If you’ll forgive me a bad pun, playing fantasy baseball is almost always about hitting a home run. Whether we are trying to find the perfect player on the waiver wire or trying to swing that earth-shaking blockbuster trade, we often want to try to win our league all in one fell swoop. It should be. Fantasy is about thinking big and is always more fun when there is plenty of action.
With that said, though, what if you don’t need the game-changing trade but need a better third outfielder or have lost a stud player to injury? What if your cup does not floweth over with a surplus of value to swing a big trade but could likely swing a mid-level trade to fill in that gap? Fantasy baseball is full of these players. They’re not sexy (I mean they might be I dunno, my girlfriend told me the other day that Yan Gomes is sexy and my mind is still blown), and they aren’t going to single-handedly win you your leagues, but I have seen numerous middle-level trades take a good team that’s fighting for a playoff spot and transform it into a contender.
If you follow my writing, you’ll note I love to talk about these type of players ranging from Anthony Desclafani or Ji-Man Choi to Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo! Despite my penchant for writing about the game’s unsung studs, thus far this season I haven’t been able to talk yet about one of my favorite all-time non-sexy (he has a nice beard?) team-elevating hitters, Nick Markakis.
This may seem like a boring choice, but so far in 2019, Markakis might be having the best season of his career despite turning 35 earlier this year. This is surprising when you consider that at 34, he had seemingly his career-best year last season when he made the All-Star Game and put up a .297/.366/.806 line with 14 home runs, 73 runs and 93 RBI. Pretty much everyone concluded there was no way he could repeat that season, let alone build upon it. We all knew who Markakis was: He had played in the league for 11 years before last season and had been a solid yet unspectacular player for all 11 of those years. You’ve seen how the 12th year went, but how about year 13? Take a look:
That’s pretty solid. It’s worth noting that Markakis has batted fifth in the Braves lineup (tied for 1oth in wRC+ and 13th in runs) all year, so there’s good support for the counting stats, especially the RBI. What would happen if we stretched these numbers out to a full season’s worth of plate appearances? Markakis has put up at least 670 plate appearances each of the last six seasons and is playing every day, so I think it’s reasonable to use that as the baseline. Here is his current season stats prorated to a full 670 plate appearances:
That would be a fantastic season. For perspective here’s how many players and outfielders broke those thresholds in 2018:
|Position||650 PA||.290 AVG||.380 OBP||.450 SLG||90+ R||100+ R||90 +RBI||100+ RBI||15+ HR|
On the surface, Markakis may look boring, but those numbers don’t lie. He stacks up against the very best fantasy outfielders in the league via his all-around contributions. I think we often lose sight of how rare it is for a player to get 90+ runs or 90+ RBI in a single season, but only 17 hitters with at least 650 plate appearances passed that mark in runs, and only 16 did so in RBI. He hurts you in home runs and stolen bases, but he’s elite in average, runs, and RBI.
Now, of course, you’re asking: Dan, how legit are these numbers? First off, it’s worth noting that we’re not actually dealing with a small sample size. The real breakout happened last season when Markakis joined the fly-ball revolution and started attempting to hit the ball consistently in the air. While it didn’t lead to a massive change to his fly-ball percentage, it did lead to a huge boost to his line-drive rate, as it leaped all the way up to 26.6%, which in turn lead to an elite average and increased power—mostly of the gap-to-gap variety. In other words, we’re not dealing with a breakout so much as the potential confirmation of a breakout.
With the counting numbers such as runs and RBI, it’s hard to really to be precise when projecting them, as they are so dependent on the team around them, but I think his OBP suggests he’ll get on base enough to put up solid to above-average runs totals. Going back five years, only 13 of the last 34 players with at least 650 plate appearances and an OBP of .380 or better failed to score at least 100 runs. Only two of those 34 failed to score at least 90. With Ozzie Albies, Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna Jr. hitting in front of him, I think he might have a legit shot at 100 RBI as well.
