Since Major League Baseball began expanding, in 1961, only one player has hit between 10 and 23 home runs in each of his first nine seasons, according to the Baseball-Reference Play Index. That player, Nick Markakis, agreed to a four-year, $44-million deal with the Atlanta Braves Wednesday. Markakis, 31, quietly became one of the free-agent market’s most polarizing names this week, as the stat-savvy baseball world wrestled with the question of why he seemed such a hot commodity. We lost that wrestling match, or at least have up to now.
This contract is right in the middle of what had been reported as the likely range, so the market behaved as the market-watchers predicted it would, but those of us on the outside were left befuddled. Markakis owns a 112 career wRC+ (he’s 12 percent better than an average batter, after adjusting for his home park), but that’s the past. With the exception of an injury-shortened age-28 season in 2012, Markakis hasn’t posted a wRC+ north of 106 since 2010. He was a replacement-level player in 2013, and though he rebounded nicely in 2014, he was still far from a major force at the plate. In the field, he won his second Gold Glove award in 2014, but is generally a poor defensive right fielder. He handles everything he reaches with ease and grace, and he has a strong arm, but his range is below-average. He’s not adding value with his glove; it’s a small victory if he doesn’t subtract it.
Some piece of the puzzle must be missing, then. Somehow, Markakis became a more valuable, attractive free agent than smart people expected him to become. I think I get this deal. Maybe I’m being naive, but I think I can both understand and commend this deal. Here’s how.
1. Markakis is simply better than you think he is.
Because his skill set is fairly flat and boring, Markakis gets a bad rap. There’s a lot he does well, and fans might not appreciate him the way teams do. No one pays for batting average anymore, but Markakis is a .290 career hitter, and that comes courtesy of a more specific skill that the market might actually reward, and would do well to reward: he strikes out at barely 60 percent of the league-average rate. His career-low on-base percentage is .329, and that came in a year when the league-average OBP was .325. Though his 2012 season was interrupted by a hamate fracture and then truncated by a thumb fracture, he was terrific that season, posting rate numbers consistent with his last really great season, in 2008. Of his nine seasons, Markakis has been at least a league-average regular in six, and something meaningfully better than that in three.
Markakis was 11 percent better than an average left-handed batter against righties last season, but also nine percent better than an average lefty facing lefties. At a time when lefty batters are struggling enormously, especially against southpaw pitching, that has value. With walk rates near their live-ball era nadir, Markakis nonetheless walks at a healthy rate, usually north of eight percent of the time. He’s patient, and that’s only becoming more true over time: He set career-low marks in swing rate and first-pitch swing percentage in 2014. In the field and on the bases, he becomes less aggressive with each passing season, but by avoiding mistakes at all costs, he remains serviceable. As I’ve documented, positional value has never mattered less, so being a steady, above-average batter is a point in Markakis’s favor, and being a corner outfielder without great impact potential is less damaging than it might have been before.
Studious readers will notice the similarities between Markakis and Gregor Blanco, whom I wrote up a day or two ago as having no chance to pull down an eight-figure salary even if he were to hit free agency. Both have balanced skill sets, and both have limited upside. In response, I offer the note that led off this article. Though Markakis has had many more plate appearances, many more chances and a friendlier park, his power—the ability to punch even a dozen home runs annually—sets him apart from Blanco. Teams were always going to see upside there.
2. A series of injuries are now facing into Markakis’s rearview mirror, and stats don’t capture what that means well enough.
J.J. Hardy’s quote about Markakis leaving Baltimore was something about how he always plays all 162 games with passion and intensity. That was funny, because Markakis has literally never played 162 games—not that he should have. It’s also of note, though, because two injuries Markakis suffered in 2012 and 2013—the ones that cut nearly 60 games out of that 2012 campaign, then denied him a Spring Training in 2013—might well be the reason that Markakis is now the most dubiously wealthy free agent of the winter.
Remember, 2012 was a tremendous season for Markakis. It looked like a possible breakout, even though he’d hardly been a bust up to that point. A hamate fracture didn’t slow him down in the slightest. He actually hit better after returning from that injury. When he was hit in the top thumb by a pitch in September, though, the thumb broke, and he would eventually require surgery. Recovery from that didn’t go as planned, hampering his offseason. When he arrived for Spring Training in 2013, he suffered a herniated disc in his neck, and got virtually no reps, either to do normal preparation for the season or to test out his thumb.
