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Rookie of the Year watch?

For obvious reasons, I've been tracking the progress of Nick Markakis this year. And with the new month, it seemed like a good time to take a look back at his season so far. At the end of July -- a month in which Markakis had hit a stellar .403 to lead the majors for the month -- I noted how much he had brought up his seasonal totals after a lousy start. Well, shockingly, he managed to improve on that month, and bring up his numbers even more. There's no way to slice the numbers such that he doesn't look great, but here are a few interesting tidbits:

  • His monthly OPS, April-August: 558, 667, 803, 999, 1140 (!)

  • Breaking down his numbers, makes it really clear how much he improved every month. This chart shows his performance in April, and then his performance since April, allowing us to salivate at the thought of what would happen if he hadn't started off so slowly:

    April 2006       - 182/270/288 (558 OPS)
    May 1  - Aug. 31 - 340/394/531 (925 OPS)
    June 1 - Aug. 31 - 366/414/588 (1002 OPS)
    July 1 - Aug. 31 - 376/418/659 (1077 OPS)
    Aug. 1 - Aug. 31 - 354/400/740 (1140 OPS)

    Add it all up, and his seasonal totals are: 312/372/488.

    (What does the above chart mean? Essentially, he had a miserable April, and a mediocre May, which bring down his early numbers. As the season went on, he got better and better. Of course, those months count, but they illustrate that since he became acclimated to the majors -- remember, he had never played above AA ball before April of this year -- he has been on a complete tear.)

  • At the end of July, I noted that while his month was great, I didn't think he was really a .400 hitter [way to go out on a limb, right?], so he needed to start walking and hitting for power in order to show that he was the real deal. Well, I was right: he isn't a .400 hitter; he hit "only" .354 in August. But he made up for this 50 point decline by doing exactly what I said he needed to do: start hitting for power. After having just 4 home runs all year, he hit 10 in August. Icing on the cake: it was his best month for doubles (he hit 7) also, so he was really driving the ball a lot more, not just converting a few doubles into homers. (Anybody who has been watching him this past month knows this, but it's sometimes easier to see concretely when you put it down in numbers.)

    Also nice: he didn't sacrifice walks for power; although he's hitting everything he sees, he still tied his best monthly walk total, with 8. (I'd still like to see a few more walks from him -- he's only on pace for about 40 for the year -- but if he continues to hit like he has, it won't matter.)

  • For those who still care about archaic things like RBI, he practically doubled his seasonal total in August (29 before August, 26 in August alone), although moving up from 9th to 2nd (and now 3rd) in the lineup certainly didn't hurt in that respect.

  • If he hadn't had that miserable April, he'd be one of the top, if not the top, rookie of the year candidates. Given how ridiculously hot he has been, he still has a chance, but it appears to me that many sportswriters form their impressions early in the year and don't rethink them, so we'll have to see. Of course, he still needs to keep it up in September. (Once the season is over, we'll take a look back and see where his rookie season stands among all-time Oriole rookie seasons.)

  • As for where he stands on the Orioles: he's now second on the team in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging, all to Miguel Tejada. He's third in home runs with 14, behind Tejada (22) and Ramon Hernandez (16).

    There's a lesson here somewhere for the Orioles about having patience with younger players, I think. Of course, they've rarely had anybody as talented as Nick Markakis -- I'm certainly not going to argue that Larry Bigbie would have been a star if only the Orioles had stuck with him -- but Markakis had about 100 miserable at-bats to start the season, and if they had written him off at that point, Markakis would go down with names like Calvin Pickering as failed Orioles prospects. (Believe it or not, for as long as it seemed like Pickering was hanging around, he only got 61 at bats in an Oriole uniform.)

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    Comments (1)


    Cool -- a chance to comment on an article that I didn't write!

    Markakis's improvement this year has been amazing to watch. Just when you think that he's plateaued, he's kicked it into a higher gear. Remember that he kept getting better as he progressed through the minors, too, so he may not have reached his ceiling yet.

    The odd thing is, Markakis became a better hitter this year by becoming less selective and swinging more often. Early on, he was overly passive, watching a lot of hittable pitches go by. This often led to him falling behind in the count and striking out. (A similar approach led to Jack Cust's undoing with the O's.) But then, following coach Terry Crowley's advice to be more aggressive, Markakis started hacking at almost anything close. And soon afterwards, he started killing the ball with increasing regularity.

    Why has this approach worked for Markakis and not for Cust? I'll sum it up in two words: contact ability. Unlike Cust, Markakis has an uncanny talent for making contact with pitches on the outer edges of the strike zone and, more often than not, harmlessly fouling them off. According to STATS, Markakis has one of the best contact/swing ratios in the AL (see up-to-date leaders at their web site). Very few of the leaders in that stat are power hitters; most, like Brian Roberts and Luis Castillo, have slugging percentages in the sub-.420 range. Markakis's power (.481 SLG), combined with his contact skills, make him a potentially special player.

    Because of his contact ability, Markakis's aggressiveness has not inflated his strikeout rates. Since April, when he struck out 16 times (22% of his PA, a high rate), Markakis's monthly strikeout totals have been consistent and never excessive: 10, 11, 9, 11. His overall strikeout rate of 14% is unusually low for a budding power hitter. Yet while his strikeouts have remained steady, his power numbers have skyrocketed as the season has progressed. That's impressive.

    As you've noted, drawing walks is something Markakis still has to work on. But it's not like he has descended to Jeff Francoeur-like walk levels. He seems to have retained a modicum of selectivity; I haven't seen him flailing at many pitches that are clearly out of the strike zone. His walk rate is about 8% now, and given his decent minor-league track record in that skill (11%), I'd expect his walk rate to creep back up as teams pitch to him more carefully. Maybe he isn't the next Greek God of Walks, but if he can walk in close to 10% of his plate appearances, then his ability to hit for average will keep his OBP respectable.

    What's next? I don't think we should expect a 1.100 OPS over the next few years from the guy, but .900 seems well within his reach, and 1.000 is not out of the question. I'd say .850-.900 is a reasonable expectation.

    As for the Rookie of the Year, it would take a monster September for Markakis to overtake the three top AL rookie pitchers, Justin Verlander, Jonathan Papelbon, and Francisco Liriano. I wouldn't put it past him, though; he's just had three great months, so why not one more? With Liriano and Papelbon injured, and Verlander coming back down to earth, it's not a done deal yet.

    Right now, Markakis is the best AL rookie hitter based on raw statistics. The closest competitors are Ian Kinsler and Kenji Johjima, who get extra credit for playing more difficult positions (2B and C, respectively). But none of them has shown the steady, season-long improvement that Markakis has.

    Certainly, Markakis has had one of the best rookie seasons of any Oriole hitter that I can recall from the last two decades. We might have to go back to the early '80s to find one that was on a comparable level.

    Good article, by the way. Hope there are more to come. I guess that goes for me, too. Lately, my analysis of the O's has been reduced to watching the occasional game and periodically blurting out insights like, "Markakis is a beast!"


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