying the ball 108 times at 4.93 yards per carry. He was no slouch in the playoffs rushing for 5.18 yards per carry on 39 attempts over four games. The second year back out of Temple was off to a fast start in 2013 rushing for a 20 yard touchdown in the Ravens first preseason game against Tampa Bay. He would tweak an ankle on that same night that may have hindered him for much of 2013. On top that, the offensive line was one of the worst units in the NFL, and Pierce only rushed for 2.9 YPC last season. His opportunities went up though, getting 152 carries and 20 receptions on the season.

Entering the 2014 season, Ray Rice’s legal situation is up in the air. Even if the judicial system is kind to Rice, Roger Goodell could still hand down some form of punishment. Most are expecting at least a four game suspension, mirroring the type Ben Roethlisberger got in 2010. Bernard Pierce could in fact be the starting RB for the first quarter of a season, if not more. After the disappointment that was the running game a year ago which prompted changes across the board on offense, it would behoove Pierce to make the most of his opportunity and show us he can be a feature back.

Gary Kubiak has a history of churning out 1,000+ yard backs with his keen understanding and commitment to the zone blocking system. A system the Ravens pseudo adopted last year. But the commitment wasn’t there which led to much confusion and often missed assignments by the piece meal type of line. Gino Gradkowski was trying to replace a multiple time Pro Bowler at center. Left Tackle was a fiasco starting with Bryant McKinnie. But if not for McKinnie being awful, the Ravens would have never made the trade for their LT of the future, and one that fits what Kubiak’s system asks for, Eugene Monroe. A.Q.Shipley, the backup center was asked to play guard when Kelechi Osemele went down with a herniated disk. Marshal Yanda had to pick up the slack of Gino to his left, and Michael Oher, who really never lived up to the first round pick billing to his right.

Monroe is back with an extension. Osemele appears to be at 100% health working out at the facility. Jeremy Zuttah was brought in to solidify the center spot which will make Marshal Yanda better. That leaves right tackle as the only spot needing competition for Rick Wagner which may be sought after early in the upcoming draft. Furthermore, Gary Kubiak knows how to operate a high efficiency running game. Theoretically, the Ravens have made all the proper moves thus far to improve the 30th ranked rushing offense. It’s really all up to Pierce and Rice now to get this ball rolling again. Bernard Pierce likely to get the heaviest load right off the bat and if anything, a chance to show off his talents for other teams if the Ravens cannot retain him when he potentially becomes a free agent in a couple years. Or Pierce could show the Ravens he is ready to take over as the starter for good if Rice has another down year and faces a potential release in 2015 where his $9.5M in dead money at that point could be spread over two seasons to lighten the blow to the cap.

For the rushing game to be successful once again, Bernard Pierce could be the most important player in need of a breakout season in 2014.

Brandon Williams – Williams was drafted in the third round by the Ravens in 2013. Many who cover the game thought that the 6’1”, 335 pound monster out of Missouri Southern could step in and start alongside Haloti Ngata. That wouldn’t be the case as the “amoeba” 3-4 defense sported a front of Ngata, Chris Canty, and Arthur Jones most often. Williams saw playing time in seven games last season, picking up one sack. Otherwise, was scratched from the game day dress roster.

Arthur Jones will be playing for the Colts in 2014 and that opens up a spot, potentially as a starter, that Williams can earn. The second year defensive tackle doesn’t have to worry about his strength. Videos surfaced on the Ravens website recently, showing Williams benching a ridiculous 525 pounds. Picture a weight bar with Joe Flacco sitting on one side and Dennis Pitta sitting on the other. That’s almost what Williams is benching. Andre the Giant weighed 520 pounds and the world went crazy when Hulk Hogan did the unthinkable and body slammed him.  

Okay, enough about Williams’ impressive strength. Strength is only half the battle. Technique is what Williams will need to perfect this summer if he hopes to earn a starting gig. Each of the last couple years, Haloti Ngata has been bothered by some nagging injuries. There was a knee that gave out in the Super Bowl, and once again caused him to miss a game midway through last year. If Ngata continues to be bothered by injuries, Brandon Williams is basically the only one around with the size and potential to fill in the nose tackle spot that Ngata occupies. Canty, Deangelo Tyson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, these guys don’t have the size to do it. If not Williams, we’re looking at Terrance Cody which can only mean the defense and run stoppers are in big trouble.

