Even as the Orioles slip further away from the elusive .500 mark, the season still has its small pleasures. Chief among them is watching the growth of Nick Markakis into a legitimate star caliber player. Now in his third season, Markakis has shown improvement in many areas of his game.
First let's look at the basic Markakis lines over the past two seasons. In 2007, Markakis went for a .300/.362/.485 line (121 OPS+) before bumping that up to .299/.401/.492 (139 OPS+). What has been impressive is that not only have Markakis' raw rate stats shown a jump, they have done so in as the run environment has become more receptive to pitchers in the AL this season. AL scoring has dropped by about 0.27 runs - a not insignificant drop - relative to pre-All Star Break levels from 2007.
By Batting Runs (a linear weights method), Markakis rates as +21.5 runs above average, as compared to +19.5 RAA last season, even though he has 300 fewer PA this season. That is important because lwts is a counting stat that, all things equal, accumulates as playing time accumulates.
The most striking difference in Markakis rate stat line is the jump in OBP, especially considering that his AVG has been nearly identical. His BB% (measured per PA) has jumped from 8.7% to 14.3%, an enormous jump, and good for 18th in all of baseball, 9th in the AL. Markakis has also increased his K% (20.3%), which is a concern, but his strikeout rate is not especially concerning. Among the top 20 in BB%, he ranks 10th in BB/K ratio at 0.80, a well above average ratio.
The rise in strikeouts might ordinarily forecast a drop in AVG as less balls in play mean less opportunities for hits. But what Markakis has done in conjunction with the increase in BB and K is to hit more line drives. His LD% has skyrocketed to 22.9%, which fits in well with his BABIP of .346 (a quick "rule of thumb" is that BABIP = LD% + .120). Markakis is becoming a bit more selective at the plate (swinging at just ~41% of pitches this season as compared to ~45% last season) and has simultaneously hit the ball harder when he does swing.
Markakis' defensive reputation has been that of a Gold Glove caliber RF for some time, at least among Orioles fans, but the numbers did not agree. At least not the RZR numbers of The Hardball Times, which rated him a very poor 16th out of 20 qualifying RF last season (although he did have an excellent 45 OOZ plays). This year those numbers peg him as being 5th of 19th in RZR as well as tied for 4th in OOZ plays, a strong case for being named the best defensive RF in the AL. Of course, we should take note of the small sample size involved in both seasons (as fielding statistics, even the best, have more year to year noise than do hitting statistics), and it may be correct to conclude that Markakis deserves to be ranked as just slightly above average in the field.
It has been interesting to see the strides that Markakis has taken this season, although it is probably best to be somewhat cautious while seeing how he finishes the season. The next step will be to add more power, although even if he just stays to his first half pace, he will end up with about 25 HR and 45 2B, very strong totals when combined with a .400 OBP. Here's to hoping