Nick Markakis: No Longer A Star?

One of the more disappointing trends in recent years has been the progression (or lack thereof) of Nick Markakis' career. After his phenomenal 2008 season (.306/.406/.491, +12 UZR), Nick has seemingly settled in as just a decent player - which is a far cry from the All-Star the Orioles need him to be to make the AL East more interesting.

Coming into the 2010 season, there was some hope that Markakis could rediscover the plate discipline that allowed him to walk 99 times in '08, which was almost cut in half in '09 (56 BB). An uptick there, a slight bump in power, and an improvement in his defensive numbers (to a small plus; between his very good 2008 and his -6 UZR in '09) would have left Nick short of the 6.1 fWAR he posted in what now looks like his career year, but still solidly above average at 4+ WAR.

Markakis started the year out walking left and right, with 10 free passes in his first 7 games. At the All-Star break his walk rate stood at 12.9% - a good deal closer to his previous high (14.2%) then last year's low (7.9%). He was hitting for average and knocking out doubles - a "Nick Markakis day" was a 1-3 with a two-base knock and a walk - but his slugging percentage was hovering in the lower .400s. On May 23rd he had just 2 home runs. He finished the year at .297/.370/.436 with only 12 homers. The OBP was nice (or, at least, nicer than it was the previous season), but where was the power?

One of the issues was that not only was Markakis not pulling flyballs, but he was also not hitting as many to the opposite field. Center-field is the deepest part of virtually any park, and a full half of Nick's flyballs were going out there. No wonder they weren't finding seats.

So how did his spray charts look at the end of the year (using FanGraphs' splits)?

 

LF

CF

RF

2006

31.4%

34.0%

34.7%

2007

33.6%

38.0%

28.4%

2008

29.4%

36.4%

34.2%

2009

32.3%

32.1%

35.6%

2010

32.2%

40.1%

27.7%

A lot more balls going to center, and fewer being turned on. Just the flyballs:

 

LF

CF

RF

2006

46.0%

34.7%

19.4%

2007

46.7%

35.7%

17.6%

2008

47.2%

37.7%

15.1%

2009

41.8%

33.3%

24.9%

2010

44.2%

40.1%

15.7%

He started pulling the ball in the air a little more later in the year, but that's still a lot of flyballs being hit to the deepest part of the park. In 2008, Nick hit a lot of opposite field home runs. In 2009 he hit a lot of home runs to right. In 2010, he didn't hit a lot of home runs at all. You can see that explained pretty well in the above chart.

Really, Nick's power output has been on a pretty steep decline for a couple years now. In his first three seasons, his HR/FB rates were 13%, 12% and 13%. Since then, it's dropped to 8% and 6%. Markakis is still cracking a lot of doubles - he became just the third player in major league history to hit 40+ doubles for years in a year (43, 48, 45, 45) - but the ability to really drive the ball is either vanishing or not being utilized.

Perhaps it was something to do with his falling strike-out rate. After whiffing 113 times in '08 (19.7% of his at bats), that rate has fallen to 15.3% and now 14.8%. I hypothesized last year that perhaps Nick's drop in walk rate had something to do with trying to avoid K's by putting the ball in play more. Maybe this manifested itself in 2010 in swinging less hard. Indeed, Markakis' contact rate went up for a second straight year - from 84.6% to 86.6% to 89.9%. On pitches out of the strike-zone, it's jumped from 69.2% to 73.2% to 84.6% - the last of which was the 5th highest mark in the majors. If you look at the batters that make so much contact, you get a list of names like Juan Pierre, Martin Prado, Chone Figgins, et al. The only guy in the top 20 when it came to overall contact rate with more than 15 home runs was Victor Martinez, who hit 20. Sure - all else equal- it's usually better to put the ball in play than to strike out. All else isn't equal though, as guys who swing and miss tend to be guys who do some damage when they get the bat on the ball.

Now, it's a perfectly fine skill set from a guy playing an up the middle position or from a role player. A .353 wOBA is nothing to sneeze at - it's certainly above average (119 wRC+) - but it's not so great for the team's highly paid star right-fielder.

Defensively, Nick has been below average according to both UZR and plus/minus for two years in a row now. In 2009 they had him at -6 and -4 runs, respectively, and in 2010 it was -6 and -2. They agree that he has good throwing arm but relatively limited range. Tango's Fan Scouting Report grades Nick out as one of the best right-fielders in the majors (though they agree that his arm components are way better than his range components), but I'm not sure how much of that is a reputation effect. I'm not a great scout, but I can say that there are certainly plenty of times where Nick doesn't get to a ball that I think a really good outfielder would have gotten to it, and a lot of his great plays (jumps/dives/etc.) seem to me to be on balls that a good fielder would have just caught in stride. At this point, I don't think it's unfair to call Nick an average right-fielder, if not slightly below average. If you take his UZR numbers for the last three years, weighting the most recent seasons more, you get -1.5 runs. If he comes in with a third straight year around -6 in 2011, I'm going to officially be in the "Nick really isn't a good fielder" camp (not good != bad). Right now it's just the "Nick really doesn't deserve a Gold Glove" camp.

Big picture; Markakis plays a lot - which helps out his value - but at this level he's not all that much more than an average major leaguer (2.8 fWAR and 3.2 brWAR this season). FanGraphs has his production valued at $11 M for the season. Given that he would have been in his second arbitration season (when players tend to get ~60% of their free market value in pay), that gives you $6.6 M. Compared to Nick's actual contract of $7.1 M, it looks like he's wasn't a bargain at all. When the Orioles locked him up for 6 years and $66 M, it looked like a good move (or even a steal). They should still come out close to even, but that would certainly count as a disappointment.

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