Nick Markakis leads the National League in hits. He ranks third in batting average. (Know who’s first? Matt Kemp.) He ranks third in on-base percentage, fifth in OPS. He’s tied for third in RBIs. He ranks third in runs created. He ranks first in walks-to-strikeout ratio. He ranks second among NL position players in WAR at 2.0. At 34, he’s having his best season since he was 24.
Repeat after me: Baseball is a funny game.
Me, I could never understand why the Braves of John Hart and John Coppolella made Markakis their first – and last, as it turned out – significant free-agent signing among position players. He’d become just another guy with Baltimore, but for reasons unclear, a rebuilding team looking to shed salary signed him for $44 million over four seasons. The Braves insisted they liked his “makeup” and suchlike, but still: Eleven million a year for intangibles in a sport where almost everything is tangible?
His first two seasons here each yielded a 1.7 Baseball-Reference WAR; his third brought an 0.7. There were mitigating circumstances – he arrived just having had neck surgery – but he was essentially a lesser version of what he’d already been. He didn’t hit for power, which isn’t what you’d want in a corner outfielder, and he wasn’t getting any younger. (This just in: None of us are.) I always figured the only reason he hadn’t been traded was the lack of demand.
But here he is, having just hoisted another homer – his seventh of the season; he managed eight in 670 plate appearances last season – to fuel Wednesday’s victory at the Rays. He’s hitting .455 with 10 RBIs and an OPS of 1.289 in May.
In the baseball community, this has prompted a run of what-the-heck-is-happening-with-Nick-Markakis discussions. On Monday, Sheryl Ring – who wrote over the winter that “all that separates Markakis from being a replacement-level player” was his plate discipline – offered an updated take on FanGraphs. Its title: “Nick Markakis is somehow the best he’s ever been.”
Running the numbers, Ring noted that Markakis has been swinging more at pitches in the strike zone and that he has discovered the joys of Launch Angle. His was 9.4 degrees last year; it’s 12.2 now. His ground-ball rate is down from 48.6 percent to 40.2, and that’s a good thing. (Ground-ball hitters are, with few exceptions, mediocre hitters.) His exit velocity is nothing special – 89.9 mph; Bryce Harper’s is 91.9 – but, as Ring writes, “many great hitters are able to parlay otherwise pedestrian exit velocities into above-average numbers by getting the ball off the ground.”
We mentioned last month that BABIP (batting average on balls in play) can be an indicator of a hitter who’s simply hitting in good luck. Markakis’ BABIP is .333; his batting average is .338. His career BABIP is .317. There’s no red flag flying.
For Markakis, this is a contract year. He’ll be a free agent come November. Had last year been his contract year, he might still be looking for work. As is, he could be an All-Star, which is something he has never been. In baseball, as in life, timing is pretty much everything. If he keeps this up, he’ll be of value to somebody next year. Whether the Braves would want to sink more money into a 35-year-old … well, that’s a topic for another day.
Over three years as a Brave and his final six as an Oriole, Markakis had become the definition of a garden-variety player – not awful, but not very good. Nine years isn’t a small sample size; heck, it’s very nearly a career. At 34, the same guy is having a career year. He’s part of a first-place team, and not just a complementary part. He’s a really big deal. He has been better over 35 games than at any time over the past three seasons.
How does this happen? By swinging at more strikes and hitting the ball in the air? By being part of a much stronger batting order? How do you go from liability to asset so fast that anybody watching gets whiplash? As the former Braves employee John Sterling often tells his Yankee audience, you can’t predict baseball. If you said you saw this coming from Nick Markakis, you’re the only one. You’re also a liar.