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September 23, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Nick Markakis: Greek God of Warning Track Power

by Craig Brown

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Has there been a more disappointing fantasy player in the AL this season than Nick Markakis?  With a little over a week remaining in 2010, look at some of the relevant fantasy numbers going back a few seasons:

Those depressed numbers are... Depressing. (Sorry about that.)  His stats are down across the board, with an extreme decline in HR and RBI production.  Let's tackle both of those issues one at a time,  starting with the decline in RBI.  Through Wednesday's games, Markakis has come to the plate 662 times this season.  Let’s compare him to the “average” major league player with the same number of plate appearances:

The actual runners on base for Markakis is way off the league average.  This is where Markakis really missed Brian Roberts early in the season. With the Orioles leadoff hitter sidelined with back and abdominal issues, Baltimore turned to Corey Patterson (.329 OBP as a leadoff hitter - which is right at league average for the top spot in the order) for 236 PAs, Julio Lugo (.296 OBP) for 84 PAs and Adam Jones (.224 OBP) for 67 PAs.  Collectively, Oriole leadoff hitters posted a .304 OBP while Roberts was sidelined.  That will slice the RBI opportunities for a number three hitter.

Compare the total .304 OBP to the .368 OBP Roberts has posted since rejoining the team on July 23, hitting exclusively in the leadoff spot.  The numbers illustrate just how much Markakis missed Roberts batting at the top of the order.  In Markakis’ first 94 games of the season (all but four played without Roberts) he averaged 11.8 AB/RBI.  In 56 games since Roberts’ return, Markakis is averaging 10.2 AB/RBI.

That’s an improvement in the RBI department, but it’s still not enough.  Especially when we combine his three previous seasons and see over that timeframe, Markakis drove in a run every 6.2 at bats.  It turns out he's not bringing home his usual percentage of base runners.  This season, Markakis is driving home just 13% of all runners, well below his career rate of 17%.  

Sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story.  Look at Markakis' situational hitting for the 2007 season where he finished with a career best 112 RBI.

PA with men on - 343
PA with runner only on 1st - 132
PA with RISP - 211

In 2007, almost 62% of Markakis’ plate appearances with men on base had at least one runner in scoring position.  Now look at his situational hitting from this year:

PA with men on - 282
PA with runner only on 1st - 127
PA with RISP - 155

This season, just 55% of his plate appearances with runners on have come with at least one runner in scoring position.

Not only is Markakis getting fewer RBI opportunities, he’s also getting a lower percentage of quality RBI opportunities. (As defined by plate appearances with at least one runner in scoring position.)  When he does come to the plate with runners on second or third, he’s hitting .313/.400/.383.  Basically, he's lacking the RBI results because he's lacking the opportunity.

As for the power... That's just as easy to explain, although it's slightly more problematic.

Let's begin by examining Markakis’ HR/FB rates going back to his rookie season:

2006 - 8.6%
2007 - 8.9%
2008 - 8.6%
2009 - 6.6%
2010 - 4.1%

After flashing some consistent rates in his first three seasons, he saw a decline last year and really fell off the table in 2010.  We know the general rule regarding home run rates as a percentage of fly balls is to look at a rolling three year total and then base an assumption on the current season based on those previous years.  So if we look at Markakis’ 2009 6.6% HR/FB, we would assume that because of his consistency from 2006 to 2008 (overall 8.7% HR/FB) his home run total would rebound in 2010.  Except, as we all know, that hasn’t been the case.

Markakis is no different from most hitters in that the majority of his power lives to his pull field.  All but one of his home runs this season have landed to the right - or pull - side of second base.  

This is fine, except Markakis has evolved from a hitter who once sprayed the ball to all fields, to a hitter who now favors going to the opposite field.  The following charts are from Texas Leaguers and show where Markakis hit the ball, comparing 2008 (the last time he hit 20 HR) to this season.  First, 2008:

Now, 2010:

The increased concentration of plots in left field versus the decline in number of plots in right field for this year is glaring.

His spray chart for 2010 broken down by percentages underscores how often he has taken the ball to the opposite field.  It's not a good profile for someone expected to club at least 20 home runs. (PECOTA had his weighted mean at 22 HR.)

Markakis is still a good hitter.  His contact rate of 88% is the highest of his career and he's hit at least 43 doubles for the fourth consecutive season. He's done this while bumping his walk rate to almost 11% and has no problem hitting against left handed pitching.  The power still lurks in Markakis, although it will continue to be underutilized unless he can rediscover his pull stroke.  The silver lining is, even if his home run totals don't fully recover and return to 2007 levels, we can expect his RBI total to rebound from what has become an extremely forgettable year.  At this point, we'll take what we can get.  Because of his frustrating fantasy season, heading into next year's drafts and auctions, it's likely he will be undervalued.  By how much is anyone's guess.  One look at his spray chart from April 2011 will tell us everything we need to know.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

Related Content:  Nick Markakis

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Premium Article Kiss'Em Goodbye: New Y... (09/23)
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