Resurgent Nick Markakis powering Braves lineup

The Atlanta Braves offense has been one of the biggest surprises in baseball in 2018. The coming-out party for Ozzie Albies and usual exploits of Freddie Freeman jump off the page, but right fielder Nick Markakis may just be outplaying both of those men.

That’s right, the soft-spoken, unassuming veteran presence in the Braves lineup is carrying a big stick.

Markakis, 34, is enjoying his best season in Atlanta and it comes in the final year of the four-year, $44 million free-agent contract he signed prior to 2015. Markakis’ name is sprawled all over the league leaderboard. In Atlanta’s season of surprises, his renaissance may just be the most pleasant of them all.

In fact, Markakis may very well be having the best season of his career.

Over the first three years of that deal, Markakis proved to be a solid if not unspectacular player. Though not what he was during his early years with Baltimore, Markakis was a steady contributor in the Atlanta lineup while being asked to hit just about everywhere between leadoff and sixth.

That bouncing around in the order has all but stopped this season.

Serving as Atlanta’s primary cleanup hitter, Markakis is slashing .340/.418/.549 with seven home runs and 28 RBI through 36 games. He’s second in the National League in hitting, fourth in on-base percentage and 10th in slugging. His .967 on-base plus slugging (OPS) ranks sixth best in the NL.

It’s not just some two-week hot streak that is pumping up his traditional numbers either. Markakis has been a consistent source of run production in the Atlanta lineup from Day 1 this year.

Even the advanced metrics suggest that Markakis is enjoying a career renaissance of sorts. His numbers project to be on par or even better than any early career success he enjoyed in Baltimore almost a decade ago.

When he first came up, Markakis was a consistent middle of the order threat for the Orioles. He batted close to .300 and averaged roughly 60 extra-base hits, 90 RBI and 90 runs scored over his first three seasons. He topped the 100-RBI plateau twice in his first four years in the league. That’s exactly the kind of production you expect from a corner outfielder.

Those numbers changed quite a bit over the eight seasons that followed. He settled into a different set of career norms which made him a useful player, but not an impact bat. From 2010-2017, Markakis averaged a .283/.353/.399 line with 11 homers, 64 RBI and 74 runs scored.

If Markakis’ early returns are any indication, 2018 will be a different kind of season altogether.

Markakis currently ranks second in the NL with 1.8 wins above replacement as measured by FanGraphs, trailing only Arizona’s A.J. Pollock (2.1 WAR). While there are 10 additional American League players who have posted a better Wins Above Replacement, the fact that Markakis appears on a list with the best players in the game is truly astounding.

There are a couple of ways to put that number in perspective for Markakis. The 1.8 mark is already his best WAR in a Braves uniform and nearly matches the 1.9 WAR in 318 games over the past two seasons combined. It also has Markakis on pace to top his career-best 6.0 WAR of 2008, his age-24 season.

Adding another layer to his success is the fact that Markakis is making things difficult on opposing pitchers in just about every way a hitter can. He is the hardest player to strike out in the NL, doing so just 13 times in 165 plate appearances. That’s a career-best 7.9 percent strikeout rate, cutting last season’s career-worst K-rate of 16.4 percent by more than half.

Markakis is putting the pressure on opposing pitchers seemingly every time he steps to the plate. He has seen 644 pitches in those 165 plate appearances this season. That’s the most of any Braves hitter and the 11th most of any player in the NL.

As if the offensive explosion wasn’t enough, Markakis is also posting his best defensive numbers in years. The two-time gold glover has always had a reputation for making the routine plays, but now he finds himself in the right place at the right time far more often.

Scrolling through FanGraphs fielding data, Markakis owns a much-improved 2.7 ultimate zone rating (UZR) through 36 games. His 15.4 UZR/150, a stat which determines how many runs above average a fielder is per 150 games played, is also career-best number. His defensive runs saved (DRS) and outfield assists are also up this season.

Atlanta’s new front office, fronted by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, has committed to improving every facet of the game when it comes to advanced stats and analytics. It’s not that every piece of information has to be implemented, but Anthopoulos wants the coaches and players alike to have access to the material and decide how best to use it.

That forward-thinking approach is becoming increasingly common across baseball but has been particularly eye-opening for the Braves. And they’ve taken to it like the proverbial duck to water.

The Braves are employing more defensive shifts than ever before. Markakis and the other Atlanta outfielders now utilize printed cards with necessary info on the opposing hitters’ tendencies and defensive alignments. That information has, at least in part, aided Markakis in being better positioned and prepared to make more plays.

Pretty useful stuff to have quite literally in one’s back pocket.

Things are seemingly coming together for the Braves, who sit in first place in the NL East heading into mid-May. The re-emergence of Markakis has provided an unexpected boost and helped make the Atlanta the most potent offense in baseball to this point.

Time will tell if they can keep up the pace.

 

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