Nonetheless, Markakis played 160 games in 2013. That is the one season, the one stain on the statistical record, that had everyone but actual MLB executives shying away from Markakis these past few weeks. It’s the only one in which he hasn’t been an average or better (usually better, and by a fair amount) batter. Given that he had a lingering issue with his top batting hand (the power hand, Ted Williams called it; Markakis’s biggest issue in 2013 was a dearth of power) and missed any preparation time leading into the season, I’m inclined—as perhaps teams were, and too few analysts are—to give him a pass on that. I’m not sure I’m conveying this strongly enough. Take out 2013, and Markakis’s career batting record looks like this:
That removal would also bring Markakis’s career batting line up from .290/.358/.435 to .293/.361/.445. I’m not advising that. It’s too much to throw it out. I simply want to make the point that 2013 is a disproportionate part of the reason people will dislike this contract, and that it may actually be a blip, a red herring. We do a poor job, in general, of valuing players who post substandard numbers due to injuries through which they elect to play. It can be unwise, and those injuries can hang around forever, but there are plenty of instances in which an underreported or underrated injury issue causes a statistical dip of which much too much is made. I think Markakis is one such case.
3. He fits the Braves’ plan better than almost anyone, including Jason Heyward.
I’ve seen a fair few laments already, to the effect of: “Why would you trade Jason Heyward, then sign Nick Markakis?” It’s a silly argument. It’s a straw man. It’s a false equivalency. If you find yourself tempted to compare the two, stop, and sit the rest of that conversation, chat session or Twitter war out.
What the Braves had was one year of Jason Heyward’s services. They had one year to attempt to extract value from him, because after that, he was gone. I can’t believe there are people who can’t see that. Heyward is an elite player, five and a half years Markakis’s junior. When he hits the market next winter, Heyward will probably get a contract both twice as rich in annual average value and twice as long as Markakis’s deal. The Braves have no chance of creating the kind of payroll flexibility they would need to make that deal happen, and if they somehow did, it would be an awful idea, because of what they would have to sacrifice. Atlanta had one year to work with Heyward, and they knew that that one year might be a seller-at-the-deadline year. Trading Heyward was the right move. It was almost the only move.
Winning now isn’t out of the question for the Braves, but it’s very clearly not their top priority. Their priority, instead, is not to waste the core of young talent they spent last winter signing to long-term contracts. Heyward was the piece of the core in whom the team was actually least invested. Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel are the core pieces of the next good Braves team, and in order to make sure the team actually would be good before those players begin to decline, Atlanta needs to start putting pieces in place. Locking up Heyward would have been impossible. Locking up Justin Upton—who now becomes a trade chip, and a fantastic one—is impossible. The team needed a way to create long-term cost certainty and populate the diamond with good players, even if that meant accepting a downgrade and going into 2015 with lowered expectations. The Markakis deal does that.
4. It’s 2014, and everyone in baseball is rich.
I hope I haven’t overstated my case. Markakis is a good, underrated player, and I love the fit he found, but this deal is no major bargain. He’s unlikely to perform at the same level he’s maintained over the past several seasons, because he’s a corner outfielder without sensational tools and with dwindling athleticism. What makes the deal most palatable may not be anything about Markakis, but rather, the reality of the baseball economy. For a few years now, free agency as we once knew it has been dead, and teams frequently find themselves with cash for which there is hardly any productive outlet to boost on-field production. Liberty Media is a penurious corporate owner, so the Braves hold to a pretty tight budget, but the fact is that the Braves are swimming in money. As long as Markakis doesn’t collapse in on himself like a dying star, he’s the kind of player the Braves sorely needed at the top of their order, and he helps in an absolute way that outstrips any marginal-cost analysis. The only real question to ask is whether he’s a candidate to go all B.J. Upton, and I hope I’ve demonstrated that he’s not much of one.
One final thought: Two players have come close to matching Markakis’s consistency with regard to yearly home-run totals. Joe Rudi hit between 10 and 23 homers in every full season of his career. Al Oliver essentially did so, or did so deep enough into his career that he deserves to be in this conversation. Oliver is actually the third-most comparable player to Markakis through age 30, according to the Bill James Similarity Scores used on Baseball-Reference. Moving beyond the trivial, the two players both match Markakis pretty well. Each was a strong hitter, but neither was elite. Each had a well-rounded skill set. Oliver played a good amount of center field, which sets him a bit apart from the other two, but was never good out there and moved to right field later in his career. Through age 30, Oliver had 27.1 rWAR in 1,302 games. Rudi had 24.5 rWAR in 1,100 games. Markakis has 25.2 rWAR in 1,365 games. Obviously, both of the others have Markakis beat on rates, but they’re comparable.
From age 31 onward, Oliver was worth three or more wins in four more seasons, and racked up a total of 16.3 WAR. Rudi played in fewer than 500 more games and was worth 0.9 WAR from age 31 on. That’s how wide the gap of real possibilities is, even for very consistent players. If Markakis can stay even relatively healthy, though, count me among those who believe in him.
Now, let’s talk Justin Upton trade proposals like it’s 2012 again!Next post: The Banished to the Pen Way
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