Nick Markakis’s Down Season

Over the winter, the Baltimore Orioles signed right fielder Nick Markakis to a six year, 66.1 million dollar contract, covering Markakis’s arbitration years and first three years of free agency, and including a $17.5MM mutual option for another. It appeared that the Orioles may have been locking up a perennial all-star. Markakis posted win totals of 2.0, 3.8, and 6.2 from 2006 to 2008. He showed tremendous improvement each year, with wOBAs increasing from .346 to .366 to .389 each year, and flashed a solid glove in RF, with a total UZR of +20 over the three seasons.

Unfortunately for Baltimore, this success would not carry over into the 2009 season. His wOBA regressed back to its 2006 total, and his defense slipped below average for the first time in his career. As a result, Markakis saw a 40 run swing in his value, posting 1.9 wins, nearly identical to his rookie season.

What’s behind the fall? On the offensive side, we see a fall in nearly every major statistic. Obviously, wOBA, OBP, and SLG fell. Looking at some component statistics, we also see a fall in BB%, ISO, BABIP, HR/FB%, and LD%.

That’s a pretty exhausting list, and certainly explains a 20 run drop in offensive production, but what explains the drop in these component statistics? To get to the heart of the matter for Markakis, we have to look at his plate discipline statistics.

nickmarkakis

Markakis has shown the ability to post high BABIP numbers throughout his career. With no other discernible increase in ability, a BABIP gain in 2007 led to a gain for Markakis. Then, in 2008, he began to swing at fewer pitches overall and fewer pitches in the zone. This led to a large increase in walk rate. We can also infer from this that his LD% and thus BABIP rose, because pitches in the zone are easier to hit hard than those out of the zone. This led to his fantastic .389 wOBA and an all-star caliber six win season.

His swing rate remained relatively constant in 2009, but it was because of a rise in O-Swing% and a dip in Z-Swing%. As a result of this, his BB% and LD% both returned to 2007 levels. However, this time, Markakis’s BABIP returned to a number more consistent with his 2006 level, based on his batted ball profile. As such, his overall hitting line was very similar to that of his rookie year – above average overall, but not anywhere near all-star levels for a corner outfielder.

Still, this bat would play at a high level with Markakis’s 2006-2008 fielding stats. Whereas a UZR in the +5-+10 range, as his 2006-2008 play suggested, would have placed Markakis at a 3-3.5 win level, his roughly -5 UZR this year reduced him to a merely average outfielder. The problem was a precipitous drop in RngR, from 4.2 in 2008 to -11.1 in 2009. None of his offensive speed stats suggest anything that would cause a 1.5 win drop in range over the course of the year. This may be one of those one-year drops we can see in UZR much like we can see a 2 month slump in hitting. At this point, it’s best to assume that Markakis’s true fielding talent lies somewhere near the +3 UZR/150 he’s posted through 4 nearly full seasons at RF.

If Markakis can find a way to fix whatever caused him to swing at more pitches out of the zone and fewer pitches in the zone, he should be able to return to his 4 win level of 2007 or above. Even if he does not, his prior fielding numbers suggest that he will at least return to an above average level now. The contract that the Orioles signed Markakis to is team-friendly enough that even at the bottom end of this projection, the production the team receives out of Markakis may equal the salary paid. The Orioles and their fans shouldn’t be worried unless his light hitting continues for another season.




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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.


15 Responses to “Nick Markakis’s Down Season”

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  1. Michael says:

    I love using batter’s plate discipline stats that they show here. Good stuff Jack.

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  2. gil says:

    Believe teammate Adam Jones also suffered a severe drop in defensive statistics this season that is hard to explain – could the two be related – either with certain conditions inflating their defensive stats in prior seasons, or some variables deflating them this season?

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    • Michael says:

      From 2009 Fans Scouting Report:

      Markakis: 3.93/5 adj for left field
      Jones: 4.02/5 adj. for center field

      Both results had 37 ballots for them. I’m guessing it could have been a defensive slump. Both players had an excellent reputation throughout their career, no reason to suspect anything but fluctuation. One season is like 40% of a full batting season, and full batting seasons aren’t great determinants either.

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  3. LeeTro says:

    The biggest reason I could find for the lower production this year seemed to be his spot in the batting order. Last year, he had 330 PA in the 2-hole and 366 in the 3-hole. OPS in the 2nd: .973. 3rd: .827.

    This year, he had 446 PA in the 3-hole, 196 in the cleanup spot, and 69 in the 2-hole. OPS- 2nd: .925 (obvious SSS here), 3rd: .810, 4th: .733.

    I’m guessing he has a different mindset as a table setter instead of being the run producer, causing him to be more patient and get better pitches. With Wieters as a logical 3-hitter, I see no reason to put Markakis anywhere but the 2-hole and let those two give whoever hits behind them plenty of RBI opportunities.

