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Launch angle and the best Braves month of Nick Markakis

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The title does not give it away — it’s not what you think!

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The fly ball-slash-launch angle revolution is everywhere these days, it seems. Everywhere is a big place. Everywhere could even extend to the career of a 34-year-old corner outfielder who’s provided steady-yet-unremarkable production for the Atlanta Braves in the first three years of his four-year contract. The narrative is pretty simple: guy hits more balls in the air, guy’s numbers improve, everyone’s happy. Extra base hits are great. The current run environment (by which I mean the apparent composition of regulation baseballs) is conducive to hitting the ball in the air. When you’re not that fleet of foot, it only makes all the sense of the world to try and do something other than put the ball on the ground and try to win the race to first base.

You probably already know that Nick Markakis has had a phenomenal month of April. In fact, his 144 wRC+ is the highest he’s ever achieved in a calendar month while wearing a Braves uniform. (Amusingly, his second-highest wRC+ in said uniform was his very first month in it, as he put up a 136 wRC+ in April 2015.) The last time he had an even better offensive month? May 2013. As noted above, these days launch angle is a popular conclusion to jump to whenever a player sees a boost in offensive performance. And, on the surface, it seems like there’s something to that. Since Markakis signed with the Braves, his seasonal wRC+s have been 106, 98, 95, and now that 144 mark. His launch angles? 6.9°, 10.8°, 8.6°, and 13.8° (!). Here’s the most boring chart ever illustrating the same thing, with wOBA instead of wRC+.

Seriously, this chart is lame.
Source: Baseball Savant

(Side note for those who care — this relationship is way clearer if you use xwOBA. Click here to see that. Hit things in the air: it’s not rocket science, though it uses many of the same principles.)

You can see the temptation here. You can feel it. There’s a dot in the upper right-hand corner. We’ve found the secret to the Markakis Success Equation... or have we?

Yeah, I don’t think so. It’s a nice story, but there’s a bit of an issue. You see, this isn’t the first time Markakis has flirted with increasing his launch angle. The kicker? It happens, and sometimes it leads to good results. But it doesn’t stick. None of that is to say that it won’t stick this time, of course. Maybe this time, there’s some dedication. He’s carrying around a cheat sheet in his pants pocket that tells him where to position himself in the outfield these days, no reason why there can’t be a concerted effort to improving his offensive output, too. But we need more data. I’ll show you why.

As indicated, we’ve seen this from Nick Markakis before. If we cut the time period assessed to previous calendar months (to compare with the month he just completed), we get this:

Source: Baseball Savant

Look at what happened in September 2016. That didn’t stick. Then, a similar uptick in launch angle happened in August 2017. That one didn’t even carry over to the end of the season. Certainly, there’s great interest in which way the line will go after April 2018. But you can see why I’m not sold yet.

Taking a step further, we should acknowledge that average launch angle can be misleading. If a player hits more fly balls, but his grounders get beat into the ground even more (for some reason; I’m not sure how likely this is to actually happen in reality), the average launch angle might not change much. So we can move away from degree-based improvement in launch angle and just look at batted ball profile. Two sides of the same coin. Here’s a big ol’ table with a bunch of relevant information.

Data Sources: Fangraphs, Baseball Savant

If everything were about launch angle, you’d see a consistently dark green across the first two shaded columns and the last one. If everything were consistently about batted ball profile, you’d see some sort of pattern between the wRC+ / xwOBA columns and the three grouped LD% / GB% / FB% columns. I don’t think anything is as clear-cut as that. To belabor the point, here’s a chart of Markakis’ weekly groundball rate while he’s been a Brave, with a four-week moving average in red.

Source: Fangraphs

Yes, the groundball percentage is relatively low right now. But it’s been relatively low, and even lower, before, in a way that dovetails with the earlier launch angle plot. So, again, this tendency to avoid grounders for a stretch — we’ve seen it before. Anyway, just to cap this discussion, take a gander at these regression plots. They’re built on only a handful of data points, but you can make your own decisions about what exactly the effect of his launch angle or batted ball profile is. There’s definitely something there, but it’s still very much an open question of whether anything is really going to come of it in the future. (By the way, for Markakis at least, groundball rate appears to be a stronger correlate to outcomes than average monthly launch angle. That makes intuitive sense, I think.)

Sources: Fangraphs, Baseball Savant

None of the above changes two fundamental things that have been true about the April 2018 of Nick Markakis: 1) it’s been a very good month; 2) his launch angle/batted ball profile have moved “up.” You can see the latter fairly easily on a heat map; there was a long period where I half-joked that the mode Markakis outcome was a looper over shortstop, but in reality, it’s looked more like this for most of his Braves tenure:

Nick Markakis Spray Heatmap, 2015-2017
Source: Baseball Savant

Through 2018’s first month, though, it looks more like this. I think “looper over shortstop” is actually more applicable to April 2018. But hey, whatever reduces those near-useless pulled grounders.

Nick Markakis Spray Heatmap, April 2018
Source: Baseball Savant

While somewhat hard to tell given the preponderance of dots on the 2015-2017 heatmap, I believe that you can also see more balls driven to the pull side fairly deep. But, what’s most striking is just the lack of a mass of grounders. If his quite high line drive rate this past month was the result of a concerted effort to actually go ahead and spray balls over short, great. That’s still better than what was happening before.

