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Bullish 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 side of Nick Markakis. You could read the negative side here.

I bravely volunteered to take on the bullish side of Nick Markakis. How difficult could it be to find some positives in a hitter who has never hit below .291 in a season and hits second in his respective team’s lineup? However, after reading David G’s (no, I am not typing out his last name) fantastic bearish post yesterday, I was tempted to raise the white flag. The commenters even felt sorry for the poor soul responsible for the other side of the coin, as one wished:

Good luck to the guy assigned the Sisyphean task of writing the “Bullish on Markakis” article…

That certainly does nothing to help my confidence. However, while Dave’s article is full of strong points that paint a pessimistic picture of Markakis going forward, things should not remain this bad.

Let’s start with his batting average. As mentioned above, Markakis has never hit below .291 in a season, and his low BABIP mark was .314, still above the league average. Of course, this season that average is down to just .242, while has BABIP has declined to .253. Dave points out that his expected BABIP is actually .310, which would still set a new career low, but is significantly higher than his current mark. The strange thing is that Markakis has posted a career best 22.2% line drive rate, which one would expect to lead to a career best BABIP, or close to it.

Since his batted ball data looks pretty normal and suggests better BABIP days ahead, the problem eventually becomes obvious. That 18.3 IFFB% sticks out like a sore thumb. After posting rates in his previous five seasons of between 6.3% and 7.1%, that is an enormous jump. He currently ranks 11th in baseball in IFFB%. The question then becomes whether this should be expected to continue. If so, then maybe we cannot assume his BABIP jumps to historical levels. But given that popout rate takes about 500 plate appearances to become reliable (Markakis is at just 281 right now), I would be inclined to think this is more of a fluke than anything else. Or maybe not a fluke, possibly poor hitting, but given his track record, something that should be assumed will correct itself in short order. With batting averages down across the league, a .290 average the rest of the way is worth a whole lot more than it used to be in fantasy leagues.

One of the other large concerns is that of Markakis’ power, which has pretty much been MIA since 2009, as his ISO has dipped for a third straight season. What is quite alarming is not the five home runs, since that simply puts him right on pace to match last year’s output. Instead, it’s the mere five doubles after swatting 45 of them last year, and hitting in the 40 range each year since 2007. It is hard to find evidence that a power surge is imminent, but he is showing the best contact rate of his career, and all else equal, better contact means more opportunities for home runs. His HR/FB ratio is just 6.1% this season, which is identical to last. It is hard to believe though that this is what has become of Markakis, after posting double digit marks in his first three seasons.

ZiPS projects 10 home runs the rest of the way, and with league power down, that number is not so bad. If you prorate that projection into the full season at-bat forecast, you are left with about 17 home runs, which is respectable.

Last, though it is easy to ignore, he still chips in the odd stolen base. He has stolen four bases in five attempts this year and with another possible six that ZiPS sees, that could be the difference between a place or two in the stolen base category standings. High single digit steals from players are typically ignored by fantasy owners, but they do have value and help put a floor under Markakis’s potential earnings.

It seems all bad for Markakis at this point and being part of an offense that has been quite disappointing, it is difficult to get excited. But this is precisely the type of situation that savvy fantasy owners take advantage of, swooping in on established players who are still in their primes (Markakis is still just 28) and acquiring them for pennies on the dollar.