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Nick Markakis and Lonnie Smith: Renaissance Men

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At age 34, Nick Markakis is currently on track to blow away all projections and previous seasons that he’s had as a Brave. It could be slightly similar to what Lonnie Smith did at age 33.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One of the many pleasant surprises during the early stages of this season has been the renaissance of Nick Markakis. Going into this season, he didn’t inspire much confidence as a cleanup hitter. After all, he’s had middling power hitting stats for most of his time as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Even during his best season of power hitting as a Brave (which was back in 2016), he only hit 13 homers and put up an Isolated Power number of .129. To put that number in context, the magic number for being considered a threat in that department is to have an ISO of .200 or above.

Still, he’s never cracked that number to finish a season — in fact, the best he’s done in that department was when he had an ISO of .185 for two straight seasons from 2007 through 2008. So yeah, it’s definitely a huge shock to see him currently sitting at .206 ten years later. He’s already on pace to zoom past his home run number from last season — he’s got six right now after hitting a grand total of eight (8) all of last season and his walk-off dinger on Opening Day seemed to set the tone for himself and the rest of the team as well.

Again, we had every reason to be skeptical of Markakis being a cleanup hitter at this stage of his career but so far, he’s proven all of us skeptics and doubters wrong with his performance so far this season. It’s really come out of nowhere as it appears that some adjustments that he’s made to his plate approach have started to pay dividends.

Our friends over at Walk Off Walk noted that his walk rate is currently through the roof at 13.2 percent (which would be a career high if that continues) while his strikeout rate is at 8.6 percent, which would crush his career numbers in that regard. Additionally, he’s kept the ball off of the ground way more often than what we’re used to seeing from him and if you’re going to thrive in this current era of baseball, then keeping your ground ball rate limited is key. He’s done just that and his success this season is bearing it out.

Nick Markakis is on pace to have what would be his best season in a Braves uniform and he’d fly by what he’d done so far with the Braves. Going into Sunday afternoon’s game, he was already sitting on 1.8 fWAR, which is actually better than the 1.4 fWAR he put up for the entire 2015 season which was his best season with the team so far. It’s very unusual to see a player like Markakis being on pace for a career year at age 34, but it’s not unprecedented.

In fact, you don’t even have to look outside of the franchise for an example of this phenomenon. You do have to go back a fair amount in time, though — all the way back to 1989.

LONNIE SMITH BRAVES
Not the most flattering photo of Lonnie Smith but hey, what can you do?

While most of you remember Lonnie Smith for that moment during the 1991 World Series, it’s actually amazing that he even got to a point where he was on the field for such a critical moment during 1991’s Fall Classic. That’s because when he went into the 1989 season, it sure seemed like his days as being a productive player were far behind him.

Smith had only played 91 games over the past two seasons and in those 322 plate appearances over two seasons, he didn’t inspire any sort of confidence that he’d return to the form that saw him play a crucial role on three different World Series winners back in the ‘80s. There was no reason to expect Lonnie Smith to do much of anything in 1989, so naturally he proceeded to have a monster season.

In fact, according to fWAR, Lonnie Smith’s 1989 campaign was better than any single season that Dale Murphy himself had at any point during his heyday in the 1980s, which means that Lonnie Smith ended up having the best individual season of any Atlanta Braves player during the entire 1980s.

Lonnie Smith hit .315/.415/.533 with 21 homers, an ISO number of .218 and 166 wRC+, which ended up being good for an astonishing 8.1 fWAR. As usual during the ‘80s, the Braves were terrible and only finished 63-97 that year but Lonnie Smith as an individual had never reached such heights and also added a 4.0 fWAR season in 1990, to boot. Again, this basically came out of nowhere — especially when you consider that this was Smith’s age-33 season.

Fast forward nearly 30 years later and we may be witnessing a 34-year-old who had no reason to have big expectations coming into a season having a breakout season of his own. It’s totally reasonable to be skeptical of this hot start turning into a hot season for Nick Markakis but Lonnie Smith has proven that it’s possible for things to just all-of-a-sudden start clicking for a player in their 30s.

Nobody here is going to suggest that Nick Markakis is going to have a season where he’s going to put up over 8 fWAR and be in the MVP conversation — he’d have to find a way to keep hitting at the crazy level he’s been at so far (.344/.428/.550 with 169 wRC+. Dude.) but if he can continue to be an actually reliable source of production in Atlanta’s lineup, then he will have done more than any of us could have asked of him during the entirety of his four-year stint with the Braves.

If Lonnie Smith can pull a rabbit out of a hat for a full season, then why not Nick Markakis? This team has already shocked us plenty, so why not let Markakis and the rest of the squad shock us some more?