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  4. David says:

    Markakis used to be protected by Aubrey Huff (who had a career year in 2008 – I don’t think that’s a coincidence). This year, he was protected by a shuttle of mediocre hitters, ranging from Aubrey Huff (who had one of the worst seasons of his career), Ty Wigginton, Melvin Mora, and late in the season he finally had Matt Wieters hitting behind him. My instinct before seeing these statistics was that this was the main reason for his decline.

    As for the fielding? From watching the games, Jones doesn’t look as good as he did last year (maybe it could be because he gained some bulk to improve his hitting, or maybe because he has been playing a lot shallower than normal). As for Markakis – maybe the level of ‘average right fielder’ went up a bit and thus his ability in comparison looks worse. Or maybe Jones’s play next to him is affecting him, who knows.

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    • joser says:

      Tom Tango did a study that showed protection doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.

      The entire point of protecting a batter is to improve his offensive output (wOBA) by forcing the opposing pitcher to pitch to him. And indeed, we saw above that opposing pitchers pitch to protected hitters, something that is evidenced by the fewer walks. However, when the ball is put into play, we see no significant difference between how the two sets of hitters perform. The unprotected hitters have a wOBA of .395 (counting only balls that are hit), compared with .391 for protected hitters.

      In short, protecting a star hitter appears to accomplish very little. He indeed gets fewer walks; however, there is no evidence that he gets more hittable pitches, since the pitcher always avoids pitching to a good hitter when the situation would call for an intentional walk.

      As for fielding, we see a lot of year-to-year variation in UZR. I wouldn’t allow one year’s results to convince me to jump off a bridge.

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  5. Whateverfor says:

    Markakis played absolutely terribly in the field for the first two months: he was at something crazy like -10 UZR by the break. He looked bad during that time too. After that he’s looked much better, and the numbers have conveniently improved too. The huge step back in pitch recognition is much more worrisome.

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  6. Jeff V says:

    “Believe teammate Adam Jones also suffered a severe drop in defensive statistics this season that is hard to explain”

    Jones went to the Athlete performance center in AZ last offseason and put on about 20 pounds. That was probably a factor in his decreased range, he was also having hamstring issues.

    Not sure the cause for Markakis, part of the blame might fall on the personal life ledger, he was newly married with his first child born during spring training. It is conceivable that it was a factor, as I am sure his dailly routine suffered.

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  7. Corey says:

    David I don’t think the protection theory makes sense. If pitchers were much more willing to pitch around Nick to get to a mediocre cleanup hitter he would’ve walked more. Instead his walk rate dropped drastically.

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    • Samuel Lingle says:

      Perhaps he expanded his zone because he knew that he had to do something instead of letting a mediocre cleanup hitter fail, and thus swung more often at the extra pitches out of the zone he was seeing.

      There’s all sorts of speculation we can make about this that may or may not be valid, but we won’t really know anything until we see what happens next season.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I posited the similar situation/possibility with Derrek Lee’s poor start in 09, with Aramis out of the lineup. Batters likely tend to get [1] nibbled by pitchers, and [2] more anxious to make something happen. It’s not necessarily the “protection” arguement (although it could be), but also teammates trying to force production into occurring to make up for the absence or shortcomings of those behind them.

        Both (pitcher ‘nibbling’ combined with anxious batters) have the possibility to lead to fewer walks, poorer contact, and decreased overall production.

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  8. JoeR43 says:

    I just want to point out that seeing an undergrad math major makes me wonder when I can write for this site.

    Never? Okay.

    Keep up the good work, Jack, look forward to reading more from you.

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  9. exxrox says:

    Can somebody say Alex Rios?

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  10. excatcher says:

    Nice look at Nick’s peripherals. He could have benefited from more protection at the plate, with Huff and Mora having big down seasons, with Huff eventually being moved. I’m hoping he can return to 2008 form.

    I think Jason Berken, Adam Eaton, and Rich Hill may have something to do with the across the board UZR drops for the Orioles outfielders. Those guys were insanely hittable, posted huge H/9 and LD%, to the point of statistical aberration. 200IP of LD% > 20 and GB% < 40 is gonna wear out your outfield.

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  11. Sorbil says:

    He saw an almost 25% increase in AB vs. LHP in 09, and he didn’t hit them as well as in prior years. AL seems to have more LHP than NL, though doesn’t seem to have been more than a minor increase overall in LHP from prior year, so this was either random or teams played match up against him since he was struggling more vs. LHP. Wouldn’t be surprised if this explains pretty much all the difference, but will it repeat? He had over 40% of his AB vs. LHP, which is just a huge number. Most of that has to be random – expect him to rebound.

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