It’s May 4th, the Braves are in first place and Nick Markakis is leading the team in WAR. We’re just going to process that sentence for second before moving on.
Nick Markakis has been amazing this year. Like, legitimately amazing. He spent his age 31, 32, and 33 seasons being replacement level so this at age 34 is, well, kind of shocking. We are only 6 weeks in, so all the small sample qualifiers apply here, but lets look at what he’s actually done so far.
As we sit here today Markakis has a 165 wRC+. One-Sixty-Five. Last 3 years he’s run a 106, a 98, and a 95 for an average right around 100. He’s basically been the poster child for a league average MLB hitter. This year, he’s apparently Joey Votto.
Speaking of Joey Votto, let’s talk about the plate discipline. Nick has always had above average plate discipline as his career 13% strikeout rate shows. He’s coupled that with a career 9% walk rate so it’s clear where the nickname “professional hitter” came from. But this year? This year he’s taken it to another level. So far in 2018, Nick is running an 8% strikeout rate with a 14% walk rate. He’s almost at 2 walks for every 1 strikeout. In this day and age, even for Nick, that’s absurd.
But it’s not even the most absurd thing. One of the biggest knocks on Nick in his time with Atlanta is he just didn’t have the power of a corner outfielder. In his first three years in Atlanta, he ran ISOs of .080, .129, and .110. Those are abysmal. League average sits around .175 and Markakis was averaging barely over .100. In 2018, however, that number is sitting at .193. Nick Markakis is running a .193 ISO and a .938 OPS in an actual baseball season. He has 5 home runs already. He had 8 all of last year. Cutting your strikeouts in half while almost doubling your power output is basically impossible to do. But early on, that’s what he’s doing.
If I sound surprised, it’s because surprised doesn’t even begin to say it. I’m shocked. I’ve been as hard on Markakis as anybody and, frankly, his performance warranted that. For a rebuilding team, I never understood his place on the roster. Not this year though. Credit to him. Players usually get worse from 31 to 34. Nick has found the fountain of youth.
Now all of this is accompanied by a .340 BABIP so we do expect some regression, but this isn’t all luck based. This isn’t all his batted balls finding a few more holes. There are no fielders over the fence. Walking almost twice as often as striking out isn’t luck based.
One reason for it is an improved hitting profile. His ground ball rate sat around 48% last year and around 46% for his career. In 2018, it’s at 38%. You all should know by now ground balls are death. To power, to production, to everything. Don’t hit the ball on the ground. It’s been the driving truth behind the fly ball revolution. Don’t hit the ball on the ground. And Nick isn’t.
Markakis is also being more aggressive in the strike zone. There’s basically nothing good that happens from taking strikes and, in 2018, Nick is swinging at the highest percentage of strikes in his career. His 66% Z-swing, swings at pitches in the zone, is by far the highest of his career. Baseball, with all it’s complications, sometimes is as easy as taking balls and swinging at strikes. So far, it’s working for Nick.
Now, one thing we do need to say about all this is let’s not begin the revisionist history. I heard this on the telecast last night and have seen it on Twitter a few times already. This is not the player Nick has been the last three years and let’s not even pretend it is. We can appreciate this version of Markakis while still being honest about what he was before this. Using 2018 as a reason to call out people for criticisms of 2015, 2016, or 2017 is disingenuous at best and plain nonsense at worst.
Let’s just appreciate what he’s doing now. It most likely won’t continue, at least at this rate, but he’s been awesome. Nick Markakis has been awesome. And they absolutely wouldn’t be in first place with out him.