One way to allow the linebackers not known for run defense, like Daryl Smith, to be able to get more of a free run at the ball carrier is for big men like Ngata and Williams to take up multiple blockers. Ngata does that all the time. Williams alongside him instead of Tyson, or Lewis-Moore, will create even more havoc up front. It also creates blockers the offense can use to block pass rushers like Canty, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Getting late game stops in the run game and sacks anytime in the pass game are two things that eluded the Ravens defense often in 2013. It all starts up front.

For the battle in the trenches and an improved game changing defense, Brandon Williams could be the most important player in need of a breakout season in 2014.

Arthur Brown – Brown was tagged unfairly as the guy drafted who would replace Ray Lewis, which can’t be done. The pressure was taken off the young man out of Kansas State when the Ravens signed veteran middle linebacker, Daryl Smith, coming off an injury in Jacksonville that sidelined him for most of 2012. The Jags all-time leading tackler was brought in to ease the transition, and to not allow a rookie in Brown to quarterback the defense which had a number of new pieces in place. It would take a special player to do that as a rookie. With all due respect to Brown, he was a second, almost third round pick. Not a top five draft pick. Not thought of as “special” by definition. Then again, there was a time when Ray Lewis wasn’t thought of a s “special” either.

Most of Arthur Browns playing time came on sure passing downs with Josh Bynes and later Jameel McClain when he returned from a bruised spinal cord, getting the starting nods alongside Smith. Bynes is a Harbaugh kind of guy. He earned his way onto the team as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He went from practice squad, to doing work on special teams, to making the final tackle in the Super Bowl in 2012. Harbaugh felt Bynes deserved a shot at starting inside linebacker. Arthur Brown recovering from a sports hernia through camp, and appearing timid in the preseason because he was trying so hard not to screw up, didn’t help matters for his case much.  

As we saw in 2013, Josh Bynes and Daryl Smith are not great at stopping the run. Smith in fact is the league’s worst ILB at run defense. The door is open for Arthur Brown to elevate his game and be more than a coverage linebacker. The Ravens already have one of those in Smith. Brown did a lot of things right in his college days. Fundamentally sound tackler, physical, gets sideline to sideline, three-down motor, and all the other cliché titles like “gamer, instinctive, reliable, motivator, etc…” He’s got to put the rookie jitters behind him and beat out Josh Bynes, and other special teamers like Albert McClellan, and be the true number one linebacker here. Brown has got to improve in the read and react department. He’s got to be a run stopper and allow Daryl Smith as the coverage linebacker to be the compliment to him. Not the other way around if he wants to take his game and the Ravens defense to that next level.

For the run defense to get back to the level where Ravens fans are used to seeing it, Arthur Brown could be the most important player in need of a breakout season in 2014.

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Series Preview: Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays, April 22-24

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore OriolesOh, look, another AL East matchup for the Baltimore Orioles. I read that the Orioles have played the second-hardest schedule so far this season, behind only the Jays. The only reason the Jays’ schedule has been more difficult is because they play the Orioles and not themselves. This matchup therefore represents something of an opportunity to take a breath for the O’s, but the previous series against the Blue Jays proved that it’s certainly not an easy matchup.

Discuss the upcoming series at Toronto on the BSL Forums.

In this midweek three-game set, the Orioles are scheduled to face R.A. Dickey, Dustin McGowan, and Drew Hutchinson. Here are some matchups to watch in the upcoming series:

Orioles Power Bats vs. Dickey

orioles-blue-jays-baseball.jpeg7-1280x960Knuckleballing right hander R.A. Dickey can be a lights-out pitcher when things are going his way. Like other knuckleballers throughout baseball history, things aren’t always going his way. The knuckleball can be very hittable when things aren’t working the way the pitcher hopes.

