Does his down 2009 hint that this is as good as it gets for Nick Markakis?
Here's a story about a 26-year-old outfielder with four years of big league experience who was selected with the seventh overall pick of the 2003 amateur draft. At the time of his major league debut in 2006, he was widely considered one of the game's top prospects, a future perennial All-Star, having been ranked 21st by Baseball America entering that season. Sure enough, in his second and third big league years, he managed at least a .300 batting average and 20 home runs.
Based on the logical progression, this player sounds like a natural MVP candidate for 2010, doesn't he?
That's where you'd be mistaken. Nick Markakis is this player, but right at the stage where a typical player would be entering his prime years, Markakis' career appears to have hit a standstill. His 2009 was out of character for a budding superstar in his age-25 season, and now his keeper-league and prospective redraft league owners are confused as to which direction he's headed.
The trends in average draft results demonstrate fantasy owners' concerns:
2008: 41st overall (44.3), No. 15 outfielder
2009: 24th overall (25.9), No. 7 outfielder
2010: 61st overall (62.5), No. 16 outfielder
So Markakis is a player who, when he was coming off back-to-back huge campaigns, was widely regarded as a top-25 candidate but now can't be trusted even to crack the top 50? This story just gets odder and odder.
You can find Markakis' counting statistics anywhere, so let's take a closer look at some of his rate and sabermetric stats to get a sense of what's truly going on:
Stat key -- AVG: batting average; OBP: on-base percentage; SLG: slugging percentage; ISO: isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average); BB%: percentage of plate appearances that were walks; K%: percentage of at-bats that were strikeouts; SB OPP%: percentage of steals attempts/stolen base opportunities, the latter number reported by Baseball-Reference.com; LD: line-drive rate; GB: ground-ball rate; FB: fly-ball rate; HR/FB: home run/fly ball percentage; BABIP: batting average on balls in play
So in addition to his counting numbers suffering last season, Markakis regressed in every statistical category except two: his contact rate and his fly-ball rate. Strangely enough, and perhaps connected to the contact-rate improvement, Markakis' contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone rose to 73.1 percent, up from 68.7 and 69.2 the previous two years, according to FanGraphs. In other words, he was making more contact, but not necessarily on better-quality pitches, meaning any benefit he gained in the category wasn't necessarily meaningful.
As for the improvement to his fly-ball rate, Markakis didn't benefit in any way in terms of home run/fly ball percentage. In fact, according to baseball-reference.com, he actually batted a career-worst .193 on his fly balls and showed little to no improvement in terms of extra-base hits on fly balls, despite hitting more of them. If you like throwing around these terms, he was "driving the ball" more often, yet that didn't reflect any improvement in power. On a rate basis, Markakis actually seemed to regress slightly in performance when he hit the ball in the air, which is especially strange for a player who calls a decent hitters' environment his home.
Now, there are a couple of explanations for Markakis' regression in every other statistical department. One of them was his performance versus left-handers. The 2009 season represented Markakis' worst of his four big league years versus southpaws; he managed just .262/.305/.376 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers against them, every one of those a career worst. His isolated power has also tumbled against lefties in each of the past two seasons; his number was .183 in 2007 (.186 versus right-handers that year), but dropped to .164 in 2008 and .114 last year. For a player of Markakis' age, such a drop-off isn't just bizarre, it's a little disturbing.
Lineup protection -- if you believe in such a thing -- could be a minor factor. Consider that in 2008, the two players who were slotted immediately behind Markakis most often were Aubrey Huff (59 games) and Melvin Mora (56). Huff and Mora managed .552 and .483 slugging percentages, respectively, that year. Last season, by comparison, Huff (89 games) and Mora (21) again were the top two slotting behind Markakis, but their slugging percentages dropped to .405 and .358, respectively.
Not to suggest that this was the driving force behind Markakis' regression, but one thing to note about his 2007 and 2008 campaigns was that he was a quality fastball hitter -- he maintained .300-plus well-hit averages against heaters each year, according to Inside Edge -- but was a bit more ordinary against off-speed pitches. If pitchers were more apt to work around him with off-speed stuff -- which might help explain all those balls in play on pitches outside the strike zone -- it'd explain at least a little why his numbers suffered. In 2009, his well-hit average on off-speed pitches was .252, and he put 52 percent of his swings on them into play, those numbers representing his worst and most, respectively, the past three seasons.
Perhaps most disturbing of all about Markakis' 2009 season was that he failed to continue his trend of extraordinary second-half performances. He managed .294/.346/.464 second-half statistics, good by an average player's standards but easily the worst second-half rates in all three categories of his four-year career. Markakis also continued his uptick in fly-ball rate after the All-Star break, that number rising to 42.1 percent, yet his home run/fly-ball percentage remained a modest 9.3. In other words, he showed nothing to hint that his poor year was driven by an especially weak first half, which in the case of a player like Robinson Cano, by comparison, helped explain a lot about his down 2008.
All that said, there are some things to like about Markakis, just not a lot of them. One is that he has consistently generated a ton of doubles, at least 40 in each of the past three seasons, and 45-plus in each of the past two. For a player just reaching his career peak age, that hints at potentially untapped power, even if nothing else in his profile hints at an imminent power surge.
The other is that Markakis remains one of the more skilled defensive outfielders in the game, though his 2009 did represent a down year by his standards (minus-5.8 Ultimate Zone Rating, per FanGraphs). The solid fielding ensures everyday at-bats, with no threat of a platoon situation, which in turn means that not only will his counting numbers, RBIs and runs in particular, remain constant, but he'll also continue to get regular chances to resolve last season's issues against left-handed pitching.
But reread those previous two paragraphs. Neither seems like a compelling reason to push Markakis significantly higher up your draft rankings, does it? The truth is that any pro-Markakis argument is going to involve a large amount of "gut instinct," something that probably won't offset the numerous statistical concerns.
This is a player for whom you should be firmly in line with the ADPs.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.