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Is this new Nick Markakis here to stay?

With career highs in numerous areas, we check if Nick Markakis can continue the hot stretch he’s been on.

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Atlanta Braves’ outfielder Nick Markakis has been a huge contributor to the team’s success in 2018. He’s transformed from a player that wasn’t know for his batting prowess but was better known as effectively wild, into someone you really don’t want to face. Markakis was mostly known for his glove. He’s not only a decent defender but he can also occasionally make the spectacular play that makes the highlight reel. That’s what you think of first, but this year he’s changing that. Not to say that his defense has changed all too much, but his bat has certainly changed in a big way.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard much more about him this season. He plays a quiet game, and that’s not an insult. That’s because the best characteristic he has is that he’s durable and plays almost every game, every season. Not since an injury in 2012 has Markakis missed more than seven games in a 162 game season. Not before that injury either, if you exclude his 147 game rookie season.

To say Markakis is off to a hot start in 2018 would be a severe understatement. He’s already hit seven homers this season, one shy of what he did last year in 160 games and we’re only a quarter of the way through the year. He didn’t reach his seventh home run last year until August.

The one number that says this won’t continue his current hitting pace is his home run per fly ball rate since it’s over 13 percent, way higher than his career average 8.2 percent. But It’s not like Markakis has hopped aboard the fly ball revolution, his fly ball rate is down from those in 2014 and 2016. His ground ball rate is also down, however is line drive rate has shot up to a career high 28%. Match those changes his his home run per fly ball rate and it suggests the line drives are responsible for the home run increase.

FanGraphs

Another part of his season that is really noticeable is his walk rate. It has less than half a percent of variation in the last four seasons including this year. Compare that to a massive seven percent drop in strikeout rate over last year. His BABIP is slightly elevated and that will likely go down but he’s been above .300 for the past four seasons, so to say he’s completely lucky isn’t really true. His hard contact rate has hardly any change at all in the past three seasons, so it’s not like he’s making hard contact more often. He did change his toe tap to a step since coming Atlanta, so that could be a reasonable explanation for the increased numbers in hard contact.

An additional key to understanding if the driving force behind Markakis’ success is luck or skill based is through plate discipline. The charts below will answer all of those questions. Firstly, he’s not making contact with any more pitches that are thrown in the zone than in prior seasons. He’s also not making contact with any more pitches outside of the zone. Finally his swing percentage overall is not much higher than his past.

So what gives? There are two keys to those specific numbers that clears things up. When you break down his swing percentage you see a massive change in both outside and inside the zone swings. He’s increased his swing percentage on pitches in the zone and decreased his swing percentage on pitches outside the zone.

FanGraphs

These large changes tell us he’s seeing the ball better and it is backed up by a huge decrease in strikeouts and about the same in walk rate. Markakis always had a steady eye in the batters box but he’s taken it to a whole other level. The line drive percentage supports the theory that he’s seeing the ball better, and as a result is making better contact more often than previously.

Additionally, he’s approaching a career high in percentage of balls he hits to center field as well, so he’s making contact more squarely than we normally see and this allows him to keep the pitches he sees within the foul lines.

Given the totality of his numbers, it’s very hard to argue this isn’t a new Markakis. He’s made slight adjustments since coming to Atlanta, but this appears to be the breakout season the Baltimore Orioles were looking for when they drafted him back in 2003. It’s refreshing to see a guy who had settled into a mould and set expectations breakout and set the bar higher, especially when he’s been a regular for 13 seasons now. Regardless of what people think about his 2018 season, the numbers suggest that Markakis can continue a very similar pace to what he is putting up right now.