ATLANTA – For a dozen years, Nick Markakis has been baseball’s metronome, good for four professional at-bats each night, for 155-plus games each year. Every April – the first nine of them in Baltimore, the last three in Atlanta — you could pencil him in for 700 plate appearances, 175 hits and Gold Glove-caliber defense in right field, and invariably, by the end of September, that’s what he had given you.
But this season, Markakis’s 13th, someone has cranked up the metronome into EDM rave-party territory. At age 34, he is having perhaps his finest season, leading the National League in hits entering Friday, with 74, and hitting (.333) and slugging (.505) at career-best clips. He is a major reason the Atlanta Braves are surprise contenders in the NL East, battling the Washington Nationals this weekend for the division lead.
“My God, the guy’s a machine,” Braves Manager Brian Snitker said of his everyday right fielder and cleanup hitter. “It doesn’t matter [who he’s facing] – righty, lefty. He’s hitting everybody. He’s one of the steadiest players I’ve ever been around. He’s one of those guys — you have to manage him to appreciate him. You have to see him every day.”
Markakis’s performance this season has ushered in a new level of appreciation for him around the game, with people all of a sudden taking note of the 2,100-plus hits he has amassed in his career, doing quick math, and realizing it isn’t out of the question for him to reach 3,000 – which, for decades, has almost uniformly earned a player a spot in Cooperstown. It would be an amazing thing for a player who, to this point, has never even been an all-star.
That’s right: Markakis has never made an all-star team – a fact that can still catch people off-guard.
“I didn’t even know that until someone brought it up recently,” said Alex Anthopoulos, who took over as the Braves’ general manager in November. “I was shocked. You feel like he’s been a perennial all-star. He’s a complete player.”
A close examination of the numbers provides clues as to how Markakis is producing at a career-best rate. According to Statcast data, he is swinging at a higher percentage of strikes (64.3 percent entering Thursday) and chasing a lower percentage of balls (19.5 percent) than at any other time in the Statcast era (beginning in 2015). He has become slightly more aggressive, swinging at more first pitches (23.6 percent) while whiffing less frequently (11.6 percent).
And like many hitters, he has increased his average launch angle, boosting it from 8.6 degrees in 2017 to 10.4 degrees this season – an increase of roughly 20 percent. Largely as a result, his ground-ball rate has dropped (from 49.4 percent to 43.9) and his fly-ball rate has increased (from 17.7 to 19.4). And his production has skyrocketed, with his OPS shooting from .738 in 2017 to .905 in 2018 (entering Friday).
It’s possible he is one of those players, much like Washington’s Daniel Murphy, who transforms himself as a hitter late in his career. But Markakis is adamant that he has not become one of those launch-angle devotees, like Murphy, who has altered his swing to lift the ball.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to go up there and alter my swing to start swinging up on the ball,” he said. “I think that would actually give you the lowest success rate, in terms of being on-plane with the ball. My biggest thing is trying to be on time and trying to hit the ball out in front [of the strike zone]. If you hit balls out in front, you’re naturally going to have a better launch angle without necessarily changing your swing. If you catch balls deep [in the zone], you’re going to hit hard ground balls and line drives. If you want to elevate the ball, you’re going to have a better chance if you catch it out front, as opposed to deep.”
It may not be a coincidence, however, that Markakis’s career year at the plate has come in his first season under a highly progressive, advanced-analytics front office regime – something he did not have in Baltimore or in his first three years in Atlanta. Anthopoulos, the former Toronto Blue Jays GM, had spent the previous two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the most progressive front offices in baseball, and among his first moves with the Braves was to boost the analytics department from two employees to more than a dozen.
“I think some of the analytical things that Alex and his team brought have helped him,” Snitker said of Markakis. Asked to elaborate, he said, “Just some of the things they showed him in spring training, just the numbers.”
Asked about the correlation between Markakis’s exposure to more advanced analytics and his production, Anthopoulos said, “I refuse for the front office to take even one percent of credit. It’s 100 percent Nick. It’s always the guy on the field. All we try to do is provide as many resources and as much information as we can. If that can help with performance, great. But it’s 100 percent on the player.”
The most obvious manifestation of the Braves’ new analytics-heavy regime isn’t at the plate, but on defense, where Markakis, like all the team’s outfielders, keeps a card in his pocket detailing the positioning for each opposing batter. He can be seen consulting the card from time to time between hitters.
“Analytics can be useful. It can prepare a player more than he’s used to – just knowing tendencies and percentages,” said Markakis, a two-time Gold Glove winner. “But even analytic people will tell you, there’s also a human element. Being a professional athlete and being around a little while – that plays into it as well. If I see something and it’s not necessarily on the card or something they tell us – it’s all about adjustments. Analytics is a good starting point, but you also have to go out there and use your eyes and make adjustments. You still have to execute.”
If this is the new Markakis – a .330-hitting, .500-slugging on-base machine – everything changes in regards to how his career will be viewed. A free agent after the season, he could find himself a sought-after asset this winter, instead of one of those mid-30s veterans who struggles to land a job in a marketplace that values youth above all.
A few 200-hit seasons could push him into consideration for the Hall of Fame.
And another six weeks from now, it’s possible he could find himself at Nationals Park for the All-Star Game, filling in one of the last remaining holes in a career resume built, at least until this year, on a simple and remarkable consistency.
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