What Are We Missing About Nick Markakis?

There’s not a contract agreement yet or even an indication that one is close, but one thing seems clear about this particular baseball offseason: There might not be a larger gap between our perception and the conversations we’re hearing in the real world than in those regarding Nick Markakis. A few weeks ago, it seemed like the Orioles were ready to retain him for the next four years, but that hasn’t quite happened yet, and the latest rumors have the Braves, Blue Jays, Giants, O’s, and potentially others all showing interest.

Earlier this week, ESPN’s Jim Bowden — who’s really very good at this sort of thing — suggested Markakis could get four years and $52 million. MLB Trade Rumors said 4/$48M in October. FanGraphs readers were a little more conservative, coming up with an average of 3.4 years and $39.8M, but we also know that the FanGraphs crowd tends to underestimate free agent contracts somewhat.

Just by those numbers, one would think that Markakis is a desirable player to have, but you probably already know that most of the FanGraphs staff doesn’t really see it that way. A month ago, Dave compared Markakis to Nori Aoki, who clearly isn’t getting a four-year deal. Steamer pegs him for a 103 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR in his age-31 season, and that’s with the benefit of a projected 679 plate appearances. Using Steamer/600 on our Free Agent Tracker, he’s tied for the 15th-best unsigned hitter out there. (The usual “don’t overthink the decimal point” caveat applies.) You’ve probably seen many of us mention how down we are on him via tweets or in chats, as well. He’s not young. He’s not improving. He’s not even a source of righty power, this year’s trendy “must-have.”

And yet, Markakis seems very likely to get a comfortable deal. So before we even know what team is going to give it to him, opening themselves up to inevitable ridicule, perhaps it’s time we shine the spotlight inward first. Where’s the disconnect? What are we missing that makes Markakis so inexplicably appealing?

Is he a better defender than we think?

This is the easiest place to start, because it’s the area that’s got the largest gap. Markakis won a Gold Glove in 2014, his second in the last four seasons. In nine years and 11,758.2 defensive innings, he’s made only 18 errors. A full one-third of that total came in 2009 alone, and in the four years since, he’s fumbled only two balls. He hasn’t made a single error in more than two seasons, not since misplaying a Jeff Francoeur foul fly on Aug. 10, 2012. Clearly, Markakis is sure-handed, and in the three seasons that we have Inside Edge fielding available, he’s made 99.7% of “Routine” plays. 

So if you only knew that, you might find it extremely difficult to parse the fact that our advanced fielding metrics find him to be below-average. Here’s Markakis’ important advanced fielding stats for the last five seasons:

DRS UZR/150 Defense
2010 -11 -4.8 -12.8
2011 2 -5.2 -12.7
2012 -7 -13.2 -13.6
2013 -7 -5.8 -14.1
2014 1 5.8 -2.5

That looks pretty miserable, though of course the “defense” stat is adjusted for position, and right fielders get a -7.5 adjustment, since it’s one of the least important defensive positions. If you wanted to just look at Markakis without comparing him to everyone else, he’d be below-average from 2010-13 (but less so), and above-average in 2014.

The obvious next question is why advanced stats dislike Markakis so much, and that’s an answer that’s relatively easy to answer if you’ve lived through any of the endless Derek Jeter arguments over the years. The chart below shows the three major components of UZR to the left, and the results from the Fan Scouting Report at the right.

Arm RngR ErrR Arm Strength Arm
Accuracy
2010 1.0 -8.2 1.7 92 98
2011 1.8 -9.2 1.8 83 91
2012 -0.4 -8.9 0.7 71 73
2013 2.6 -11.5 2.3 57 70
2014 5.5 -1.6 2.3 76 87

While the FSR is obviously not exactly a scientific method, what we have here shows some pretty obvious reasons why the eye test and the metrics test on Markakis don’t align. Again, we see his ability to avoid miscues appear in ErrR, and we see an accurate (though potentially weakening) arm on both sides of the table. You rarely see Markakis look bad in the outfield, and that accounts for a lot when you’re watching on television. But it’s the RngR column that dooms Markakis much as it did Jeter — it’s great to be sure-handed, but if you’re poor at actually getting to the ball, your value is going to be limited.

