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Projecting 2019: Nick Markakis

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The sands of time are apparently the goopy cement of time instead.

MLB: NLDS-Workouts
What is ded may never die
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking at this post title and groaning, take a small bit of solace in the fact that as I write this, I am too. Maybe not out loud, because I have a cat on me, but rest assured, there’s a long, some might say eternal, groan reverberating inside me. Which, speaking of eternal, is a good segue into the discussion of Nick Markakis and his continued tenure as an Atlanta Brave. Overnight, I’ve become convinced that this isn’t some ordinary human happenstance; Nick Markakis is a haunting spectre, the Ghost of Opening Day Future. For every season from now until the heat death of the universe, Nick Markakis will start in right field for the Atlanta Braves. When my daughter gets married, he’ll be at the ceremony, even though no one invited him. After I retire and travel the world, he’ll be on every international flight I take, probably seated in the same row. When I die and am buried, he’ll be the cemetery’s quietly stoic groundskeeper, keeping the grass above my little plot of earth as neat and tidy as his facial hair. If, in my last moments of consciousness, I ask to be cremated instead, you better believe he’ll be the one that pulls the final inferno-causing lever. Nick Markakis: 162 games, 700 plate appearances, one millennium, time has lost meaning. It’s like something Goethe would write about.

Whoa, that got macabre real quick! Let’s wheel it right on back to projections. Before talking about 2019, some basic review of previous projections might be worth it. After all, the question, “Is Nick Markakis difficult to project?” is definitely worth asking. The answer: no, not really. You probably already know this, but Nick Markakis could have been the poster boy from projection accuracy in the first three years of his four-year contract. For those first three years, the projection systems said he’d zig, and he zigged. He only zagged in that fourth year.

These offensive projections are actually a little uncanny in how close they are. For the first three years, all are within 10 points of wRC+, and all but one is within seven points. Overall production isn’t too different, either. Again, Markakis was nailed to within 0.5 fWAR/600 pretty consistently, aside from one slightly low Steamer projection (2016), one high IWAG projection (2017), and 2018.

So, for anyone that wants to state the equivalent of, “Hyuck hyuck, the projections whiffed on Markakis last year,” just keep in mind that they hit the target the other three years. If Meatloaf were singing about projecting mediocre outfielders in their 30s, the song might have been “Three Out Of Four Ain’t Bad” instead.

This brings us to projections for Nick Markakis for the 2019 season. No surprise, they’re still all in the same ballpark. Markakis having a random renaissance at age 34 did yank them up and reverse his downward trend, but not enough to make the projection systems forget that he’s a 35-year-old outfielder that’s cleared 2 fWAR twice in five years.

Steamer projects Markakis for a 102 wRC+. Compare that to 101, 95, 96, and 93 the past four years, and the effect of his 2018 is clear. The same goes for fWAR/600: the 1.0 per Steamer is the same kind of relative increase from past projections of 0.9, 0.5, 0.5, and 0.3.

ZiPS isn’t yet integrated on the player pages, but from what we have, we see a 98 OPS+ and around 1.0 WAR per 600 PAs as well. Markakis’ wRC+ may therefore be a bit higher (I believe the relative weighting of non-outs in wOBA is higher than the straight half attributed to OBP in OPS), but either way, this 98 or 100ish number comes on the back of 105, 97, 93, and 86, while the 1.0ish WAR/600 estimate comes after 1.4, 0.7, 0.5, and -0.1. Basically, the idea is that no one is ignoring Markakis’ 2018 — his relatively resurgent 2019 projections are the result of his 2018 season, rather than made in ignorance of it.

My preference is to think of player performance probabilistically where possible. This is how IWAG envisions Nick Markakis’ offensive potential for 2019:

I could talk forever about Nick Markakis’ hitting, even though I really don’t want to. His overall skillset is fairly easy to pigeonhole. The reality is that Nick Markakis is by no means a bad hitter. Here are things he does well:

  • Hit the ball hard
  • Avoid weak contact
  • Hit the ball on a line, especially in the form of flares or liners over the infield that tend to go for hits
  • Make contact when he swings at a pitch
  • Avoid swinging at non-strikes

All of those are really good! Unfortunately, here are the things he doesn’t do well offensively:

  • Swing at strikes and meatballs
  • Hit the ball in the air
  • Or, as an alternative to the above, hit the ball in a way designed to result in something other than a single

The resulting profile is somewhat enigmatic. Yes, Markakis hits the ball hard. League-average exit velocity is around 87 mph; in his four years as a Brave, he’s averaged 88 mph twice and 91 mph twice. This isn’t all from avoiding weak contact, either, as his rate of exit velocities exceeding 95 mph was league average in two of the past four years, and well above it (42 to 43 percent; league average is 34 percent) in the other two. But, he hits the ball hard without elevating it. While that’s better than not hitting the ball hard at all, it does restrict his offensive effectiveness, perhaps unduly so. (For a lot more on Nick Markakis and launch angle, see here.) Over the past four years, Markakis has put up good quality of contact in 2016 and 2018, and fairly blah quality of contact in 2015 and 2017. (He underperformed xwOBA in 2016 and overperformed it in 2015, so these don’t perfectly align to wRC+/etc.) The good years came when he had multiple stretches of posting a launch angle above league average; the worse years occurred when he did not.

