26 August 2013

Weak Wrist or Batting Approach? Markakis' Brownout

Sunday was memorable.  The Orioles won 10-3 and moved to two games out in the race for the second Wild Card.  The field is collapsing with five teams within six games of each other for both Wild Cards as well.  Tampa, Oakland or maybe Texas, Cleveland, Baltimore, and even the Yankees are making noise.  However, all of this was known before Sunday's game.  What was not known was that Nick Markakis was going to hit not one, but two extra base hits.  That those hits would be a double and a home run.  It was his first double (and extra base hit) since July 19th.  It was his first home run since June 24th.  This proven veteran was doing so poorly that the past ten days have seen Buck place Nick in the fifth, sixth, and seven places in the lineup.

As you can probably expect from that lead paragraph, it has been a difficult season for Markakis, but it was not always this way.  On January 22, 2009, even the fans most hardened by the yearly experience of Orioles teams with scant talent and poor performance had hope.  Hope's name was Nick Markakis.  The eternally labeled as stingy owner Peter Angelos signed off on Hope with a six year and 66 MM contract which was 10 grand less than I had suggested the year before.  There was much to be excited about.  Going into 2009, Nick Markakis finished his age 24 season showing strong power, good speed, a knack for hitting doubles that some thought might begin to transform into home runs, and spectacular defense in right field.
Markakis' Career Up to His Extension
2006 22 542 25 16 2 .291 .351 .448 106 5 2.5
2007 23 710 43 23 18 .300 .362 .485 121 4 4.2
2008 24 697 48 20 10 .306 .406 .491 136 22 7.5
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/14/2013.

To put his 2008 season in a league-wide context, Markakis' 7.5 rWAR was the best in the AL.  In all of baseball, only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, Tim Lincecum, and Mark Teixeira had higher marks.  The team finished 68-93, which is likely why the best performance in 2008 in the AL went without any consideration for an MVP vote.  Nary a one.  So, Markakis was often considered a neat pick for those who thought he would help define the game over his prime years.

Earlier in 2008, ESPN's (at the time) Rob Neyer prognosticated that Markakis would be the best right fielder in the game over the 2008 to 2012 period.  That now sounds rather spectacular that anyone could have considered Markakis to have been all that special.  I think that is the conventional wisdom about Baltimore on a player we all thought would be so great.  He began to first lose the home run power in his bat and then his doubles evaporated.  Along with that, so did his outfield range and, likely related, his arm.  However, I think there are some similarities between him and the "Switch Hitting Jesus" Matt Wieters.  The problem being that by having too great of expectations can lead on to undervalue what a player winds up doing.  So, Neyer's 5 year period?
Jose Bautista 21.5 rWAR
Shin-Soo Choo 20.1
Nick Markakis 17.0
Ichiro Suzuki 16.1
Hunter Pence 16.1
Neyer appears right, but I would also contend the local conventional wisdom carries some truth as well.  If you subtract that 7.5 rWAR 2008 season, Markakis comes in at 9.5 rWAR, which is good for 15th best.  During the first four years of his extension (2009-2012), that 9.5 rWAR was worth about 42.75 MM (or 33.2 MM if you are a fWAR devotee) while he was paid 33.05 MM.  In reality, the contract had through 2012 been fair when you consider that up to 2011 were seasons that would have fallen under arbitration (read as below market value).  Markakis had not become the player many thought he would become (or even remain) in 2009, but he was a sufficient complementary piece on the team.  Of course, when locking down young players long term a team really is not looking to be fair.  The goal is to get surplus value out of the arrangement in exchange for financial security for the player.

2013 has brought the remainder of his extension (runs through next season with an option for 2015) more in doubt in terms of his value to the ball club as his offense has set off for new personal lows.  Our own Matt Kremnitzer has considered Markakis' Power Outage and Continued Offensive Struggles and Fangraph's Matt Klaussen recently explored the Stunted Power.  With so much electronic ink being expended with a fluttering if key strokes, it may lead one to think that there simply is not much left to explore.  Those people are probably correct, but I want to take a deeper look into Nick Markakis, the lead off hitter, and see whether he contrasts much with Nick Markakis, the third spot hitter.

But, first, let me run off in a tangent about the injuries Markakis suffered in 2012.  For many, the injuries he sustained in May and in September  In May that season, Nick landed poorly on a slide, breaking the hammate bone, and potentially causing damage to the flexor tendon.  The bone heals pretty quickly, but it can take a long while for a player's flexor tendon to fully heal.  This can be an issue because the flexor tendon in the wrist is incredibly important in transferring energy from the player into the bat.  Decrease that energy transfer and you stop seeing batted balls clear the fence.  This potential loss of power was certainly a concern when the injury happened.  However, Markakis' power did not decrease by much.  His ISO pre-injury was .196 and it only dropped to .154 after the injury, which is not much different than his .152 career mark.  All in all, it appears the hammate bone injury is probably a poor explanation for his current decrease in power.