While Dickey might not be as bad as he’s looked so far this year (his 4.73 FIP is far below his 6.26 ERA and his 5.9 BB/9 is easily a career worst so far), he’s now a year and a few weeks removed from his Cy Young win and hasn’t looked invincible during his time in the AL East. A knuckleball with little movement is practically on a tee for Major League hitters, and the Orioles can take full advantage. Baltimore’s power hitters aren’t always the most patient, but if they can lay off the pitches that Dickey throws outside the zone, they might be able to make some hay in the first game of the series. After two solid offensive outings in Boston, hopefully guys like Chris Davis and Adam Jones are seeing the ball well and can push a couple of balls 100 meters deep in the outfield.

Edwin Encarnacion vs. Orioles Pitchers

While Jose Bautista has deservedly received national attention since his 54-dinger campaign in 2010, Edwin Encarnacion seems to fly under the radar for a lot of fans. Fantasy baseball managers and parrot enthusiasts already know all about Encarnacion’s power, but for those who don’t: Encarnacion has hit more than 35 home runs in each of the last two seasons, tallying 42 in 2012, has held an OBP of over .370 in each season, and is OPSing over .900 in 2012 and 2013. His numbers are down slightly in this season, but it’s still very early.

Edwin EncarnacionTwo of three Orioles pitchers scheduled to go in this series, Gonzalez and Tillman, have struggled with the longball throughout their careers. Gonzalez is giving up more HR/9 in 2014 than in the previous two seasons (2.5 this year; 1.3 in 2013); Tillman’s GB/FB ratio has dipped to 0.85 in 2014 (career 0.91). Encarnacion is slugging .471 off of Gonzalez, .429 versus Tillman, and has only seen Norris, the Orioles’ third pitcher during this set, for three at bats. In a lineup full of great hitters, Encarnacion is one that the O’s pitcher must pay special attention to. He fueled the Jay’s 11-3 win over the O’s with three hits and a double. Encarnacion hasn’t caught fire yet this season, and the Orioles are certainly working to make sure that this isn’t the week for him to start.

Melky Cabrera

29-year-old Melky Cabrera is having a great season, with numbers similar to his PED-tainted campaign with the San Francisco Giants in 2012. With an OBP of .353 and slugging .566, Cabrera has proven difficult to get out so far in 2014. He’s even putting some muscle behind swings, taking four out of the ballpark already this year. He’s not someone that the O’s need to pitch carefully, but he will be willing to take pitches and punch singles and doubles if the Baltimore pitchers make the smallest mistake.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris has been much better than some people (okay, me) expected him to be this season. His FIP sits at 3.90, suggesting he’s had some tough luck taking his ERA to 4.42, and his BB/9 and WHIP are both below career averages so far in 2014. While he’s not striking out as many as normal (6.4 K/9 in 2014 compared to 8.5 K/9 career), Norris put together a great start together against Toronto a week ago. His other two starts have been uninspiring, so it’s hard to tell if his previous game against Toronto was an anomaly or if he matches up well against the Blue Jays’ lineup. Norris is performing better than his career average in GB/FB ratio so far this season, and it’ll be important for him to keep the Jays’ bats on the ground in this series.

I predicted that the first series between these two teams would, could, and should have been an Orioles sweep. That didn’t happen. Tillman suffered a tough-luck loss (8 IP, 3 H, 0 ER) to Dustin McGowan’s first win since 2008 that could have just as easily been a gem and a win for the O’s pitcher, and Jimenez had a rough start in an 11-3 rout. This series should go better, and the Orioles should beat McGowan and Hutchinson, pitchers that somehow gave this team fits a week ago. Taking two out of three on the road is always a positive, especially when the Orioles are just trying to stay alive in the difficult AL East while awaiting the return of Manny Machado.

Steve Lombardozzi celebrates his walk off run, scored by a David Lough single, and the only win the Orioles earned in the previous series against the Blue Jays.

Steve Lombardozzi celebrates his walk off run, scored by a David Lough single, and the only win the Orioles earned in the previous series against the Blue Jays.

All 7:07 matchups in this series because they’re on weird Canadian time (night games in the US are played at 7:05), but the team will get a few extra hours of rest since they’ll be playing at 11:00 AM on Monday. Hopefully that’s enough to rest whatever bullpen arms were worn out by Jimenez’s short start against Boston and Monday’s game.

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