The Orioles are in the thick of a playoff race once again After their dominating performance last night in San Francisco, they are just 1.5 games out of their second wildcard appearance in a row. Some of this year’s Orioles heroes are the same: Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Wei-Yin Chen. Manny Machado has used last season’s call-up as a springboard for a tremendous 2013. Nate McLouth has been a tremendous budget pickup.
Few would name Nick Markakis to the list of big contributors to the current run. In 2012 Markakis had his best wRC+ (125, .298/.363/.471) since his tremendous 2008 (138, .306/.406/.491). Thus far this year, Markakis is having the worst offensive season of his career, with just a 95 wRC+ (.284/.339/.377). The primary cause appears to be a serious power outage.
Markakis’ bat improved each year from 2006-2008, his age 22-24 seasons, so pretty much everyone liked the six-year, $66 million deal Baltimore gave him prior to the 2009 season. His 2009 season was disappointing, as his overall production took a dip (107 wRC+), but given his prior history. Most would have agreed with Dave Cameron’s comment when ranking Markakis 35th in 2009 trade value: “The talent is still there, though, and as a 25-year-old with across the board skills, he’ll have more seasons like his 2008 in the future.”
Marakis did rebound in the following few seasons, but he did not come close to regaining his 2008 form (this post will leave aside Markakis’ fielding on order to focus on his bat). His walk rates from 2010-2012 were better than 2009’s, but did not come close to reaching the same level, and he also puts the ball into play more often. Indeed, starting in 2010 his contact rate has been outstanding.
However, in 2010 and 2011 those improvements were canceled out by the decline of Markakis’ power. Markakis isolated power makes this clear: .185 in both 2007 and 2008, .160 in 2009, .138 in 2010 and .122 in 2011. Breaking it down into more precise components the decline appears across the board: in 2008 Markakis had extra bases in about three percent of his hits in play ([2b+3B]/[H-HR]). In 2009 and 2010, that rate was between two and three percent, and in 2011 it dropped under two percent. Doubles rate is particularly subject to random variation, but Markakis’ home run on contact (HR/[AB-SO-SK]) rates tell a similar story: over four percent in 2007 and 2008, just over three percent in 2009, and between two and three percent in 2010 and 2011.
Assuming the power trend was more a reflection of true talent than random variation, one can imagine a number of possible explanations. One might simply be aging-based decline. Markakis might have seemed a bit young for that, but mid-20s was not terribly early for that sort of thing, and everyone ages differently. Another explanation might be that Markakis changed his swing in order to improve his contact (his contact rate starting in 2010 has always been up near 90 percent) at the expense of his power. Perhaps it was a combination of both.
Although one year does not prove or refute any such explanations, Markakis’ 2012 rebound did put a dent in them. The main driver behind his best offensive season since 2008 was his power. His isolated power of .174 was his best since that 2008 season. The 2012 power cannot be attributed to a random spike of doubles and triples, either, as that rate was about the same as 2009 and 2010. Markakis’ rate of home runs on contact showed a substantial improvement at 3.4 percent, easily his highest since 2008. (Markakis only hit 13 home runs in 2012 due to a shortened season, more on that below). What makes the return of his home run power even more impressive is Markakis doing it without sacrificing contact or strikeout rates, which were as about high as at any prior season. It is difficult not to be a good hitter with excellent contact rates and above-average power.
Things are awry in 2013, though, as seen from the numbers from the beginning of this power. The culprit is easy to spot. Markakis is walking a bit less, and his strikeout rate is best of his career. His BABIP is only a bit lower than 2012. The problem has been power. Markakis’ power 2010 and 2011 isolated power marks are a bit below average, but in 2013 it is dreadful (.093). His rates of doubles and triples in hits in play and home runs on contact are both easily the worst of his career. One might compare Markakis’ 2013 hitting to that of another slap-hitting corner outfielder, Michael Brantley, but even Brantley is hitting for more power (.118 ISO this year).
So what is going on this year? One might take the easy way out and simply see 2012 as a random surge interrupting age-related decline. It cannot be ruled out, but seems a bit facile. Perhaps Markakis has changed something with his swing, but 2012 throws at least a bit of doubt on that, since his contact rate was excellent last season when he hit for good power.
There is another possibility. I usually try to stay away of specific injury discussions, since I am not a trainer or doctor, nor have I done research into the problems caused by injuries, as has our own Jeff Zimmerman. It is worth noting, though, that Markakis had a broken hamate bone removed last season. He also missed him when he had surgery on his broken thumb late last season. (Two big reasons why the previously quite durable Markakis only had 471 plate appearances last year). Markakis also had neck problems this spring.
Again, I am not making any specific claims here. Injuries obviously are different from each other and vary in how they alter performance from player to player. Still, hamate bone injuries are often associated with a loss of power. Some say that hamate issues can cause a drop in power lasting 12 to 18 months after surgery. Obviously, this will vary in terms of length and depth of effect. For example, Troy Tulowitzki broke his hamate in June of 2010, but hit 18 home runs after he came back, with a second-half isolated power of .311.
The question is whether or not potential injuries and their aftereffects should make Orioles fans feel better or worse about Markakis’ present and future. On on hand, injuries obviously are bad in themselves, many of them lead to future injuries. On the other hand, as Jeff has pointed out, if a player like Markakis is playing through an injury or the lingering aftereffects of one (whether it is the hamate issue, the neck, or whatever), once the injury fully, he has a good chance rebound in 2013 more than a projection system that does not incorporate injury information would expect. After talking with Jeff, Markakis performance this year is certainly compatible with the idea that he is playing through an injury. This is not to say that this is what is going on with Markakis, just that it is a realistic possibility, especially given his recent past.
Obviously, it would be a good thing for Baltimore if Markakis’ power has taken a hit this year due to injury issues that can be resolved with off-season recuperation. he is owed $15 million next season, and has a $2 million buyout if the Orioles decline the mutual option for 2015. Even with the amount of money flowing into baseball these days, it is difficult to imagine Marakakis not being a drag on the Orioles’ 2014 payroll (and thus competitiveness) if his power does not return to levels much closer to 2012 than 2013.