Hey everyone, I'm Chris St. John (@stealofhome on Twitter). First, I would like to thank Bill and The Common Man for the opportunity to write at TPA. I will probably be fairly intermittent with my posts, but I just couldn't pass up this great chance to contribute on such a well-respected site. They asked me to come aboard to have someone who could "really dig in and work with the stats," so I have been thinking really hard about my first post. Something deep. Something technical. Something game-changing. Instead, you're going to get something about Nick Markakis. But hey, there's a graph!
My obsession with Markakis began last June when I ran a very simple Bill James favorite toy calculation for Beyond the Box Score on players who are most likely to get 3,000 career hits. I found that Markakis had one of the highest probabilities for an under-30 player to reach that (totally arbitrary) plateau. The conclusion I reached is that his high probability is linked to his consistent ability to stay healthy and get hits. While he has never led the league in hits, he has always surpassed 180, with the exception of his first major league season. However, the more I look into his career, the more I notice that his amount of games played and hits are nearly the only consistent thing about him. His batting average has fluctuated from .284 to .306. wOBA: .334 to .389. TAv: .264 to .310. His peripheral stats vary quite a bit as well. But no matter how he approaches the plate, he shows up for 160 games and gets 180 hits. What I found is that whenever his BABIP goes down, his total amount of balls in play goes up, which makes sense. Both 2 x 3 and 1 x 6 equal six, but the numbers that it takes to get there change.
Markakis has had a very strange career so far, with his strikeout,walk and batted ball rates all over the place. So I set out to find a player with a similar career path: consistent in playing time and hits accumulated, but inconsistent in peripheral stats. Enter the baseball-reference Play Index:
There are seven players including Markakis who have played in at least 155 games (96%) in their second through sixth seasons since 1961. From 1904 to 1961 (1962 for the NL), the MLB season was only 154 games long, excluding 1920. So by changing the requirement to 147 games played for that era, we can add another 10 players to the list.
This requirement may remove some players who played in strike-shortened seasons, but it should still be a nearly complete list. I feel comfortable knocking Ichiro out of contention based on his age during this period, a full five years older than Markakis.
So now we have a list of 15 players who played as consistently as Markakis at the beginning of their careers. Next is players with the consistent ability to get a hit. For 1904-1961, this will include players with more than 165 hits every season. For 1962 to 2011, players must have more than 173 hits. These numbers are based on a value of 4.4 plate appearances per game and 0.254 hits per plate appearance - Markakis's minimum values. This brings the list down to a total of nine players.
Inconsistent Peripheral Stats
What sticks out to me most when looking at Markakis's peripherals is his variability in walk rate. Sure, his home run output has ranged from 23 to 12, but that represents more of an overall decreasing trend in his career (very highly correlated with an increase in my sadness). His walk rate is a little more interesting: 8.6, 14.2, 7.9, 10.3, 8.7. So if we cut down this list to only the players whose highest walk rate was at least 1.7 times his lowest, we're down to three players: Kirby Puckett, Hal Trosky and Joe Medwick.
Now we're down to a small enough sample to find the proper type of player. Markakis isn't a big home run guy, so Trosky is out. He had 154 home runs to Markakis's 88 in the same time frame. The final hurdle is to account for era, since we have players from the '30s, '80s and '00s. So I created a league average metric (like OPS+) for SB, HR, BB and K (all per plate appearance) to see how each player looked relative to his peers. Here is the result of that if we include stats from each player's second through sixth seasons:
http://www.fangraphs.com/graphframe.aspx?config=0&static=0&type=graphsw&num=2&h=450&w=450&players=5930,1010557Source: FanGraphs -- Nick Markakis, Kirby Puckett
This knocks out Medwick as he is nowhere near Markakis on any account. However, the numbers for Puckett do look fairly similar, with the exception of walk rate.
So there you have it: the next time you think about Nick Markakis, think about Kirby Puckett, just with more walks (but way, way fewer hits). Here is their Cumulative WAR by Age comparison graph:
Now Markakis just needs to be worth 30 wins over the next eight years and he's a lock for the hall of fame!
Unfortunately, he proved his humanity this year by undergoing abdominal surgery, but by all accounts should be ready for Opening Day. The Race for 3,000 continues. Won't you join me on team MarCAKEis?