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The Curious Case of Nick Markakis

Last offseason, the Baltimore Orioles signed Nick Markakis, who was coming off a career year, to a six year, $66 million contract. They thought they were locking up a perennial all-star, but Markakis did not live up to expectations in 2009 as he regressed back to his rookie season rather than continue with his upward trend over the past two seasons.

Markakis posted a 6.45 position scarcity rating (PSR) in 2009, which ranked 87th overall. That ranking pegs him as a late ninth round pick, but most owners drafted him somewhere between rounds three and five. Before we delve into why 2009 was such a down year, let’s take a look at his career stats so far:

[table id=15 /]

The most telling stat here is on-base percentage, which rose from .351 to .406 from 2006-2008, but then dipped back down to a career-low .347 in 2009. In 2008, Markakis brought a patient approach to the plate and came away with a near-.900 OPS and 99 walks—great in both fantasy and reality. In 2009, he strayed away from his approach that pegged him as a patient, power-hitting corner outfielder and returned to his more pedestrian and less attractive rookie form.

To further illustrate this point I took a look at his plate discipline statistics and found that in 2009 Markakis swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone and hit less line drives—all of which resulted in a lower BABIP—and made him no better than Jason Kubel (6.41 PSR) or Curtis Granderson (6.41 PSR). Here are the stats so you can see for yourself:

(Note: O-Swing corresponds to swings at pitches outside of the strike zone and Z-Swing corresponds to swings at pitches inside the strike zone.)

[table id=16 /]

Markakis posted a career year in 2008 thanks to a great improvement in his batting eye. He swung at a career-low 18 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, which led to a career-high 14.3 percent walk rate, which ranked 17th in the league. Also by swinging at more pitches in the zone, Markakis made better contact thereby increasing his BABIP to .351, which was ninth-highest in the majors.

Fast forward to 2009 and two things that jump out at me are the increase in fly ball percentage and a sudden dip in HR/FB percentage. You would think that with more fly balls come more home runs, but in Markakis’ case only eight percent of his fly balls turned into home runs when his previous career-low was 11.6 percent.

It’s fair to assume that Markakis’ 2009 HR/FB rate is an aberration and that he will return at least close to an 11 percent rate, if not higher, so I did some math. In 2009 Markakis hit 225 fly balls and if 11.6 percent of them left the yard he would have hit 26, not 18, home runs. Not bad right?

So now it’s time for the million dollar question—what can we expect in 2010?

If 2009 is any indication of what direction Markakis is headed in then it’s not going to be pretty, but lucky for us he should have a nice bounce-back season  if he can fix some key issues that plagued him last season. For some reason Markakis’ eye wasn’t as sharp last season as it was previously in his career and if he can swing at more pitches in the strike zone, like he has done in the past, he will see an increase in line drives and a better BABIP.

Also we shouldn’t expect a walk rate of 14 percent or a BABIP or .351, but he should improve on his ridiculously low HR/FB rate which would increase his power output and thus make him a more valuable fantasy corner outfielder.

At 26 years old, Markakis is the cornerstone in a very young Orioles lineup, but with Brian Roberts, Adam Jones, Noland Reimold, Matt Wieters and new addition Garrett Atkins as protection we should expect numbers in the ballpark of .300 BA—95 R—23 HR—100 RBI—8 SB.

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About the author: George graduated with a degree in Journalism, but instead of walking at his graduation, he walked down the aisle at his wedding. He’s been playing fantasy baseball for over a decade and his interest and knowledge in the sport is as big and growing as his eyebrows are bushy…and growing. (@BaseballProf)

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