After scorching July and August with his transition to the top of the lineup, an early September game against CC Sabathia and the Yankees resulted in a broken thumb from a high inside fastball.  The injury ended Markakis' season and was largely shrugged over during the off season.  However, there is a chance that the injury has had more of a lasting impact than had been presumed.  Outside of the training room (and sometimes in the training room depending on how forthcoming the player is), we tend to have little clue about nagging injuries.

One thing we do know about this season is zero.  As in, Markakis has had zero extra base hits in 458 pitches thrown toward the low and straddling the outside corner of the plate.  Last year, he hit three doubles low and away in a 100 fewer pitches.  Low and away has never been much of a place for Markakis to generate much power, but he had tended to be able to put away strikes in that location over into left field for a chance at a double.  Markakis' ISO map basically gives you a good blueprint of areas to avoid when pitching to him.

As you can see, the key places to avoid have been high-inside, low-inside, and high-outside.  Here is the numerical output put into nine sectors.

Inside Middle Outside
High .179 .049 .128
Middle .156 .031 .113
Low .154 .089 .000
The power in the lower inside part of his swing drifts slightly up into the middle section, but it appears that a well placed pitch might be able to weave inside and stand to be an acceptable change of pace in pitch location.  That said, what is troubling is that Markakis has shown meager power in the middle of the plate.  Typically, you expect all hitters to crush fat ones down the pipe, but that seems to be Nick's second least powerful place to make contact.  Seven of Nick's nine home runs have come low and inside.  High-inside and high-outside are locations where he is more inclined to have his power manifest in doubles.

Last year was different.  In a shortened season, he had one of his best years at the plate.  2013 pales in comparison.  As you can see below, Markakis was dangerous almost throughout the entire strike zone.

The difference between the two graphs is stunning.  While he has significantly gained power on high-inside pitches upping last year's .034 ISO to .179.  Everything else has decreased.  The table below shows how Markakis' ISO has changed this year:

Inside Middle Outside
High +.145 -.135 -.122
Middle -.108 -.204 -.004
Low -.150 -.111 -.041
The collapse in his power low-inside and the entirety of the middle of the plate is disheartening.  Pitches down the middle are not being punished and he is seeing a low more pitches down as well as low and away.  Additionally, Markakis is swinging at pitches high-inside nearly 10% more often, perhaps looking to cheat on those incoming pitches.  What we may be seeing is an injury issue layered with a change in approach caused by that injury issue.

Another possibility is that Markakis's vast change in power production is related to Markakis seeing time batting first.  The idea being that his role at the top of the order is to get on base as opposed to hitting the ball far.  Below are listed the ISO for 2012 and 2013 according to batting position.

2012 2013
1st .154 .046
3rd .196 .107
Now, Markakis likes to say that batting leadoff does not affect his approach.  However, that does not appear to be the case with his leadoff hitting trailing in ISO about 50 points in each season.  Additionally (and more important to this post), is that it does nothing to explain the power decrease as it has left him in both batting positions.

However, I have doubts that his power outage has anything to do with the initial thumb injury as well.  Nick had 12 doubles and seven home runs in April and May combined.  Numbers that tower over what he has been able to do in the three months that followed.  This is also seen clearly in ISO.

April .098
May .190
June .076
July .021
August .047
My best guess is that late May or early June, Nick was injured.  I cannot find anything in the print media that indicates an injury occurred.  The only note I found was his bereavement leave for his maternal grandmother.  I think we all would prefer to not conjecture on her passing and focus on possibilities of physiological injuries.

Whatever is the issue, it appears that things are not getting better and hopes lie more in the offseason.  Lately, he has been working to earn walks more as he seems to be changing his approach.  The hope being that he can raise his on base percentage high enough to be helpful at the plate.  With a .299 OBP in August at the plate, it has not been a smashing success.  However, perhaps we can pretend that Sunday is the start of a new Markakis.  A Markakis that we are more fond to recall, one that we saw last year.  The one who wound up getting a contract back in 2009.


Triple R said...

Not particularly germane, but what do you think are Markakis's HOF odds? Obviously, looking at advanced stats, it's clear he's undeserving, but the voters don't care for advanced stats, as we're all painfully aware.

Currently, Markakis has 1340 hits, 126 home runs, and 601 RBIs; next season will be his age 30 season.
Optimistically speaking, let's say he has 40 hits, 4 home runs, and 19 RBIs for the rest of the year, and averages 180 hits, 15 home runs, and 80 RBIs for the next five years (age 30 to 34 seasons). It's not too farfetched, given that he will still be playing in a hitter's park (if the O's resign him), he doesn't have a history of health problems, and he'll probably still have a very good lineup around him.

If that scenario plays out, he'll have 2280 hits, 205 home runs, and 1020 RBIs. If he can tack on a few decent years after that, I see no reason why he won't head to Cooperstown--assuming, of course, the Hall doesn't change its voters or its voting process before then.

Jon Shepherd said...

He will be inducted in the Orioles Hall of Fame.

Run of the mill outfielders with exceptional two seasons early in their career just don't stand a good chance for the regular hall.