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Bearish on Nick Markakis

This is part of an ongoing pro/con series on RotoGraphs over the next couple of weeks. Today we’ll look at the positive/negative side of Nick Markakis. Expect the opposite side shortly.

A few years ago, the future of the Baltimore Orioles’ franchise appeared to rest on the shoulders of Nick Markakis*. A lefty-hitting outfielder with superb pitch recognition and power, Markakis seemed well on his way to becoming the new Brian Giles. The O’s rewarded Markakis with a six-year, $66.1M contract extension after a 2008 season in which he popped 20 home runs and got on base at a .406 clip.

*His chin was a bit preoccupied.

A strange thing happened on Markakis’ path to perennial MVP Award contention, though — he has turned into a glorified singles hitter with just ordinary plate patience.

Take a look at Markakis’ Isolated Power figures and walk rates since 2008:

2008: .185 ISO, 14.2 BB%
2009: .160 ISO, 7.9 BB%
2010: .138 ISO, 10.3 BB%
2011: .078 ISO, 6.4 BB%

Run-scoring levels are down across baseball over the past two years, but that fact doesn’t come close to explaining Markakis’ vanishing secondary skills. Here are his ISO and walk numbers as a percentage of the league average (100 means average, below 100 is below-average and above 100 is above-average):

2008: 119% ISO, 163% BB
2009: 103% ISO, 89% BB
2010: 95% ISO, 121% BB
2011: 57% ISO, 76% BB

Markakis’ walk rate rebounded somewhat last season, but it’s back to well below the league average in 2011. And his pop? Well, Markakis’ ISO is in the same neighborhood as power luminaries like Miguel Tejada, Elvis Andrus and James Loney.

The 27-year-old seemingly can’t hit with any authority up the middle and to the opposite field:

Markakis hasn’t hit an opposite-field home run since ’08, and he has just six shots to center field since ’08 (none this year). He’s also not performing as well when pulling the ball to right field:

The main reason for his decline in pull power is a sky-high pop up rate: Markakis has a 36.8 infield/fly ball percentage when pulling the ball this season, compared to 7-10 percent in previous years.

Markakis’ decline in power has coincided with a drop in his strikeout rate: 19% in 2008, 15.3% in 2009, 14.8% in 2010 and 11.3% in 2011. And his outside contact percentage has climbed. Here are Markakis’ O-Contact rates as a percentage of the league average:

2008: 112%
2009: 119%
2010: 127%
2011: 117%

So, he’s striking out less often, due mostly to an increase in making contact with pitches thrown off that plate that aren’t likely to have a good result for the hitter.

According to Pitch F/X data from Joe Lefkowitz’s site, the main reason for Markakis’ increased O-Contact rate is that he’s connecting with more out-of-the-zone four-seam fastballs. Markakis made contact 80.7% of the time that he swung at a four-seamer out of the zone in 2009 (the first year for which there’s full-season Pitch F/X data). In 2010, that contact rate increased to 82.1%, and it’s 88.1% this year.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Markakis’ Pitch Type Values show that he has been one of the worst fastball hitters in the game this season. At -1.55 runs per 100 fastballs seen, Markakis is hitting heaters as “well” as Chone Figgins.

Markakis’ plummeting power numbers and pared-down K rate suggest that he may well be taking a lighter cut at the plate in an attempt to avoid punching out. The additional contact that he’s making is coming on junk pitches tossed off the plate, however, and it looks like his increased contact on fastballs swung at out of the zone has been especially damaging.

To be sure, Nick Markakis is not a .242/.299/.320 true talent hitter. His batting average on balls in play is just .253, while his expected BABIP (based on homers, K’s, SBs, line drives, fly balls and pop ups) is .310. And, given that changes in ISO take about 550 plate appearances to become reliable, Markakis probably won’t continue slugging like Zombie Miggy.

But even so, it’s looking like a long shot that Markakis will again become an all-around offensive force: his rest-of-season ZiPS projection has him batting .276/.349/.418, and his .341 projected wOBA ranks 46th among outfielders. That, combined with a handful of steals, doesn’t exactly put Markakis in elite fantasy territory.