Nothing like 9 straight losses to start a season! We’re two weeks into 2016, and 69 wins has already gone from a laughingly likely scenario to a slightly optimistic one. The offense is worse than expected. The defense is worse than expected. The pitching is roughly as bad as expected. We have literally three times as many errors as we do homeruns. We all knew things we gonna be rough, but damnit if the Baseball Gods couldn’t have gone at least a little easy on us. But alas, this is where we are, and we need to start looking for the occasional ray of light wrestling through the clouds. This week, that ray of light is Nick Markakis.
None of us at the General Store were particularly optimistic about Markakis heading into 2015. He was aging, likely overpaid, and coming off neck surgery. 686 plate appearances later, our concerns were mostly validated. While he proved to be much better than expected at getting on base, he also played mediocre-at-best defense and hit less homeruns than Madison Bumgarner did in either of his last two seasons. However, hidden within that mediocrity was an average exit velocity that was slowly trending up, month by month. By the end of the season, he’d added roughly 1.5 mph to his batted balls while also putting more balls in the air. This seemed to indicate that injuries were healing well, and it was a reason for optimism heading into 2016.
While 50 plate appearances isn’t enough to draw any sweeping conclusions from, it is enough to start noticing some trends. In 2015, Nick Markakis had a GB/FB ratio of 1.94 with an average exit velocity of 89 mph. So far in 2016, he’s posted a GB/FB ratio of 0.72 with an average exit velocity of 93 mph. More balls in the air and more balls hit hard is a recipe for success, and on the field it’s led to an MLB-leading nine doubles driving a 158 wRC+. In addition to this, he’s repeating his April 2015 feat of walking more than he strikes out, a skill that I’m admittedly irrationally a fan of.
There’s nothing uncommon about a player getting off to a hot start, and it’s easy to get overly excited about some small samples successes. But not all hot streaks are completely luck. Sometimes we can dig through the results to find some underlying skill improvements that may signal future success. One of my preferred ways of trying to get a sense of the signal in the noise is looking at how streaks affect a player’s rest-of-season projections. For Markakis, before the season started ZiPS projected him to post a wOBA of 0.311. After the first couple weeks, ZiPS now projects a 0.317 wOBA for the rest of the season. That .006 improvement may not sound like much, but it’s the 31st largest improvement for any hitter this season.
There’s only so much information you can tease out from two weeks of baseball, and for most of the Braves that information is rather bleak, but Nick Markakis has appeared to have made some legitimate improvements to his hitting game. If he can continue hitting the ball harder and keeping it in the air and in the gaps, he may end up making that contract worth it after all.