That’s long been an issue for Markakis, and the seeming rebound in 2014 is what looks like the outlier more than anything. We can’t know for sure what caused that, because it’s not like he’s had any lower body injuries to recover from, and though he’s aged and slowed somewhat, he’s not David Ortiz out there either. Part of me wonders if the Orioles’ increasing (and increasingly effective) usage of shifts have helped Markakis end up in more favorable spots to field the ball in 2014, but that’s just speculation on my part.

Still, perhaps different teams value what he brings with the glove differently. If you’re looking for someone spectacular who is going to regularly make the extraordinary play to keep runs off the board, Markakis probably isn’t that. If you want someone steady who won’t burn you, he’s your man. That’s about as strong of recommendation as we’re going to be able to offer on defense, however. Range isn’t something that’s likely to improve as he ages.

Do teams care more about contact skills?

This is the other defense of Markakis that regularly comes up, and it’s partially a valid one, maybe moreso if you really buy into the idea that teams are going to copy the Royals’ blueprint of adding plus-contact hitters. (As opposed to the wildly great bullpen or fantastic outfield defense.) As the rest of baseball keeps striking out more, Markakis has been able to keep his whiff rate well below the league average.

Of course, there’s a few issues with that. One is that after three straight years of a K% starting with a “10,” Markakis’ whiff rate increased to 11.9 in 2014. Over the last three years, that number is 11.2%, which is good, but not necessarily elite — it’s tied for 18th-best among qualified hitters. His K/BB numbers have remained relatively steady for the last five years, so there’s not much danger of imminent collapse here, and that should help keep what is usually an above-average OBP afloat.

That said, “contact” and “good contact” aren’t always the same thing, because Markakis’ power has all but disappeared over the years, potentially affected by 2012 surgeries on his right wrist and left thumb as well as to fix a hernia. His batted ball distances have been nothing short of terrifying, really:

Avg. Feet MLB rank
2009 297.91 71
2010 291.23 124
2011 279.86 145
2012 284.07 124
2013 271.22 223
2014 267.92 228

There’s also this: Camden Yards is generally a pretty good place for a lefty hitter to find the stands. Here’s every single Markakis homer over the last three seasons, 37 of them, 23 of which came at home:

markakis_hr_2012-14

If he were to end up in a park that didn’t cater so well to lefties, it’s easy to see that homer total dropping from his usual 10-12 into the single digits. Obviously, this all plays into his total wRC+. An 88 in 2013 was terrible, and a 106 in 2014 was adequate. Combine the two, and he’s tied for 128th in baseball in 2013-14. Among the names ahead of him: Michael Saunders, Chris Johnson and Ike Davis.

It’s true that Markakis has better contact skills than most other players. It hasn’t yet been proven that the market is willing to wildly overpay for that, or that he brings a ton else to the table offensively.

I still don’t think we’ve figured out what makes him appealing. Let’s look at some potentially similar players, but…

How about some comps?

…I don’t think this is going to help the case. I really want to know what it is about Markakis that’s fascinating. I’m not sure this table gets us there. This is a list of eight outfielders, Markakis’ age or younger (save for Aoki), with superior performance over the last two years and similar projections in Steamer/600 for 2015.

