Nick Markakis has not hit a home run yet.
There. That's out of the way now. We all know it. Let's move on.
Despite the lack of power, Markakis has, more or less, maintained his offensive production (109 wRC+). It starts with an adjustment to his approach at the plate. He is running his first double-digit walk rate since 2010 and his highest since 2008, his career year. The adjustment - he is swinging less.
Cakes has never had a swing rate below 40 percent. It is below that mark this year. Combined with his high walk rate, that suggests he has been more selective. That's not necessarily the case. His swing rates inside the zone and outside the zone have both declined almost equally. Brooks Baseball has things to say about Markakis' eye at the plate this year:
Poor eye. Very poor eye. Poor eye. Those normally aren't words associated with double-digit walk rates, yes? There's something else going on here. Diving deeper can reveal some answers.
There's a lot of evidence suggesting that the strike zone is moving downward. Pitchers are getting the low calls, and those are pitches that batters can't hit for much power. Markakis isn't hitting for much power. He's supposedly being more selective, yet he's pegged as having a poor eye by Brooks Baseball. Markakis, however, is simply responding to a league-wide trend. Observe his swing rates comparing 2013-2014 to 2015.
If you ask me, it looks like Markakis really is showing better plate discipline in some areas. He's laying off the up and in stuff that's outside the zone. He's laying off the low and inside stuff. However, there's an area at which he is swinging more - the three zones below the strike zone. In 2015, Markakis is swinging at each of those zones at a higher frequency than in 2013-2014. Possibly not coincidentally, this is the area that has become more "borderline" than "ball" in recent years.
Markakis is still showing excellent contact skills, so he's not missing those pitches. The results have followed. Cakes is running a 53.1 percent ground ball rate, which ranks 21st out of 166 qualified hitters. It's the highest ground ball rate of his career.
The second part of Markakis' adjustment is regarding what happens after he makes contact with the ball; he's making an effort to take his balls in play to the opposite field. He's pulling his grounders and line drives a little bit less than last year, but it's not a big difference. It's his fly balls where the change is most noticeable; 54.9 percent of his fly balls in play are classified as opposite field shots. Unfortunately, this strategy hasn't worked out well. Markakis is batting .137/.255 BA/SLG on fly balls, which ranks 10th-worst out of 164 qualified hitters.
In working to take the ball to the opposite field, it's possible that Markakis is trying to shield himself from the effects of the defensive shift. As shifts have become more prominent, power hitters who pull the ball excessively have seen their performance falter. Chris Davis' 2014 performance is the prime example of this. Markakis wasn't necessarily an overshift candidate, and he clearly doesn't have prodigious power, but consider the factors involved with Markakis' career trajectory and move to Atlanta.
1) Markakis' power was basically already gone
2) The strike zone appears to be lowering
3) Pull hitters are finding it harder to maintain production
4) His new home park is difficult for power
So, Markakis responds to his new situation by swinging more at pitches likely to generate ground balls, limiting his fly balls, and shift-proofing himself. Along the way, he is swinging less at pitches that are more likely to be called balls (up and in, low and in). A good walk rate is a nice thing to have as a baseline offensive trait as one ages. This sounds like a guy who is looking to maintain some level of useful production throughout his decline years as he plays under a multi-million dollar contract.
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Kevin Ruprecht is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for Royals Review. He is not a big fan of cake. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.