In January 2009, Nick Markakis signed a six-year, $66 million dollar contract that was the second-richest in Orioles’ history. It seemed like a good move at the time. He was 25 years old and coming off an impressive 2008 season in which he hit .306/.406/.491 with 20 home runs (6.1 fWAR). This was on the heels of a similarly impressive 2007 campaign in which he hit .300/.362/.485 with 23 home runs (4.3 fWAR). I remember seeing the contract announcement on the ESPN news crawl and being very excited. After all, the 2008 Orioles finished 5th in the AL East at 68-93 and had not had a winning record in, at that time, 11 seasons. Markakis seemed like the kind of young breakout star a team could hang its hat on.
He was not. During the course of his contract he never got close to 4 fWAR again, let alone sniffing 6 fWAR like he did in 2008. Although his OBP remained above-average due to a high contact rate, his power tailed off, with his ISO declining from .185 in 2008 to .122 in 2011 to .085 in 2013. Although some of that pop returned in 2014, his defense took a swan dive as well. FanGraphs’ aggregate defensive rating (its "Def" number) went from 4.9 runs in 2008 to -13.2 runs in 2009. Through 2013 it never got above -12 runs.
With his walk year looming, Markakis bottomed out in 2013 with 0 fWAR. Many loyal Orioles fans stuck by him, noting his valuable OBP and his tenure with the team. He also played through some injuries and was sidelined by others, most notably a broken thumb towards the end of 2012. But he started drawing more and more criticism for his outfield play and his offensive output relative to expectations in 2009. As more offensive and defensive data became available and sabermetric thinking began to permeate baseball analysis, talk began of how foolish the Orioles would be to pay him $17.5 million in 2015.
In some ways, Markakis rebounded in 2014 to have an above-average season worth 2.5 fWAR. He even won the American League Gold Glove in right field. How did he get there after being worth zero wins the year prior? He hit for more power this year, which boosted his offensive numbers to a 106 wRC+.
But the biggest boost came in his Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which is the defensive component of fWAR. This year Markakis posted his first positive UZR value since 2008. Every year in between has been horrid:
Looking at the components of his UZR rating we have available (Arm, Range, and Error), Nick improved the most in his range. Nick’s range this year was 1.6 runs below average. That doesn’t sound great until you look at his range numbers for the past few years: -11.5, -8.9, -9.2, -8.2, and -7.2. Improving by ten runs, roughly one whole win, is a meaningful achievement.
Roll the tape!
Because UZR is a proprietary metric, we don’t have more granular components available for analysis. However, FanGraphs does publish Inside Edge scouting data from 2012 onwards. This data is different from the data that informs UZR; however, it's the best we've got in terms of publicly-available information. And it seems to confirm what UZR noticed.
Inside Edge keeps track of how often fielders convert plays of varying degrees of difficulty. The difficulty scale ranges from Impossible (nobody ever makes this play) to Routine (90-100% of these plays get made) with stops along the way at Remote, Unlikely, Even, and Likely. The data also shows how many opportunities at each level the player had. For example, in 2012, Markakis was afforded 80 Impossible-grade plays. In 2013 he was afforded 112 of them.
Looking at the data shows that Nick not only had more difficult plays come his way this year, he also did much better with those opportunities. Here are the numbers on
- Remote plays: Nick had 10 remote plays total from 2012-2013. He didn’t make a single one. In 2014 alone he had 19 remote plays, nearly twice as many as both previous years combined, and made two of them.
- Unlikely plays: From 2012-2013 Nick was afforded 10 such plays and made 3 of them, a 30% success rate. In 2014 he had 9 plays available to him and made 8 of them, an 89% success rate. That’s a huge jump.
- Likely plays: From 2012-2013, Nick had 26 of these plays. He made about 22 of them. This year alone he had 27 plays, more than in both years combined. He made about 23 of them.
Nick did trend downward in one area. In plays rated "Even", he made only about four plays out of seven, where in previous years he'd made about eight of nine. But overall, the Inside Edge numbers seem to jive with the UZR ratings. Nick had more playable-but-difficult balls hit to him this year, and he did much better at converting those balls into outs. Did he hustle more in his walk year? Is he now a good defender whereas before he'd been awful? Or are we simply reading too much into one year of defensive data?
We're not sure what the Orioles thought, but we do know they declined to either pick up their half of the $17.5 million option or make a $15.3 million qualifying offer for 2015. The scuttlebutt around the rumor mills is the two sides are working on a multi-year deal in the neighborhood of 3-4 years and $40 million. I think that would be fair. Although Adam Jones is now the face of the team, Markakis's name is still synonymous with "Orioles". That tight coupling has value to a team in the form of ticket sales and merchandise sales.
But on the field, Markakis is 30 and has a much longer track record of mediocrity than of talent. That he reached free agency indicates Dan Duquette isn't swayed by the soft sell. And it means fans are forced to contemplate the possibility of Nick Markakis, non-Oriole, after nine years and his good season in 2014.