This offseason, I was tasked with preparing a writeup of right fielders in the game of major-league baseball. That was quite a difficult exercise, for it requires one to predict the future, and soothsayers are, at least to my knowledge, mythical. Still, I was quite confident when I wrote this:
There are those people who believe that Nick Markakis will make a run at 3,000 hits and the Hall of Fame. I am not among those people. Granted, Markakis has compiled 2,052 hits in his big-league career. That’s good! But Markakis, now at 34, is not good. Not at all. In fact, he really hasn’t been good since 2010. Since then, Markakis’s WAR has gone 1.4, 1.6, -0.2, 2.5, 1.5, 1.1, 0.9. In other words, of Markakis’ 25.3 career WAR, almost 17 were accrued in the first five years of his career.
Markakis hasn’t been even a league-average hitter since 2015, and that year he hit three (3) home runs. He hasn’t been even an average defensive outfielder since 2008. He hasn’t added value on the basepaths since 2009. In 2017, Markakis was below average against righties (97 wRC+) as well as lefties (91 wRC+), and his only remaining plus tool is his plate discipline and ability to draw walks. That’s all that separates Markakis from being a replacement-level player, and the projections aren’t optimistic about that, either. Markakis isn’t going to the Hall of Fame because he probably won’t get a big-league deal this offseason.
Nick Markakis must have read that, because he has looked like a Hall of Famer so far this year. Entering Sunday, Markakis, who is 34, was slashing .344/.428/.550 (all career bests) with a 169 (career-best) wRC+. He also appears to have turned around his play afield, too, posting positive defensive numbers (that is, UZR and positional adjustment combined) for the first time since the Bush administration (2008). Nick Markakis, in 2018, has been worth roughly as many wins as his 2016 and 2017 combined.
What the hell has gotten into Nick Markakis?
First, we should acknowledge that Markakis has taken his plate discipline to another level this year. After double-digit walk rates every year with Atlanta, Markakis this year walked in more than 13% of his plate appearances. But he’s also cut his strikeout rate in half, down to 8.6% as of today. So he’s walking and not striking out. He also has hit six homers and recorded a career-best .206 ISO.
Digging into Markakis’ numbers does reveal some interesting changes. Markakis is seeing more curveballs than he ever has before, but his fastball rate has held fairly steady. It appears pitchers are emphasizing curveballs over changeups. That change might have occurred because Markakis was at -5.3 wRAA against curveballs last year, but +7.9 against changeups. Unfortunately for pitchers, Markakis is just hitting everything better this year. For the first time in his career, Markakis is showing positive numbers against fastballs, curveballs, sliders, cutters, changeups and splitters. For a 34-year-old, that’s pretty remarkable.
But the other big change is what Markakis is swinging at, and we saw this with Javier Baez, too. Markakis, last year, swung at just 57.4% of pitches in the strike zone. He hadn’t swung more than 60% of the time at pitches in the zone since… 2007. But this year, Markakis is swinging at 60.8% of pitches in the zone, a career high. And his current 43.5% swing percentage overall is also his highest since 2007. But Markakis’ out-of-zone swing rate remains almost precisely at his career average mark. In other words, Markakis is just swinging at hittable pitches more often.
As for red flags in Markakis’ profile, there are actually fewer than one might expect for a hitter whose output has departed so dramatically from his established levels. His exit velocity is still only about 90 mph, just below Austin Romine and Paulo Orlando on that particular leaderboard. That also places him in close proximity to Nolan Arenado, though, too. Nor is this entirely surprising: many great hitters are able to parlay otherwise pedestrian exit velocities into above-average numbers by getting the ball off the ground. Markakis, who’s dropped his ground-ball rate from 48.6% last year to 40.3% this year, has also produced the highest recorded launch angle of his career (12.5 degrees).
There’s also the issue of Markakis’ .345 BABIP, which is considerably higher than his .317 career mark. It’s likely to decline — but also not as much as you think. Statcast, for example, thinks at least some of that is real, crediting him with a xwOBA — a metric that accounts for batted-ball quality — just 14 points worse than his current mark. In fact, Statcast suggests Markakis is a full-blown member of the Fly Ball Revolution, hitting the ball in the air more to right field and especially center.
As to how and why this is happening, I feel obliged to offer an explanation — or at least to attempt one. To do so, here are three screencaps.
This first one depicts Nick Markakis just before hitting a home run with the Orioles.
That’s the last time Markakis was good. Now here’s last year, with the Braves:
And finally, one last image, from just before Markakis homered a few days ago:
In each case, I’ve attempted to pause the action at the same point — that is, when the pitcher’s arm is fully extended before moving towards the plate. I don’t know how much can really be learned from this unscientific study. That said, there do appear to be some differences between the middle image and the other two. In the first and last, Markakis seems to employ a slightly more exaggerated crouch. He also appears to keep the bat off his shoulder, at an angle. Again, it’s not scientific, but differences do appear to exist.
So Nick Markakis is good again, just in time for his contract year and the Braves’ surprising return to contention. I still don’t think he’ll make the Hall of Fame. But if he keeps this up, he’ll get that big-league deal this offseason. And he’ll deserve it, too.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.