Nick Markakis is having a marvelous year. Now in his 13th big-league season — his fourth with the Atlanta Braves — the perennially-underappreciated outfielder is slashing .323/.388/.489, and he leads the senior circuit in base hits (119) and doubles (29). On Tuesday, he’ll take the field as an All-Star for the first time.
With the possible exception of a splashy 2008 campaign in Baltimore, this has been the lefty swinger’s best season from a statistical standpoint. (Given the Braves’ better-than-expected record, it’s been a boffo one from a team perspective, as well.) The secret to his age-34 success hasn’t been a springboard so much as it’s been cumulative. Fifteen years after he was drafted out of Young Harris (GA) College, he’s finding himself in full stride.
“My timing has been really good,” Markakis responded when I asked why he’s been swinging such a hot stick. “Hitting is all about timing. What I’ve learned over the years is that this game is constantly about adjustments, and timing is everything. If you’re not on time and can still hit, you’re a pretty damn good hitter. If you can figure out timing, you’re going to be a great hitter. Being on time with the fastball and being able to adjust to off-speed pitches is really the key for me right now.”
Markakis hasn’t radically changed his timing mechanism — there is no new leg kick, for instance — but there are some nuanced adjustments. According to the outfielder, they’re equal parts subtle and continuous.
“Every pitcher is different, so it’s all about figuring out your best timing mechanism for each pitcher,” he explained. “Some guys you’ve got to go a little early, and some guys you have to wait. Video helps out a lot. I like my front foot to come down at a certain point when the pitcher is in his delivery, so I look at video between each at bat to see where my timing was.”
Markakas has been on time often enough during his career to have amassed 2,171 hits, which is sixth-most among active players. He may not be able to cite that number off the top of his head, but he knows what he’s accomplished over a decade-plus of mostly-fanfare-free years.
“Every player knows what he’s done, and if they tell you they don’t know, they’re lying,” proclaimed Markakis. “People are constantly talking about it here and there. Guys know. At the same time, you don’t look too much into it, because each day brings something new. There are new challenges to face every day.”
As for the possibility of one day reaching 3,000 hits… let’s just say his focus currently lies elsewhere.
“That’s so far away from me right now,” said Markakis, who at age 34 has a legitimate shot at that milestone. “With what I’m trying to accomplish with this team, that’s really irrelevant. I have to just continue to go out there and do my job.”
It goes without saying that he’s doing it really well. His All-Star section is proof in the pudding.
Nick Sandlin’s professional career is off to a splendid start. In seven outings covering a like amount of innings, the 21-year-old righty has surrendered just four hits, and he’s yet to issue a free pass or allow a run. He’s fanned a dozen batters, seven of them over his last three frames.
His performance with low-A Lake County has been a continuation of his final collegiate season. Prior to being selected by the Indians in the second round of this summer’s draft, Sandlin went 10-0 with a 1.06 ERA, and 144 strikeouts in 102-and-a-third innings, at the University of Southern Mississippi.
By and large, he’s a side slinger. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Evans, Georgia native began throwing from a low arm angle five years ago at the suggestion of his high school coach, and upon discovering that “hitters didn’t seem to like facing that stuff,” he decided to stick with it.
He will change things up from time to time.
“I’m mostly sidearm, but once or twice an inning I’ll raise up,” Sandlin told me on Thursday. “Last night, I actually raised up for three or four pitches. That’s something I’ll do to give hitters another look, maybe add a little deception.”
Sandlin feels he can elevate his fastball better from the higher slot — he’ll also throw a changeup from up top — but his bread and butter is the sidearm two-seamer that he likes to keep low in the zone.
In Sandlin’s case, ‘bread and butter’ is a relative term.
“I like to mix it up a lot,” said Sandlin, who estimated that he throws his low-90s fastball around 60 percent of the time. “I have a slider and a changeup that I go to a good bit. I like my off-speed pitches. I can throw them for strikes. That’s probably one of the things I do best.”
His role as he moves up the ladder is less settled than you might think.
