How Atlanta Braves’ Nick Markakis is having a Hall of Fame career


Nick Markakis made his Grapefruit League debut for the Atlanta Braves on Monday. In his second at-bat, he turned on a 1-2 inside fastball that caught too much of the plate and sent it to the right field wall. It became a stand-up leadoff double for Markakis, one that would eventually bring him around to score. In his next at-bat, he got another hit, and eventually scored again.

Had it not been coupled with the fact that it marked Markakis’ return to play after fusion neck surgery in December, the 31-year old’s offensive contributions would not have been noted. Two hits and two runs in three at-bats is always a good line, but it likely isn’t going to headline a mid-season game recap.

So it goes for Markakis, the baseball equivalent of death and taxes. For nine seasons he’s made a living out of dependable, linear production that ticks like a clock, never breaking for anything mediocre nor outstanding. He’s never batted lower than .271 in a season, yet he’s also never made an All-Star team. The only material accolades he’s ever received are two Gold Gloves (2011, 2014) and AL Rookie of the Month from  April 2006.

His most dominant offensive season — in 2008, when he put together a .306/.406/.491 line in 157 games — ended with him not receiving a single vote for Most Valuable Player. He is currently ranked as the 45th-best option for outfielders in ESPN Fantasy Baseball Power Rankings, behind 37-year old Carlos Beltran.

Despite all these seeming efforts by peers and critics to imagine that he doesn’t really exist, Markakis has been making a permanent mark on the game through the incredibly dull intangible called consistency. He has both played at least 160 games in five different seasons and totaled at least 180 hits in five different seasons. It’s possible Markakis never wins another individual award — yet still finishes with a Hall of Fame career.

It’s not really that extreme of an idea. Aside from more basic reasoning — Markakis is a stellar fielder and more than midway to 3,000 career hits (1,547) in his early 30’s — there’s an argument to be made that he is generational talent. Markakis is currently 22nd on the active career hits list. But he is also the only person in the top 30 to have played less than 10 seasons thus far. He has more career hits through nine seasons than Craig Biggio, Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew.

Now with the Braves, Markakis will benefit by playing in a system — one that the Braves will imaginably recreate for him — that eerily mimics the Orioles’ that featured him prominently at leadoff, sacrificing base running for on-base percentage. His seasonal plate appearance totals will stay north of 650 if he keeps practicing a good eye and table-setting for the likes of Freddie Freeman.

The fickle benefit of good health has been something else working in Markakis’ favor. Avoiding major injury during the regular seasons, at least. Analysts may point to his neck surgery from this offseason, which Markakis credited towards his contract disputes with Baltimore, as an indicator towards a decline in production. But that’s entirely presumptuous for a guy with no track record of serious injury. Additionally, Markakis said that his injured neck had been afflicting him for two years. He’s been sub-par for his own standards in that span of time (.274/.335/.371), so there’s no reason to think surgery wasn’t the best option for him.

Others may argue that Markakis is bound to decline as a product of his new surroundings. He’s no longer hitting in front of Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz on the league’s eighth-highest run-scoring offense. Now, he’s co-headlining the 29th ranked scoring offense from 2014 with Freeman and the “Bad Upton Brother.”

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While a leadoff hitter is far more likely to see better pitches if the hitters behind him are dangerous,  Markakis already doesn’t fit the mold nor mentality of the “ideal” leadoff hitter. He lacks breakaway linear speed, with only 61 career stolen bases. His production isn’t always a reflection of his team’s, but it’s still available for them to compound with. Take, for consideration, his first at-bat this spring: down in the count early, no outs, no foreseeable contrast between a hit or strikeout. Yet, he turned a simple pitching mistake into an advantage, and Atlanta compounded it into runs.

That’s why — in a season where Atlanta is expected to regress — Markakis and Atlanta make sense. This offense is laden with question marks after an offseason of reform, so they brought in one of the surest players in the league. Even if his production regresses marginally, Atlanta can lean on the fact that he epitomizes an everyday player. And Markakis, the guy who hasn’t really been properly valued for a decade now, earns a contract that reflects his traits: a respectably solid $11 million each year for four years.

Don’t expect him to singlehandedly throw the Atlanta Braves’ franchise into contention, don’t expect 30-plus home runs, don’t even expect an All-Star game at this point. Expect Nick Markakis to keep punching the clock at work consistently day-in-day-out, quietly and steadily contributing and adding to his hits total.

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