What about his rate stats though? Let’s start with average. Markakis has always been a pretty solid source of batting average, as he’s only hit below .280 four times in his career. The thing is, there is actually plenty of evidence that shows he is getting a little unlucky, which leaves room for reaching greater heights. Take a look at some of his batted-ball and xStat data from the last three years:
|Year||AVG||xBA||SLG||xSLG||wOBA||xwOBA||BBL%||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||LD%||BABIP|
So the first thing that catches my eye is xBA says that based on his batted balls, he should be hitting about 12 points higher batting average-wise. His xSLG and xwOBA fully support their real-life counterparts (it’s worth noting a .378 wOBA would be tied for 33rd-best in the league) and his BBL% has improved to go along with being in the top 50 in exit velocity and top 30 in line-drive percentage, all of which points to a hitter who should put up an elite batting average. Markakis’ launch angle being down is a bit troubling, but since his line-drive percentage has held pat, I’m going to assume that will even itself out as the season goes on. This is one area, though, I would keep an eye on as the season continues.
Now, how about that .385 OBP? Unfortunately, if any of Markakis’ stats are likely to go down, it’s most likely here. What is boosting his OBP number up and through the roof? Namely an extremely elevated walk rate. Markakis has always been a disciplined hitter whose walk rate has never quite surpassed his K rate, but it’s come pretty darn close for a few of his seasons. In fact, if the season were to end today, for the first time in his career Markakis would manage that feat. Here are his walk and K rates over the last four years:
They’ve been remarkably consistent before this year, especially when it comes to walk rate. Last year, the big leap Markakis made in this area was radically improving his K percentage, and it looks like that has stuck so far this season, but he added to it a 3.5-point upgrade in his walk rate. One would assume that there would be some sort of underlying plate-discipline improvement to explain this boost. Let’s take a look and see if that’s the case.
Like much of Markakis’s profile, he’s remarkably consistent, with pretty much all these numbers being above average or elite with little year-to-year change. So what could explain the sudden improvement in walk rate if his profile hasn’t changed all that much? If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure. It could be early-season noise. Take away five of his walks, and he’s right back at 10.5%. Perhaps that’s all it is. One potential explanation is that pesky two-point drop in zone percentage. The thing is, that two-point drop adds up to only about 13 or 14 more balls that he’s seen this season. It’s entirely possible those extra balls ended up leading to a couple of those additional walks, but there’s really no way to be sure. If there are any numbers I’ll be keeping an eye on this season, it’ll be Markakis’ zone and walk rates for sure.
Normally I try to write about players for whom their season is something of an anomaly or outlier. I love trying to explain what has brought about a change or radical improvement, but in the case of Markakis, it is more about pointing out a player we made that leap last year and most of us missed it. Now here we are in 2019, and Markakis has pretty much picked up right where he left off last season, and I want to make sure we don’t miss it this time around. To sort of drive the point home before I make my rest-of-season estimates, I want to present a quick blind player comparison using stats from 2018 and 2019:
How about their launch angle charts? First, Player A:
And now for Markakis:
Those are incredibly similar, right? And the rest of their Statcast data?
They line up pretty well, with Markakis being a slightly lesser version overall of Player A, right? Well, Player A is none other than the Astros’ Michael Brantley. Their production and batting profiles are incredibly similar. Lots of contact with gap-to-gap power and the accumulation of counting stats. Markakis will never quite hit quite to Brantley’s level, nor will he give you the 15 or so stolen bases Brantley does, but if you’re looking for a player who will give you 95.0% of Brantley’s average contributions with near similar Runs and RBI production, then Markakis should be your guy.
If Markakis is able to maintain this level of production (and all the signs seem to indicate that he can) and he keeps batting fifth in the stacked Braves lineup, I could easily see something along the lines of a .290 to .300 average with 15 HR, 90+ RBI, and 75+ runs. If you get that out of your third or fourth outfielder, that’s fantastic production. He’s a great trade target as well if your team has a hole to fill or needs a boost of steady production, as acquiring him shouldn’t cost nearly as much as a player on Brantley’s level would.
There’s not a deep mystery to solve with Markakis. Just old-fashioned steady production that you’ll never brag about having on your team but you’ll surely count him among the reasons you made the playoffs, and just maybe, even your championship game.
(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)