“With a sidearm slot, the first thing you think of is reliever,” said Sandlin, who closed at Southern Mississippi before becoming a starter in his junior year. “But talking to scouts, with my command and my three pitches from that slot, I think most teams thought I could be a starter. At the same time, the fastest way to move up would be as a reliever. Right now the Indians have me going that route.”
Given the big-league club’s current bullpen woes — and Sandlin’s sidewinding dominance — it may not be farfetched to believe that he could reach Cleveland in fairly short order.
Speaking of Southern Mississippi, another former Golden Eagle is quietly putting together one of the top reliever seasons in the high minors. Pitching for Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, 25-year-old Cody Carroll is 3-0 with nine saves and a 2.63 ERA, and he’s fanned 47 batters in 37-and-two-third innings.
According to a scout who has seen him multiple times, the under-the-radar Yankees prospect gets good downward plane on his fastball, and his splitter is also a plus pitch. (He was less bullish on the righty’s slider.) He feels that Carroll will pitch in the big leagues, although not necessarily with the team that took him in the 22nd round of the 2015 draft. The scout told me that he wouldn’t be surprised if teams were bringing up his name in trade talks.
I asked Scranton manager Bobby Mitchell how close Carroll is to being big-league ready.
“He’s really close,” responded the veteran skipper. “He’s just got to be a little more consistent in what he does — his command and so forth — but he’s come a long way since I had him in Double-A. He’s continued to improve. He throws 95-plus, and when he commands that, along with his split and his slider, he’s pretty much unhittable. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s brought up this year.”
A recent notes column included observations from Mike Bordick and Matt Williams on how similar — or dissimilar — offense and defense are in terms of mindset. Today we hear from Oakland A’s All-Star Jed Lowrie on the same subject.
“It’s obviously a different physical movement, but the act of hitting, in and of itself, is reactionary, just like defense,” said the former Stanford Cardinal. “You have the pitcher on the mound with the ball and you’re reacting to what he’s doing with that ball.
“I can’t speak to what other guys do at the plate, but when I’m at my best I’m reacting just like you would in the field. You don’t have time to react to a 95-mph fastball if you have too many thoughts in your head, so scouting reports are something you process in the back of your mind. That’s how I was taught to hit, to just recognize the pitch and react to it.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Bunny Fabrique went 2 for 4 against Pol Perrit.
J.A. Happ will represent Toronto in the All-Star Game, and his low-90s heater is one of the reasons why. The 35-year-old southpaw doesn’t light up radar guns, but as Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini explained, he’s sneaky fast.
“There are certain guys who are like that,” Mancini told me earlier this season. “J.A. Happ of the Blue Jays is one. He has one of the best fastballs in baseball. He effectively uses it up, and he switches it up. He’s not afraid to come in, he’ll go away, and he uses it up a lot. His fastball seems harder than it actually is.”
Former DiamondBacks, Dodgers, and Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger is 11-1 with a 2.16 ERA in 13 starts for the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a 19-year-old right-hander, is 4-1 with a 1.29 ERA in 35 relief appearances for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan’s Pacific League.
Zach Pop, a 21-year-old right-hander in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, has a 0.93 ERA in 35 relief appearances since being drafted in the seventh round last year out of the University of Kentucky. Pop is currently with high-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he’s allowed one run in 27 innings.
Luis Garcia, an 18-year-old (as of May) third baseman in the Washington Nationals organization, is slashing .302/.339/.402 between low-A Hagerstown and high-A Potomac. He began the season as the youngest player in the South-Atlantic League and is now the youngest in the Carolina League.
Batters often see the ball better in some parks than they do in others, and the time of day plays a role as well. For Detroit Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario, his home venue is challenging in the early evening.
“Sometimes in the first AB at Comerica Park it’s difficult to see because the sun is dropping,” Candelario told me earlier this summer. “It’s right at the mound and home plate, so you have to battle. But overall, I see the ball pretty well there.”
On the season, Candelario has a .783 OPS at Comerica, versus .707 on the road.
Xander Bogaerts’ grand slam yesterday was Boston’s ninth of the season, the most in the majors. The Red Sox didn’t hit any last year.
