Nick Markakis has put together a career that many players could only dream of having. At 34 years old, the soft-spoken Markakis has been at baseball’s highest level for 13 years. During that time, he’s won two Gold Glove awards and become well-respected by many within the game and the cities in which he has played. But he always seemed capable of more. In 2018, he’s showing it, and could earn the first All-Star Game appearance of his career.
To be fair, Markakis deserved this sort of attention long before now. All the way back in 2008 as a 24-year-old with the Orioles, the former first-round pick ended the season with the fourth-highest WAR in MLB. His 7.4 WAR ranked behind only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Mark Teixeira; pretty good company.
Playing in Baltimore during some lean years for the franchise may be most to blame for Markakis’ anonymity amongst casual fans. The O’s didn’t have a single winning season in the right-fielder’s first six years in the bigs. They finally made the playoffs in 2012, but Markakis missed out with a thumb injury. By the time the team made it to the postseason again (2014), the then-30-year-old had become a role player on a club led by Adam Jones and Manny Machado.
The move to Atlanta was a bit of a head-scratcher when it happened. Markakis would get plenty of playing time, but the Braves were in clear rebuild mode. The veteran outfielder had left his previous team just as they had finally become a regular contender to jump to a team that was again (it appeared) years away from sniffing a playoff spot.
His first three seasons in Atlanta were, more-or-less, exactly what many expected. He hovered above replacement level while getting on base with regularity and struggling a bit in the field. It was fine for a team that needed a warm body to patrol the outfield and an experienced player to provide guidance for a slew of talented youngsters. Markakis entered 2018, the final season of his current contract, with a similar outlook on the summer to come.
Instead, the Braves have taken the baseball world by storm. For a while, they had the best record in the National League. Despite a recent drop-off, they remain above the Nationals and Mets in the division and in front of the Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Dodgers in the wild card standings.
The contributions of Markakis have been as much the reason for the team’s success as anyone else. As of this writing, he leads the NL in batting average and hits. He is in the top 10 in on-base percentage, doubles and RBI. His 2.0 WAR trails only Freddie Freeman among Atlanta hitters. At the moment, Markakis is playing like one of the best in baseball. It has been the finest showing of his career and it has come in his mid-30s, when most players are slowing down.
An added benefit, for Markakis anyway, is the fact that this is his walk year. Following the 2018 season, he will hit free agency alongside some heavy hitters (Machado, Jones, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen). The open market has not been kind to veteran everyday players recently, and it could be especially tough on a guy who will turn 35 in the fall.
Markakis would seem to have an advantage over fellow old-timers. He has never had recurring injury issues. The broken thumb in 2012 was the only trip he has ever made to the disabled list. He has never been much of a power hitter, but his slugging percentage has remained stable since 2013. His game never relied on speed but rather positioning and awareness. If anything, those two things can improve with age.
He isn’t going to match Machado or Harper with the massive contracts they are sure to get. But he could provide a more affordable corner outfield or DH option for teams that need a jolt of offense without breaking the bank. Before this season is done, Markakis may have made his first all-star team, garnered a vote or two for MVP and earned himself another payday for as solid of an MLB career as you are ever gonna see.