2013-14 Steamer/600 2015
Name Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR wRC+ WAR
Colby Rasmus 26 834 .253 .315 .477 117 4.1 5.4 110 2.4
Michael Saunders 26 731 .250 .330 .416 109 -4.3 3.2 104 1.9
Drew Stubbs 28 905 .259 .321 .418 99 -6.3 3.2 101 1.8
Nori Aoki 32 1223 .286 .353 .366 103 -3.3 3.9 97 1.8
Alejandro De Aza 30 1203 .258 .319 .397 96 -0.9 3.6 92 1.6
Nick Markakis 30 1410 .274 .335 .371 97 -16.6 2.4 104 1.5
Gregor Blanco 30 955 .263 .337 .361 103 12 4.9 100 1.4
Will Venable 30 963 .248 .301 .411 102 -0.6 3.8 91 1.2
Gerardo Parra 27 1237 .265 .316 .387 91 20.6 4.6 103 1.2

These are players who are either freely available for a fraction of what Markakis is expected to get or would be reasonably inexpensive to acquire via trade. Blanco seemed like less than a lock to even be tendered a contract last night, though he ultimately was. This isn’t exactly a great market for offense — after Chase Headley, it’s Melky Cabrera and cover your eyes — but it’s not like there aren’t other options that couldn’t provide most or all of Markakis’ value for a portion of the price. Why a team would commit multiple expensive years when there’s other options, well, it doesn’t add up.

Let’s say you disagree with Markakis’ defensive ratings, that you prefer to think of him as a 2 WAR player, which isn’t unfair. That’s a league-average player. Markakis seems like a league-average player. If wins are somewhere around $7 million this winter, you can make the argument that he’s worth $14 million next year. Let’s even call it $15 million, if you really like not striking out. But even if we go with that, he’s already shown that the last two years are the start of his decline.  A four-year deal easily takes you to below-average or replacement or worse. It’s hard to see a team coming out ahead on that.

When I started this, I really wanted to see what I’d been missing. I wanted to know why the public perception and the advanced metrics seem so far apart. I’m not really sure I accomplished that. Markakis is a steady player, nothing more, with little upside remaining and age squarely against him, one who could look worse outside of Camden depending on where he winds up. Some team is going to pay heavily for that. Some team is going to regret doing so.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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tz
Guest
tz

It’s probably a perfect storm of:

– Memories of his great seasons in his mid-20’s, making teams optimistic that he can bounce back.

– Confirmation bias that if he’s been worth $15M to the O’s the past few years, you have to offer him something in that general range.

– Maybe the worst batch of free-agent OFs ever.

– The perceived value of Markakis’s consistency, especially when compared to the perception folks have of Cabrera and Rasmus.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowden’s 4/52 prediction comes true (unless it’s the Padres that sign him)

Reggie Roby
Guest
Reggie Roby

“Maybe the worst batch of free-agent OFs ever.”

Teams are still forgetting the PUNT option…

Ray Guy
Guest
Ray Guy

Reminds me of when a couple teams could only see 2 options, BJ Upton or Bourn. What a difference a punt would have made there.

Tim Legler
Guest
Tim Legler

Exactly. The notion that you can’t scrape by with in-house options for one year and then reconsider the next offseason can make for some expensive and far-reaching mistakes. The Jays resisted the urge to “do SOMETHING!” at 2B last offseason (and may again this year, too).

tz
Guest
tz

Note to John Hart: you could always have punted (see above)

teufelshuffle
Guest
teufelshuffle

Sandy Alderson’s best Free Agent move so far was punting that year.

baltic wolf
Member
Member
baltic wolf

I hope the Orioles don’t forget the punt option.

I loved Nick in his early years, and even up through 2010, when the HRs had diminished, he was still a doubles machine.

I get to see Nick a lot. He didn’t have great range before, but it seems to me that his range went down dramatically in 2011, the year he had the abdominal tear—which he played through in typical Markakis fashion–and maybe that’s a contributing factor.

Nick played a full week in 2012 with a fracture in his left wrist before finally going on the DL. Maybe what we have is a guy who should rest up a little more instead of demonstrating how tough he is.

Or was. His best years are clearly behind him. I prefer Colby “I’ll swing at the first or second pitch I swear to god” Rasmus to Nick?

Yes, (gulp!) I do. We’d get a good glove and a guy who can hit for better power, but a lower batting average. And he should be pretty cheap.

If you’re paying for Nick, you’re paying for consistency and durability and not much else.