12 February 2013

Where Markakis Bats

I’m not a huge fan of endlessly discussing where hitters should be placed order-wise, but I do like to see guys at least slotted in about the right area in a lineup. Nick Markakis is one of the Orioles’ best hitters, and until last season he had primarily batted either second or third. Because of a couple of injuries he only played in 104 games last season, but he did get his first opportunity in the leadoff spot.

In 246 plate appearances batting first, Markakis put up the best numbers of his career. Let’s compare his leadoff numbers to the two other spots where he’s primarily batted.

Batting 1st: .335/.390/.489; 8.1 BB%; 5.7 K%; .337 BABIP (246 plate appearances)
Batting 2nd: .313/.384/.489; 10 BB%; 12.7 K%; .336 BABIP (1,340 plate appearances)
Batting 3rd: .281/.355/.438; 10 BB%; 14.6 K%; .310 BABIP (2,413 plate appearances)
Career: .295/.365/.455; 9.6 BB%; 13.5 K%; .322 BABIP (4,556 plate appearances)

Obviously his numbers batting second and third are better samples because of the larger amount of plate appearances. His leadoff numbers, besides the strikeout rate difference, are pretty similar to his numbers batting second. His on-base and slugging percentages are about the same, but he’s not striking out as much and is trading walks for hits (mostly singles).

Markakis, as you'd imagine, isn’t concerned about where he’s placed in the order:
"It wasn't any different (batting leadoff). Just another spot in the lineup. One thing that I could gain from it, I swung a little more. I was a little more free swinging. Somebody had to fill the spot. Glad I was successful at it. It doesn't matter where I bat. Guys (opponent pitchers) know who I am," he said.
He’s probably right. Markakis batted leadoff more as a need than anything, since there weren't many other good options. But it was interesting to see how much more effective he was out of the leadoff spot than hitting third last year.

Through May, Markakis batted third and in 225 plate appearances hit .256/.333/.452 (.339 wOBA) while walking about 10% of the time and striking out 16.4% of the time. After missing all of June with a wrist injury, he returned in mid-July and was placed in the leadoff spot. He stayed there until breaking his thumb in September and had a .378 wOBA in 246 plate appearances (see above). As shown, his walks took a slight dip, but he cut down on his strikeouts by more than 10%.

Markakis's apparent altered approach also led to a lot of line drives -- 28.7% out of the leadoff spot. For his career, his line drive percentage is 20.1%, but for the entire 2012 season he was at 26.8%, by far the highest of his career. Maybe this was something he was focused on, or maybe it's just an anomaly.

It's not a big sample size, and there's no guarantee Markakis bats leadoff again in 2013 or beyond, so who knows whether we'll get to see if his leadoff strategy is really that much different than what he regularly does at the plate. But it's interesting that he views the leadoff spot as a place to swing the bat more than usual. The leadoff hitter is typically viewed as someone who will take more pitches, draw some walks, and just get on base. But apparently Markakis is only worried about the third part, which is fine if it works, but maybe not completely sustainable. I couldn't locate plate discipline splits, but, interestingly enough, Markakis overall did swing the bat slightly less in 2012 (40.9%) than his career mark (41.1%). But he did make more contact on all pitches last year (91%) than throughout his career (88%). Maybe over a full season of batting leadoff the swing percentage numbers would be a little more skewed, though we probably won't get to see that.

Markakis did swing the bat more out of the leadoff spot, though. Despite having 21 more plate appearances out of the leadoff spot, he saw 50 fewer pitches. But he was definitely doing some damage when he did swing. His leadoff numbers were partly fueled by a .337 BABIP, but that's not that far out of line with his career mark (.322). I'd be concerned with fewer walks out of the leadoff spot in more leadoff at-bats, mostly because I doubt he'd be able to keep hitting the ball as hard and having as many hits drop in. I also doubt he'd be able to keep from striking out more, unless that was something he was trying hard to avoid.

Regardless, Markakis batting leadoff, even if he's not as effective as he was in 2012, is way better than handing out leadoff duties to hitters who are speedy runners but not very good hitters -- like Robert Andino or Endy Chavez last season. Nate McLouth and Nolan Reimold might be decent leadoff options, depending on match-ups, so Markakis may not be needed at that spot. But if he does get the opportunity again, it will be intriguing to see what his approach is.

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