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.
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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