Nick Markakis, Disappointment, and Managing Expectations
When 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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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While 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:
As 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.
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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.