Nick Markakis has carved himself out a nice major league career. He now has the 8h most hits in Orioles history and by seasons end he’ll likely be in sole possession of 6th place. Markakis, now with nearly 1,500 hits, at 30 years old has a shot at gathering 2,500 hits in his career. While hits are a compilation statistic (meaning if a player stays in the game long enough, he is likely to compile a lot of hits no matter what), that would still place him in the top 100 of all time. However, Markakis still strikes me as a player of unfulfilled potential. In his last four seasons, Markakis has not compiled a WAR higher than his rookie season (2.1 in 2006). His two highest WAR seasons—far and away—were at ages 23 and 24. In 2008, a season in which he compiled 6.1 WAR, he had the 11th highest total in all of baseball. To peak so young is a very odd career trajectory. While Markakis was on the path to being one of the best all around players in baseball, he cratered early. This loss in value is due to two reasons, which are readily apparent to date this season, a reduction in power and a reduction in defense.
Markakis early on posted decent advanced defensive numbers. But, since 2009 he has been bad according to the metrics. To follow up that up with some regular scouting, he has simply lost a step. He lost his range at a young age and has never been able to get it back. His arm keeps him respectable but he has even lost some of that strength as well. He remains a below average right fielder and it is not getting any better.
While his defense has hindered his overall value, the most critical aspect of his game to leave him at young age was his power. Markakis never hit many home runs, with a career high of 23, but the doubles were critical to his value. He had four straight seasons of 43, 48, 45, and 45. All fantastic numbers. In fact, after the 2010 season, he had a decent shot of reaching the top 10-20 for the all time doubles record if he kept up that pace. However, his homers and doubles fell following 2010. If he had maintained a 40 double, 15-20 homer pace over the course of his career, alongside his .300 batting average and decent walk rate, Markakis could have been one of the most valuable outfielders in the game. The graph below tells the story best of when he lost his power. Those are his season by season ISO* and SLG numbers.
(* I have discussed this in previous posts, but to explain again, I prefer ISO when discussing a player’s power production. While SLG accounts for a players singles in its calculation, ISO does not. ISO is calculated the same as SLG, but does include singles. ISO better reveals a players ability to hit for extra bases, which is what power really is all about)
Looking at the graph above, once can see that Markakis was average to above average in power production for his first handful of seasons. Starting in 2010 is when his power began to fall to below average. His numbers spiked in 2012, however that is his shortest season to date so the sample size is smaller than the other years around it. Also, 2012 was still lower in both ISO and SLG than 2007 and 2008. Since 2009, Nick Markakis has been a below average power hitter. And his most recent season, 2013, was his worst ever producing a paltry .085 ISO (.145 is considered average and .080 is considered awful) and posting a -.1 WAR number. But, the question still remains to why did he lose his power?
After watching Markakis for years and staring at hours of tape it is hard to tell if this power reduction is due to mechanical issues. Markakis has been known to change his stance and approach at the plate nearly every week. He will lower or raise his hands, stay open or close up, he is a constant tinkerer at the plate with his mechanics. I do not believe mechanics has anything to do with the steady power decline. Nor is it necessarily how pitchers are pitching to Markakis. Looking at the numbers, he is seeing a similar amount of pitches in the zone, a little less than the early years but nothing unexpected and in fact his rate has rebounded recently. Furthermore, the mix of pitches he is seeing is similar to his early years. It has not been an adjustment from pitchers. Rather, much like his defense, he simply lost a step earlier than most other position players do.
Looking at the two heat maps below. One shows his power peak years (2007 to 2010) and the one below that shows the last two seasons (2013 to 2014). They are ISO heat maps showing which pitches in which locations Markakis has been able to drive for extra bases.
Clearly, Nick Markakis has shown over the past two seasons to not be able to drive the pitches for extra bases that he once could. In particular the pitches in the outside middle of the plate—which if you remember those great Markakis years he could artfully fade right in between the center fielder and the left fielder for a double like clockwork—he has shown a clear ability to not drive for extra bases anymore. The only power left in Markakis’ game comes from pitches down and in and even then its limited power at best. Basically, he can still run into a meatball, but his double hitting days are over. And with someone who cannot and has never been able to hit the ball out of the park readily, Markakis is basically a slap hitting right fielder who can post some decent value at the plate, but nothing special.
The career arc is strange and unfortunate but clearly obvious. Markakis simply could not and cannot maintain the production of his early seasons. His skills broke down sooner than most. He is a nice piece and if he kept up his early pace, he would have been a steal on his current contract. However, unless he is brought back at a reduced price—or if Peter Angelos decides that loyalty is worth $17.5 million—Orioles fans better get used to having a new right fielder in 2015.