Can Nick Markakis bounce back?

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

2013 was by far the roughest year of Nick Markakis' career. Do you think he'll be better this year?

It's no secret that Nick Markakis had a lousy 2013. He's been up and down since his breakout season in 2008, but never has he been so down as he was last year. It's making it tough to be optimistic for Nick in 2014, especially in terms of the $15 million he'll be earning, which at this point makes him the highest paid player on the team.

I don't want to talk about his salary. His salary is a moot point. But what I do want to talk about is what it would mean to this team if he can bounce back from his terrible 2013 to be a productive member of the Orioles lineup.

In 2008, Markakis won us over with a .306/.406/.491 hitting line, putting visions in our heads of a star hitter who would come close to being a .300/.400/.500 hitter for years. That didn't happen, of course, but his track record since then would indicate that he's very capable of putting up an above-average performance year after year even if he doesn't have quite the level of success that he did in ‘08.

The 2014 Orioles have the potential to be a good offensive team, but they do have quite a few question marks. The only positions where I am truly comfortable with the offense is first base, shortstop, and centerfield. Catcher is suspect because it's hard to know what Matt Wieters will do after a very poor 2013 at the plate. Third base is questionable because we don't know when Manny Machado will return from his injury or if it will take him some time to get back up to speed once he does.

Left field, second base, and designated hitter were all areas that the Orioles wanted to improve on this offseason, but so far that hasn't really happened. David Lough will play left field, and while he has shown promise, he's not exactly an overwhelming talent. Ryan Flaherty will finally get the chance to show what he's got at second base, he of the lifetime .279 OBP. As for designated hitter...who knows? Some combination of Nolan Reimold, Steve Pearce, Henry Urrutia, Delmon Young, and who knows who else will be called upon to fill that role.

That leaves Markakis, and while in the past he has been the last guy you worry about on the field, his 2013 was very upsetting. He hit just .271/.329/.356, which was good for an OPS+ of just 86 and a wOBA of .304. It was, by far, the most terrible season of his career.

If you're not familiar with the stat wOBA, you can read about it over at FanGraphs. The short explanation of wOBA is that it's a stat that tries to accurately measure a player's total offensive worth. Batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage all measure different things, and wOBA ties it all up on a nice bow so you only need one number to assess offensive value. The rule of thumb is that .340 is an above-average wOBA, .370 is great, and .400 is excellent. The year-to-year averages vary of course, so that's generally speaking.

Here are Nick Markakis' wOBA for every year that he's been in the league, along with the MLB average that year, and the average among right fielders.


Markakis wOBA

MLB Avg wOBA

MLB Avg wOBA at RF

2006

.345

.332

.344

2007

.366

.331

.345

2008

.392

.328

.341

2009

.349

.329

.339

2010

.353

.321

.338

2011

.333

.316

.334

2012

.359

.315

.327

2013

.304

.314

.325

Other than last year Nick has been a very offensively sound right fielder. Once you adjust your expectations of him a bit, it's easy to see that he's a very valuable member of the team if he plays as he has in every season other than 2013. A lot of people, myself included, have been disappointed by his seemingly diminishing levels of power, but his power in 2012 was actually up, though he missed time due to injury.

Ah, speaking of injuries. This is hopefully the real culprit of Nick's woeful 2013. After averaging 158 games played every season from 2006-2011, Nick saw his first career trips to the disabled list. But his injury troubles actually started before that. Nick's 2011 numbers were, at the time, the worst of his career. That's not to say they were awful, but it was a definite downturn. Well, it turns out that he had been playing for some time with a torn abdominal muscle. He thought it was just a deep bruise, but it actually required surgery that happened in January 2012. He then missed 35 games in the middle of 2012 due to a broken hamate bone in his wrist.

It's hard to pin either of those injuries on his 2013 performance, as he came back from that injury and hit .336/.393/.488 over the next 53 games. He looked great and was really helping the Orioles secure themselves as a contender, until an errant pitch by CC Sabathia broke his left thumb and ended his season.

We all know what happened next. Markakis was recovered from his injury in time to start the season in 2013, but he didn't look like any Nick Markakis we had ever seen. In a recent interview with Roch Kubatko, Markakis said a few things that gave me hope for the 2014 season. He stated that his strength wasn't what it normally and that he had two off seasons in a row when he wasn't able to prepare the way he should, and that because he was physically different in 2013 there were adjustments he had to made that he wasn't comfortable with, which led to failure. He also stated in the interview that he got started this off season earlier than he ever has so that it won't be an issue in 2014.

A lot of that could be typical baseball platitudes, and none of what he said is exactly groundbreaking. But it makes sense. If he's able to come into 2014 strong and healthy and stay that way, it stands to reason that his 2014 won't resemble his 2013 at all and instead will be the steady presence in the lineup that we've seen all years prior.

Best Case Scenario: Markakis comes into spring training with a healthy off season behind him in which he was able to get himself in shape and ready for the season. He hits 18-20 home runs with about 45 doubles and walk rate of close to 10%. That would make for one fine leadoff hitter and would close a hole in the lineup. I don't think this is that crazy of an expectation.

Worst Case Scenario: 2013 was the new normal for Markakis. He's not old, having just turned 30 this past November, but as any of us who has turned 30 can attest to the fact that the older you get, even at that relatively young of an age, it's tougher to keep yourself in prime shape than when you were 25 years old. Markakis admitted in his interview with Kubatko that he had trouble making adjustments in 2013, and if that continues being the case then the Markakis we saw last year might be the one we've got in 2014 as well. I don't think this will happen, especially since he stated that he started working out earlier and he's 100% healthy, which can only be a good thing.

If Markakis can bounce back and be one less hole in the lineup, that'll take some of the pressure off of the many other question marks that the Orioles are throwing out there. If he can join Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, and Adam Jones as a strong core of the lineup, that will go a long way to helping the Orioles succeed.

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