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Nick Markakis' unexpected decline

2008 Nick Markakis is long gone. In his place is a slap hitter with very little power who's getting paid like a superstar.

Thearon W. Henderson

Lost in the monster season of Chris Davis, the struggles of Matt Wieters, the doubles and defense of Manny Machado, and the starting pitching woes has been the fact that Nick Markakis is having his worst year in a steady series of bad years.

He's turned into a slap hitter without doubles or home run power, and he's no longer worth what the Orioles are paying him. Heading into Saturday's game, his slash line was .283/.337/.382 with 8 HR. That line, for an RF who plays half his games at OPACY, translates to a 96 wRC+. The average hitting combined with his below-replacement fielding and baserunning comes out to only 0.8 fWAR. That's 9th out of 12 qualified AL RFs.

Consider that the O's are paying Markakis $15 million this year. That's a lot of scratch for so little production. Here are other players making roughly the same salary and how they are performing:

  • Robinson Cano - 3.7 fWAR
  • Hanley Ramirez - 3.5 fWAR
  • Hiroki Kuroda - 3.0 fWAR
  • Chase Utley - 3.0 fWAR
  • John Lackey - 2.1 fWAR
  • Jake Peavy - 1.2 fWAR
  • John Danks - 0.3 fWAR
  • Adam Dunn - 0.0 fWAR

You see where Nick falls on this list.

Three notes:

  • I omitted Curtis Granderson because he's played so little this year.
  • The White Sox have some dead weight at $15 million also, but their payroll is about $25 million more than Baltimore's.
  • Friggin' Yankees.

If Markakis plays the rest of the season at this pace, he'll finish with about 1.3 fWAR, his lowest total ever. Baseball-reference classifies this as below starter-level production. Everyone can excuse a bad season, but this total would be just the latest trend in the decline since his peak in 2008. He notched 6.1 fWAR that year; in subsequent seasons he's racked up 2.0, 2.4, 1.7, and 1.5.

What's going on with him? He's not striking out any more frequently than normal, nor is he walking any less frequently (at least, not enough to be meaningful). His 23.7% line-drive rate indicates he's still squaring up the ball. As such his BABIP is a robust .299.

One problem appears when you look at how often he puts balls in the air. His ability to lift the ball up is disappearing right before our eyes. Here are his flyball rates since his breakout 2008 season:

  • 2009 - 41%
  • 2010 - 36%
  • 2011 - 34%
  • 2012 - 31% (in 104 games)
  • 2013 - 28% (in 108 games)

That's quite a drop, and given Nick's already below-average HR/FB% rate (7.3% this year, just 9.4% for his career) his power outage starts to make more sense. At age 29, his GB/FB ratio is the highest it's ever been. In fact, it's the 14th-highest in the AL. As we all know, balls on the ground don't go into the gaps or over the fence.

So he's essentially a slap hitter now. But slap hitters have to bring something else to the table to stay valuable. Usually, this is speed (Ichiro Suzuki) and/or defense at an up-the-middle position (Joe Mauer, Erick Aybar, Dustin Pedroia, Lorenzo Cain).

All of the above players have GB/FB ratios higher than Nick's. In fact, in 2013 there are only two other corner OFs with similar GB/FB ratios. Ichiro is one; he makes just $6.5 million this year, not to mention his team's payroll is vastly more than the O's. He also plays excellent defense.

The other slap hitter corner OF is Michael Brantley, who actually has an offensive skillset similar to Markakis's (.279/.334/.391 with 7 HR, 104 wRC+). The difference is that Brantley makes just $500,000 and was primarily a center-fielder before this season. And he's 26.

I'm not trying to be a jerk here. I'm sure Nick is a great clubhouse teammate. I've seen articles where players and coaches laud his lack of ego. His OBP is highly-valued on a team that is marked by aggressive plate appearances. And I know he's a face of the franchise, a reminder of the mid-00s teams that knew they wouldn't even sniff the playoffs, in the manner of Michael Young on the Rangers. Meaning, I'm sure Nick puts butts in the seats and sells jerseys like hotcakes.

I also realize that every team has overpaid players on their roster, just like every team has underpaid players on their roster. Think about what the O's are not paying for Machado, Davis, and Wieters this year. The amount by which these players are underpaid surely equals or exceeds the amount that Markakis is overpaid.

But even given all this, it's instructive to note just how overpaid Nick is with respect to his on-field production. His WAR translates to a free agent value of about $4 million. That's less than a third of his current salary.

Looking ahead, Nick makes the same amount next year before facing a team option in 2015 for $17.5 million ($2 million buyout). I suspect the O's will look long and hard at that choice. Nick will be 31 then; who knows how valuable he'll be during 2014, but players don't generally reverse long declines like these.