In 2012 which was his age 28 season, Nick Markakis played less than 157 games for the first time since his rookie season in 2006. Usually a picture of perfect health, Nick had to deal with the final stages of recovery from his abdominal strain at the beginning of the 2012 season. After that, he was forced to miss 35 games with a hamate bone fracture in his right wrist after he was hit by a pitch on May 30. As luck would have it after he valiantly fought his way back from the hamate bone fracture, he was hit by a pitch from C.C. Sabathia on September 9th and was forced to miss the rest of the season with a fracture to his left thumb. As a result, Nick was forced to miss the Orioles first trip to the postseason in 15 years.
As upsetting as missing the postseason must have been for Nick, he actually had his best offensive season since 2008 on a rate basis. He put up a slash line of .298/.363/.471 with a .359 wOBA. While only playing in 104 games, Nick was still able to hit 13 home runs. He was actually on a pace for 19 home runs if he had been able to get a full season’s worth of at bats.
After he returned from his hamate bone fracture, Buck Showalter decided to hit him in the leadoff spot to take advantage of his excellent on base percentage. I said on Twitter at the time that I liked the move to bat Markakis leadoff because of his OBP and because of the fact that wrist injuries are known to sap a player’s power potential. However, Nick didn’t fit in with the trend as he actually had his best isolated slugging percentage since 2008 (.173). He reversed a three year downward trend in his isolated slugging percentage in 2012 even with the fracture in his wrist. For those of you that are more visual, take a look at this graph of his isolated slugging percentage from Fangraphs. Click the picture to make it bigger.
While his isolated slugging percentage had to increase to move back into above average territory last year, Nick has always had excellent on base skills. As I’ve said on the podcast a few times, he has a career .365 on base percentage which should continue into next season. He’s still making contact at an excellent rate and his swinging strike percentage is far below the league average. Both of these numbers are trending in the right direction in order to maintain his low strikeout rate as he gets older.
While there has been sporadic talk of moving Nick from right field to an easier position such as first base, he’s not at the point in his career where such a move is necessary. 29 years old this season, I still believe he’s capable of playing a solid right field. The publicly available defensive metrics have not been fans of his for years. Defensive Runs Saved and UZR have both rated Nick below average for the past few years, but I don’t completely trust the numbers on this one. It’s still best to take the defensive metrics with a grain of salt and to make sure that they make sense with what your eyes tell you. In this case, they don’t match up. I still think Markakis is about an average defender in right field with a plus arm.
One thing for Nick to work on as he heads into his 2013 season is his ability to hit pitches up and over the middle of the plate or up and in. Like most left handed hitters, he likes the ball low and in but he struggles more than most on pitches up in the zone. Look at this plot from Baseball Prospectus, where you can really see how he struggles on those types of pitches. It’s sorted by BP’s all encompassing offensive stat TAv where red is good and blue is well, not.
One last thing to discuss about Nick is where he’s going to hit in the order. He had a lot of success leading off for the Orioles last season. It generally makes sense to get a team’s best hitters the most at bats, and he definitely qualifies as one of the best hitters on the team. However, with his high quality on base skills and large amount of doubles I’d like to see him bat in the second spot in the order this season. He would be able to knock in the lead off batter with a double and get the middle of the order up with men on base.
In 2013, I think we’ll continue to see Nick Markakis be a very productive member of the team. He hasn’t turned into the superstar many predicted after the amazing start to his career, but he has turned into a good player that can be part of the Orioles core. Next year, Nick will still be in the latter part of his prime at 29 years old and I predict he’ll have another very solid year for the Orioles. We’ll see very good on base skills, average power production and a solid glove out in right field. The Orioles should be happy with their right fielder for the next two seasons, and possibly longer.