From December 3, 2014, to early on the evening of March 29, 2018, there weren’t a whole lot Braves fans had to get excited about when it came to Nick Markakis. But after Markakis took a Hector Neris splitter into the right-centerfield stands at Suntrust Park everything changed. Suddenly, Markakis was a productive part of the Braves offense.
How did we get here? What happened? What does it change?
How did we get here?
Well, I guess the best place for us to start is at the beginning. Maybe a little before that, actually.
Somewhere along the way in the middle of 2014, the Braves lost their way. After a 96 win season in 2013 and a strong run in the first half of 2014, the team looked to remain competitive for the long haul. But the wheels fell off. A three-game first place lead on June 1st turned into a fifteen game deficit on September 22nd when GM Frank Wren was relieved of his duties. By Opening Day 2015, the organization would completely different.
The first significant move would be the trading of prized RF Jason Heyward to the Cardinals on November 17th. This move obviously left a huge void in the Braves outfield. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of options to fill that void. There were options on the active roster, but that would essentially mean Justin Upton moving to RF and Evan Gattis taking over in LF—which if you remember the 2013 NLDS was problematic, at best. The outfield options on the farm were depressingly thin. The 2014-15 free agent class wasn’t a horrible one at the top, but when it came to outfield depth there were very few options.
Altogether there would be six multi-year deals signed by outfielders that winter.
|Melky Cabrera||30||White Sox||3 yr / $42M||$14M|
|Nelson Cruz||34||Mariners||4 yr / $58M||$14.5M|
|Michael Cuddyer||36||Mets||2 yr / $21M||$10.5M|
|Nick Markakis||31||Braves||4 yr / $44M||$11M|
|Michael Morse||33||Marlins||2 yr / $16M||$8M|
|Yasmany Tomas||24||Diamondbacks||6yr / $69M||$11.5M|
Not exactly the best talent pool when you’re looking to fill the gap left by a five-tool RF who had averaged 3.9 fWAR over the previous five seasons. Ruling out Melky, who wasn’t quite the most popular player in the Atlanta area during his brief tenure with the team in 2010, every player on the list either commanded more money, more years, or was significantly older than Markakis.
However, to be fair, the main thing most people were hung up on concerning the Markakis deal was the contract length. Four years was an awful long commitment to a guy who seemed to have his best years almost a decade behind him. And then there was also the development two days after his signing that he would need surgery to correct a bulging disk in his neck. The masses were certainly not thrilled.
As the off-season would continue onward toward April things would start to become a more clear as to how the new regime of John Hart and John Coppolella were headed. It was an old-fashion fire sale: everything must go. The rebuild was in full effect and a literal arms race was the priority. If it wasn’t bolted down, it was being sent elsewhere for young pitching depth.
The Braves were entering a dark period. Rebuilding a farm system and restructuring an organization takes time. The Braves weren’t expected to contend in 2015, and no one really had any idea how long it would be before they became a force again. The Major League club had become an after-thought, giving way to what was going on down in Minor League parks across the southeast, and the new management made that very obvious with the personnel trotted out nightly at Turner Field.
So just how bad was Markakis during that time, and does it even matter?
Take a look at the Braves record over the course of the first three years of his contract:
That’s… That’s not good.
And how about Markakis?
Also not… Great.
Let’s get some context.
No outfielder in baseball played more games over that span than Markakis. It’s not much, but having a consistent name to be able to write on the lineup card during a rebuild isn’t something to be overlooked. It’s one less space to fill, it’s one less area that needs attention. And considering the status of the rebuild was ever-changing and the focus rested primarily on building up the abundance of pitching talent, writing in his name every day also wasn’t blocking someone more deserving of our time.
What left something to be desired was his production and defense. Defensively he hasn’t been Matt Kemp, but he also hasn’t been Ender Inciarte. He has cost the Braves about ten total outs over the past two-plus seasons, but at the same time his expected catch percentage matches up with his actual catch mark. Offensively, a .106 ISO out of a power position like RF is not ideal. Neither is merely being a league average hitter, as is evident by the 100 wRC+ over 2040 plate appearances. But when you consider what was surrounding him and Freddie Freeman, the context makes that pill a lot easier to swallow.
Five players got over 750 PA for the Braves over that three-year span: Markakis, Freeman, Ender Inciarte, Adonis Garcia, and Jace Peterson. Freeman was Freeman, but only Inciarte was close to Markakis in terms of offensive value.
And overall his 3.3 fWAR over three full seasons isn’t impressive, but it’s not nearly the end of the world, doom and destruction number most of us made it out to be as it was happening. As we can see here (from Matt Swartz over at Fangraphs last July) the average estimated $/WAR for free agents in 2015 was $8.7M/WAR. While it’s not an exact science and still very flawed because of the many variables to consider, that number does give us a gauge for what teams were willing to play for value during that time.
Anyways, if we do assume a win was worth $8.7M to a team the year Markakis was signed, that puts the expected output over the course of the contract right at 5 fWAR over four seasons – or around 1.3 per. Markakis fell just short of that number, at 1.1 fWAR per. Overall, it’s not… Horrible?
Markakis may not have done a lot to help the Braves from 2015 to 2017, but he was consistently not bad (a backhanded compliment, I suppose) and certainly better than any of the alternatives that existed within the system.
