Not counting J.J. Hardy's struggles at the plate this season, the most obvious spot to blame for the Orioles' scattered offensive issues is corner outfield. The Orioles have been shuffling between Alejandro De Aza, Steve Pearce, Travis Snider, Delmon Young, David Lough, Nolan Reimold, Chris Parmelee, and now Chris Davis. De Aza (traded) and Young (designated for assignment) are gone, but the rest remain. It seems unlikely that the Orioles will be able to carry this many outfielders for the rest of the season, and it's also probable that they'll continue to pursue trade options.
That brings us to Wednesday's Baltimore Sun column by Dan Connolly. In it, Connolly remarks on the team's non-Adam Jones outfield issues, and he also includes intriguing quotes from Buck Showalter and Jones on dealing with the revolving door of outfielders. Read the article and see what you think.
Let's get this out of the way first, because not much has changed on the Nick Markakis/Nelson Cruz front. It's common for writers and fans alike to look back and say, hey, the Orioles should have brought back Markakis and Cruz (they won the American League East last year! etc.). Both topics have been covered at Camden Depot multiple times, the most recent being on Cruz. In his column, Connolly writes, "Besides having to replace their leadership and potential offensive production, the Orioles have missed a duo that started a combined 217 games in the corner-outfield spots last year. . . . Things, it now can be said, have not worked out as planned."
Obviously the Orioles figured most, if not all, of their corner outfielders would have performed better offensively. And it's hard to look at how Cruz hit in the first half and wonder how that would have helped this year's Orioles.
Still, there's this:
2014: 4.35 runs per game (5th in AL)
2015: 4.40 runs per game (4th)
Anyway, let's focus on Markakis. Do you think the Orioles have missed Markakis's leadership or clubhouse chemistry factor? Perhaps you're right. It's also impossible to prove, just like saying the lack of Jonathan Schoop's "easy smile and playful fun nature" in any way contributed to the O's struggles earlier in the season. The "missing leadership" rationale is frequently applied to fit a narrative when nothing otherwise will.
Instead, when focusing on tangible evidence of Markakis's play in recent years and the first portion of this season, it's more of the same. As Connolly notes, the Orioles were concerned about Markakis requiring offseason neck surgery. And maybe his recovery from that injury has played a part in his power outage.
Baseball Heat Maps, here are Markakis's average fly ball distances since 2012:
2012: 284 feet
Now let's check out some batted ball data from FanGraphs. Markakis is not hitting the ball as hard...
2012: 32.6 Hard%
... or pulling it:
2012: 34.2 Pull%
And that's led to an increase in him hitting the ball on the ground:
2012: 41.8 GB%
If Markakis were a faster runner and able to leg out more infield hits, that might be less of an issue. But speed is not part of his game. It's probably a bit fluky that he doesn't have at least one home run, especially since he's hit 20 doubles. Regardless, his .353 slugging percentage would be the worst of his career.
Also, his .381 on-base percentage is very good, and it would be his best mark since 2008. But he's been fortunate on balls in play (.345 BABIP; .317 career mark), and it's unlikely he'll be able to carry on with a walk percentage near 12% (career around 9%), especially since he's seeing the highest percentage of pitches in the strike zone (for him) since 2010 (51.2%). He's not able to do as much damage with one swing, and pitchers are starting to go after him more.
Markakis has a wRC+ of 108, and that would have helped the Orioles somewhat. It's higher than Snider (94), Pearce (89), De Aza (70), and Lough (70). Parmelee and Reimold have hit better, though in much smaller samples. But both UZR and DRS have the O's group of right fielders better defensively than Braves' right fielders (nearly all defensive innings belonging to Markakis):
Orioles RF: +0.6 UZR, +4 DRS
Braves RF: -0.1 UZR, -2 DRS
And remember, the Braves still owe Markakis $31.5 million over the next three seasons.
This team has flaws, but it's still in the playoff race. And yes, the corner outfield plan hasn't worked out so far. The Chris Davis in right field experiment is in full swing, and if he somehow manages to be a mediocre defender, it could work. But thanks to improvements from other players (Manny Machado and Jimmy Paredes, in particular), the O's offense has been just fine (frustrating at times, but fine). Meanwhile, the team's offseason indecision on the starting rotation has probably hurt the team more (not opening a spot for Kevin Gausman) than not bringing Markakis back. But sometimes it's hard to let go.