Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire
Nick Markakis is 34 years old, so it’s fair if you looked at his .346/.415/.537 slashline so far this year and said “Bah, there’s no way that’s real.” I did that, don’t worry. In fact, if you decided to take a closer look at Markakis, you probably looked at his .353 BABIP and said “AHA! It’s all luck, he’s just on a hot streak.” It’s ok, I did that too, don’t worry.
But guess what? There’s more to it than that. Markakis has made a real, actual, noticeable change in his approach this year, and it’s translated to what has the potential to be one of the best seasons of his career, which is kind of insane at age 34.
Markakis has had plenty of success in the past. Back when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, he was awesome (and criminally underrated if you asked Orioles fans, including myself). In 2007, Markakis slashed .300/.362/.485 with 23 home runs, 97 runs, 118 RBIs, and 18 stolen bases. The following season was similar, .306/.406/.491 with 20 home runs, 106 runs, 87 RBIs, and 10 steals. He’s had fantasy relevance before, but as with most players, as he got older he became less of a fantasy asset and more of a useful real-life baseball player.
In fact, it looked like Markakis was rapidly entering the twilight of his career. His power—which wasn’t much to begin with after his two 20 home runs seasons—began to really decline, he started striking out more, it just wasn’t looking good. Once he joined the Atlanta Braves, it seemed like he’d just be a guy, a useful veteran who could still play good defense and hit for a solid average, but not much else.
But now, here we are in 2018, and it looks like Markakis is going to have the best year he’s had in a long while, and a big part of it is thanks to a noticeable increase in his launch angle.
On the left is Markakis’ launch angle from the start of his career through 2017. On the right is his launch angle so far this year:
That’s a significant increase. His average launch angle has increased this year from 8.6 degrees last year to 12.9 this year. Considering hi average launch angle on his career is 9.1, this is significant. He’s also got an average exit velocity of 90.5 MPH, which isn’t awesome, but combined with his launch angle is actually very useful. Here are all the balls that were hit last year at an exit velocity of 91 MPH and a launch angle of 13 degrees (I rounded up):
Balls hit at that velocity and launch angle have a batting average of .956. That’s right, .956. In fact, you can count the number of outs from balls hit at that velocity and launch angle—there’s just six of them out of a total 102 balls it. It’s no wonder Markakis has such a good batting average right now.
You can see how this change has affected things from his batted ball profile. Along with the fact that Markakis has the second-highest hard-hit rate of his career so far this year at 34.2% (the highest was 2007 at 34.8%), he’s hitting fewer groundballs than ever before:
And more line drives than ever before:
Markakis has also taken his plate discipline to another level. He’s always had good plate discipline, but it’s gotten exceptionally good this year. His walk rate is at the second-highest of his career (10.9%) and his strikeout rate has absolutely plummeted:
That’s a 9.3% strikeout rate on the year so far, the lowest of his career. That’s insane. That’s good for fourth-best in baseball right now, and it would’ve been the best in the league last year (the best strikeout rate in the league last year was Joe Panik with 9.4%).
Markakis’ success is mostly supported by his xStats too. On the top are his actual stats, below them are their xStats equivalents (for any definitions of xStats, check out Dave Cherman’s Intro to xStats article):
Yes, regression is in order for Markakis, I don’t think anyone thought he was going to bat above .340 all year, but it’s not nearly as much as you might have thought it’d be, except in one area—his power. At his current pace, if Markakis plays about 160 games like he has the past few years, he’s on track to hit 25-30 home runs. That’s not going to happen, and that early power success can be traced to an elevated 14.9% HR/FB rate (compared to a career 8.2%).
But while the power may decline, the average is going to stick around, and given how good the Braves’ lineup has been lately, there should be a sizable number of runs and RBIs in store. So could Markakis end the year with a .310-.320 average, just under 20 home runs, and 80-90 runs/RBIs each? I think that’s absolutely possible given the changes he’s made to his approach, which would give him a season slightly better than what Josh Reddick did last year or slightly worse than what Justin Turner did, and that’s significantly better than what was expected of him this year.
So yea, Nick Markakis is actually doing this.