The Pacific League topped the Central League by a score of 7-6 in the first of two NPB All-Star games on Friday night. Seibu Lions catcher Tomoya Mori went 3 for 3, including a three-run, first-inning home run off of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Cubaball Tours has announce that their 19t-annual baseball tour of Cuba will be conducted from September 23-30, 2018. Highlights include five games of the 58th National Series, in five different ballparks. Information can be found here.
Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball has begun announcing speakers for their annual (and always outstanding) seminar, which will be held in Boston on August 4 and 5. Among those on hand will be Brian Bannister, Nate Freiman, Alan Nathan, Fernando Perez, and Tom Tippett.
The Lansing Lugnuts lost to the Burlington Bees on Friday night, despite having an equal number of runners cross the plate safely. No, they didn’t lose on penalty kicks. What happened is that Toronto’s low-A squad scored five times in the top of the ninth to tie the score at 7-7, only to have a power failure kill the lights at Burlington’s Community Field. The umpires called the game, and per Midwest League rules the score reverted back to the completion of the last full inning.
Jake Diekman is among the many MLB players active in charitable endeavors, and he has first-hand experience with the issue he’s involved with. The Texas Rangers reliever was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was 10 years old.
“Last year I had my colon removed,” Diekman told me earlier this week. “I had a bag for six months, and missed the first five months (of the 2017 season) before coming back to pitch in September.
“My wife and I created the Gut It Out foundation to help a community of people reach out to one another, and to give grants and donations to help fund research projects and hospitals. If there’s a (clinical) trial that we feel needs a little money, we’ll pass it out to them.”
Information for Diekman’s Gut It Out foundation can be found here.
Told that a pair of position players — Daniel Descalso and Alex Avila — combined to pitch four-and-two-thirds innings in Arizona’s 19-2 loss to Colorado on Wednesday, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons reminded a group of reporters that he once did something just as unique.
“I used a position player in the postseason,” said Gibbons, who called on infielder Cliff Pennington in Game 4 of the 2015 ALCS. “Great managing. First time in history. Probably the last time in history, too.”
Performing mop-up duty in the ninth inning of a 14-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals, Pennington allowed a pair of singles, then induced an inning-ending pop out.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The Boston Globe, Alex Speier wrote about how the Red Sox have turned Fenway Park into a biomechanics lab for prospects.
How and why do Cubs and White Sox hitters choose their bats? Mark Gonzales asked that question to several of them and shared their answers at The Chicago Tribune.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The first MLB All-Star game home run derby took place in Minnesota’s Metrodome in 1985. Cincinnati’s Dave Parker came out on top.
Dean Stone of the Washington Senators was the winning pitcher of the 1954 All-Star game despite not retiring a batter. The lefty entered in the eighth inning to face Duke Snider, Red Schoendienst was out attempting to steal home, and the AL scored rallied to take the lead in the bottom half.
On this date in 1973, California’s Nolan Ryan struck out 17 batters while throwing a no-hitter in Tiger Stadium. In the ninth inning, Detroit’s Norm Cash walked to the plate carrying a piano leg, only to be ordered to go get a real bat. He subsequently popped to short to end the game.
Juan Marichal made his MLB debut with the San Francisco Giants on July 19, 1960 and threw a complete-game shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies. The only hit he allowed was a pinch single by Clay Dalrymple with two outs in the eighth inning.
In 1898, Wee Willie Keeler led the National League with a .385 batting average. He had 206 singles and 10 extra-base hits, and struck out four times in 604 plate appearances.
The 1927 “Murderer’s Row” Yankees led baseball with 158 home runs, as well as strikeouts (610) and walks (642). The league averages for the other 15 teams were 51 home runs, 417 strikeouts, and 454 walks.
In his eight seasons with the Cincinnati Reds (1926-1933), Red Lucas went 109-99 with a 3.64 ERA. As a hitter, he slashed .300/.361/.375 in 1,100 plate appearances. Over his 16-year career, Lucas went 103 for 379 (.272) as a pinch-hitter. His nickname was “The Nashville Narcissus.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.