That spray chart actually leads to some pretty interesting-but-really-weird follow-up thoughts. I’ll just describe it in bullets:

  • Nick Markakis, percentile rank, average exit velocity, by year (2015-April 2018): 54th, 84th, 66th, 66th. So, he’s still hitting it harder than average, but that’s the same as he did last year.
  • Nick Markakis, percentile rank, average batted ball distance, by year: 16th, 53rd, 28th, 53rd. He’s not hitting it very far, that’s for sure. Also, interesting interplay between this and the exit velocity rankings: his batted ball profile tends to depress how far his balls actually go for a given velocity.
  • Nick Markakis, percentile rank, percent of batted balls hit at a 95 mph exit velocity or higher, by year: 44th, 84th (!), 46th, 57th.
  • Nick Markakis, percentile rank, percent of batted balls that are barreled, by year: 5th, 37th, 21st, 27th. 144 wRC+, yet 27th percentile in barreling batted balls? Hmm...

Okay, here’s the kicker. Think about all of the above. Now, think about this:

  • Nick Markakis, 2018 percentile rank in Statcast wOBA: 83rd, at .377.
  • Nick Markakis, 2018 percentile rank in Statcast xwOBA: 82nd, at .397.

Weird stuff, right? He’s hitting the ball kinda hard, but not harder than before. He’s hitting the ball an average distance, also not too different from before. He’s gotten some improvement in how many balls he hits hard, but he did even better in 2016. He’s still failing to actually drive balls to where they’re likely to be extra-base hits (that’s really what barrels are). Yet, he’s in the top quintile of batter outcomes. The striking thing here is that his xwOBA is still crazy good. Like, not just, “Yeah, okay, that’s nice” good, but “If he keeps this up everyone’s brain will melt” good. And that’s xwOBA. It’s already supposed to factor luck and variation out of the equation, to some extent. If you wanted a reason to be very, very, very bullish on Nick Markakis going forward, using one month of data, here it is.

Anyway, to sum up, here’s my tl;dr verdict on Nick Markakis’ April 2018.

  1. His April 2018 was really good. It wasn’t “lucky” either. You don’t hit near 30-percent line drives with only luck.
  2. He did increase his launch angle in 2018. But, he’s done the same before, and it hasn’t stuck. It sticking is at least moderately important for him to keep up this type of success.
  3. Usually, when you hear stories about “launch angle” improvements you hear stories about potential sluggers who finally turn the corner on beating the ball hard into the ground and start elevating it, leading to gaudy home run totals and counting stats. Yes, Nick Markakis improved his launch angle in April 2018. But, he improved it by... hitting more liners over shortstop, instead of more grounders to second base. That’s awesome, for him and the Braves. But it’s not the usual launch angle narrative.

Is getting even better at shooting balls over short a skill? That requires further investigation. But, it just adds one more thing to watch for in what’s been a very exciting season already for the Braves and their fans. We’ll see what his spray chart and batted ball profile look like in May.

So, really, the above is most of what I wanted to get off my chest about Nick Markakis so far. But, there’s one other piece of the puzzle that definitely needs to be mentioned: his uncanny plate discipline improvements. As of right now, among all plays qualified for the batting title (n = 176), there are only 16 with a BB/K ratio of 1.00 or greater. Of those 16, only three have a ratio above 1.5: Joe Mauer (an insane 2.09), Bryce Harper (1.81), and Nick Markakis (1.73). Yes, to be clear, Nick Markakis has a better BB/K ratio, so far, than Joey Votto (next on the list at 1.31).

Combining what we know from above, let’s think about this: here’s a guy who has walked 15 percent of the time, struck out less than nine percent of the time, and when he does put the ball in play, there’s a 30 percent chance that it’s a liner that will find grass somewhere. Every walk is “free OBP,” and there aren’t too many strikeouts, which means there are a lot more balls in play to benefit from that liner rate (not to mention the other stuff that sometimes happens when you put the ball in play, though liners are often best, especially if you don’t hit the ball particularly hard). So, more walks, less strikeouts. But, what’s driving that?

I think this little colorful table has much of the answer, not just to that question, but to Markakis’ whole performance over the past month. Yes, the increase in liners (launch angle conscious decision or not) is a part of it. But...

Source: Fangraphs

Thing #1: He’s swinging at a lot more strikes. That’s good. He could probably stand to swing at even more strikes, but change is hard.

Thing #2: His contact rates are down from “insanely high” to still high. This might dovetail with the other changes. High o-contact rates aren’t great, because sometimes o-contact results in weakly-hit balls in play. If what’s happening is that Markakis is swinging through the balls he’d convert into weak grounders, that would explain the uptick in other, better contact types.

Thing #3: So, for whatever reason, pitchers really don’t want to throw Markakis a first-pitch strike. I don’t get it. But, for the rest of his Braves tenure, pitchers have followed up that lack of a first-pitch strike with a bunch of other non-strikes, even though Markakis rarely swung. This season, they’re starting in 1-0 counts and then pounding the zone. Markakis has adjusted appropriately: he’s been swinging at the stuff, and it’s worked. When they’re not pounding the zone, he’s continued to walk. So, this really should have been an article about this phenomenon, and not anything else. But you got some pretty charts and graphs out of it, up above, so it wasn’t all bad.

What will happen when pitchers start throwing Markakis fewer balls in the zone, later in the count? Will his walk rate balloon to new heights? Or, will he start to put some of those balls in play and torque his batted ball profile unfavorably? Will this even happen? Or is this a “new normal” for approaches to him, one in which he seems to be thriving? All stuff to watch, going forward.