So, what about now that the team is actually riding a first-place high in the second week of May?
Markakis is leading the way. Somehow.
In the first 35 games alone he has put up a 168 wRC+ and been worth 1.8 fWAR. You are a damned liar if you told me you foresaw that coming in March 2018.
What does it change?
A lot, actually.
If you apply the first six weeks of 2018 to the rest of the contract that 3.3 fWAR suddenly becomes 5.1 fWAR. It bumps him from the bottom of the fWAR list over three years (63rd out of 87 qualified), to the middle of the pack over three-plus (51st out of 94 qualified). And the same goes for his wRC+, jumping up to 45th from 60th and lifting his name up over Jackie Bradley Jr., Adam Jones, and Carlos Gonzalez, and drawing him even with Yasiel Puig and Jay Bruce.
Suddenly Markakis is playing top-shelf baseball on a relevant baseball team. And not only that but if you use the $8.7M/win mark from the 2015 free agent class, everything the Braves get from Markakis after this point is a bonus on top of the $44M contract he signed.
That remains to be seen. Over each of his four seasons with the Braves, Markakis has started out of the gates hot.
April wasn’t out of the ordinary this year. But so far May appears to be headed in a much different direction.
Is it a fluke? Let’s again dig a little deeper.
|YEAR||Batted Balls||Exit Velocity (Rank)||BABIP|
|2015||530||88.3 (166 / 392)||.338|
|2016||507||90.6 (52 / 391)||.300|
|2017||486||88.3 (116 / 387)||.324|
|2018||127||89.9 (26 / 76)||.333|
(Exit Velocity rank based off of players with 100+ BBE.)
There’s not a lot of variance there. He isn’t hitting the ball harder, and he doesn’t appear to be getting a lot more luck than usual with where the ball ends up. The only major swing in his batted ball data comes when you take a look at his launch angle. While it bottomed out at 6.9° before yo-yo-ing back and forth over the past couple seasons from 10.8° to 8.6° to 12.2° this season. As you can imagine, his HR totals mirror those swings.
So the real question becomes: Can Markakis continue with the power game? His ISO currently rests at .216 on the season. There is the biggest glaring difference in his game at the present. His career high ISO came in 2007/2008 with a .185 mark, the only two seasons he’s eclipsed the twenty-homer mark and two of only four seasons he bested forty doubles. He stands to hit both of those marks in 2018, but we are only a fifth of the way thru the season and there is still way too much baseball left to be played.
Every projection system currently brings his ISO back down into line over the rest of the season; all the way down to around the .120 mark to be exact, which would still best every mark he’s put up with the Braves to date. As far as raw numbers, he’s projected at nine additional homers and 24 more doubles, good for around 16/33 on the year – meaning a couple of his doubles in years may convert over to HR.
So did we answer anything here?
I think so.
The Markakis Era in Atlanta hasn’t been nearly as bad as it seemed or most of us remember it being. A lot of us analytical minded have criticized the Markakis deal from the beginning for a number of reasons — the length, the neck, the defense. A lot of the more surface-thinking have been more positive for their own reasons — his consistency, being the most crucial of them. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between.
It’s been far from star-studded, but so have his surroundings. He was mediocre on mediocre teams. Unfortunately, his was the name written in below Freddie Freeman’s that was expected to help be the backbone of the offense for a number of years, but now that Albies and Acuña are on the scene, Markakis doesn’t have to be that centerpiece.
But apparently, he is. For now.
Somebody is looking to still get paid in 2019.
There’s also the veteran presents he has presented to the kids as they’ve come up during this rebuild. In dealing with the uncertainties of the major league coaching staff replacements he has been here through Fredi Gonzalez, Brian Snitker, John Hart, John Coppolella, Alex Anthopoulos, and the mad scientist Jose Bautista. To go hand-in-hand with the fact he’s been a consistent name to pencil in, he’s pretty much the elder statesman in the clubhouse. Even players this season have stated they view Markakis as the leader and wouldn’t want to disappoint him. That is something worth to keep in mind when going through the diving portion of the rebuild (2015, 2016) to keep the atmosphere at the major league level afloat, at the very least.
You know, we joke a lot about #veteranpresents, but it isn’t a terrible thing to have, especially during a rebuild. At least as long as it isn’t in the form of some dead weight you can’t get rid of.
Markakis is exactly the kind of guy who benefits from the juiced ball. Mediocre exit velocities coupled with good bat control and a newfound willingness to #launchangle. It’s good for the Braves (and for Markakis) that he’s had this breakout, but I think it’s reason to remain critical of the signing. No one could have reasonably foreseen the juiced ball in the 2014-2015 offseason, since it happened in mid-2015 and it took the public nearly a year to be sure that the ball had changed.
Kurt Suzuki is a good counterpoint, because his offensive breakout seems to be coming from a similar place. But the Suzuki signing was *after* we knew the ball was juiced, so we can credit the FO for being savvy enough to identify Suzuki as someone who might have untapped potential.
At the end of the day, the Braves signed Nick Markakis to provide #veteranpresents on a rebuilding team and to signal to MLB and the public that they weren’t going to do a full Astros-style teardown. 4/$44 is still a lot of money to accomplish those goals, and the fact that we’re in a radically different offensive environment doesn’t change that fact.