I bring this up only to contextualize the chart above. There are, again, two ways to go for Markakis in 2019: if he’s launch angle-low and grounder-heavy, that’s a wRC+ (assuming average luck on balls in play) in the 90s. If he’s launch angle-high with more liners and stuff hit into the deep outfield, something in the 110s is doable, as we saw in 2018. Put those two together and you get a central estimate of a 103 wRC+, which is basically the same as Steamer’s 102, or his three-year average (also 102). In a vacuum, it’s not bad. There’s a decent chance he produces at an above-average clip offensively. There’s also a decent chance that production is below average. There’s not that much likely upside, but there’s not that much likely downside as well.

If you’re new to my maybe-played-for-humor-but-also-maybe-it’s-real-enmity for Baseball Player Nick Markakis, you might be wondering why there’s so much consternation about a guy who seems likely to hit somewhere around average next year, without huge downside risk. The answer: hitting is only part of the puzzle, and for Markakis, it’s the nice-looking part. The rest of the pieces kind of look like a dog gnawed on them, thinking they were table scraps.

Defensively, you could describe Markakis as either “not that bad” or “pretty bad,” depending on what you mean by the term “defense.” There are really two baselines here. One baseline is Markakis’ quality of defense relative to his peers in the corner outfield. By that baseline, he’s not that bad! Over the past four years, his DRS in the outfield has been -6, +10, -4, and +1. His UZR has been -4, +2, -3, +1. Depending on where you draw the line, maybe that’s a little below average, maybe a little above. According to the Statcast OAA/CPA metrics, Markakis was perfectly average in 2018 (+0 OAA, +0% CPA) and below-average the two years before that (-3 OAA, -1% CPA in 2017; -4 OAA, -1% CPA in 2016). The assessment is kind of like his hitting — average-y, maybe a little better, maybe a little worse. But, there’s also the other baseline to think about, the one where his defense is considered relative to baseball players in general. Corner outfield is the second-easiest position to field, after first base. Many of the players there are not that good at the whole defense thing. As a result, being average-y at corner outfield is really like being pretty bad at defense in general. This has pretty substantial implications for Markakis’ value and production, as it does for any corner outfielder. In short: if a player were perfectly average at everything, including corner outfield defense relative to other corner outfielders, he would only be a 1.25 WAR per 600 PAs player. That’s not great! So, when you think about Markakis’ average offensive projection, combine that with his average defense-in-a-corner projection, and acknowledge that he’s never put up above-average baserunning scores since 2009, and you get something like this:

Again, this isn’t too different from the wRC+ chart. If he things break well (some combination of above-average hitting and fielding in an outfield corner), Markakis might be able to put up another WAR rate in the mid-2s. If he doesn’t, a sub-1 WAR campaign is possible. One of the reasons the two curves look so much alike in the chart is because Markakis has been nothing if not durable: the last time he had fewer than 670 PAs in a season was 2012. Correspondingly, his WAR/600 seems fairly likely to resemble his WAR, with some potential to stretch some extra decimals out of his total value by once again playing in essentially every game on the schedule.

All in all, here’s what IWAG has for Markakis in terms of point estimates:

Marginally above-average offense, marginally above-average defense that doesn’t do much to offset the corner outfield positional adjustment, and a final point estimate verdict as a good bench player.

Depending on a team’s place on the win curve, having a good bench player can make tons of sense. Risk mitigation is important, and risk mitigation at below-market rates isn’t much to sneer at. But, a bench player is different than a starter. Sure, you can pencil one in on the lineup card every day, and no one from MLB is going to penalize you. Where you’ll feel the pinch will be in the standings. I won’t say much more on this as my feelings are likely already crystal clear, but just consider this: before yesterday, the Braves were essentially projected to be:

  • Above average at first base, second base, third base, and two of the three outfield spots;
  • Average or thereabouts at catcher (before consider Tyler Flowers’ framing prowess), shortstop, and the bullpen;
  • Potentially below-average (but not by much) rotation-wise, albeit with some assumptions that hopefully do not come to pass, like Mike Soroka only getting a dozen starts and Julio Teheran maintaining a rotation spot all year; and.
  • Essentially worst-in-league at the remaining outfield spot.

Fast-forward to the day after the Nick Markakis signing. Everything above is still the same, except the Braves are maybe bottom five instead of worst-in-league in terms of their biggest team weakness. Whatever needed upgrading before Tuesday still needs upgrading, essentially. Whether it’ll get one, we’ll find out together.

(Also, as a postscript — we haven’t even talked about aging trends for late-career resurgent seasons. Yikes.)