There are many reasons the Braves have done well so far this season. You can’t go from a 72-win team last season to a projected high 90’s-win team without a lot of things falling into place on offense and on the mound.
Aside from the occasional scare in the 9th inning from the bullpen, not many things have gone wrong. The young players, who are so vital in the rebuild, have been outstanding. And the mix with the veterans has been as perfect.
We all knew Freddie Freeman would put up his normal, solid numbers, but no one could have predicted the tremendous success of right fielder Nick Markakis. The 34-year-old Markakis, in the last year of his four-year contract, is off to the best start of his 13-year career.
Entering Friday’s game, Markakis was hitting .340 with a .418 on base percentage, 49 hits (most in the National League), seven home runs and 28 RBI. That put Markakis on pace for 221 hits, 31 home runs and 126 runs batted in, which would all be career-high numbers.
How could a guy who has averaged 168 hits, eight home runs and 73 RBI in his three years with the Braves be doing this? Is Markakis just angling for one more, big contract? Has he discovered a fountain of youth somewhere, making him better than ever before?
Well, in spring training, there was talk that a more aggressive approach by Markakis might make something like this happen. The Braves’ analytics department shared some numbers with Markakis that showed he might be better off being more aggressive earlier in the count. In other words, being too patient might have cost Markakis just a bit.
Markakis (and his hitting coach Kevin Seitzer) believed he could get 200 hits this season if he followed those recommendations. And so far, so good. Markakis might just hit that mark.
Look, no one expects Markakis to hit over 30 home runs and drive in over 120, so he’ll likely come back down to Earth at some point. But with Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna joining Freeman as the premier players on this team, Markakis’ improvement as a complimentary player is one reason this lineup has done so well this season.
Remarkably, Markakis has never been an All-Star, but that could change with the way he’s played so far. And, believe it or not, with 2101 career hits, Markakis even has a chance to reach 3000 career hits, which could be his ticket to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
So maybe it’s time to realize this guy is pretty good. Markakis had neck surgery right when he signed with the Braves, which might have also had a negative impact on his numbers. Maybe he’s just now completely healthy and everything is clicking for him.
When the Braves signed Markakis before the 2015 season, they were just beginning the rebuild. They hoped Markakis would provide a veteran presence with an ever-changing roster. While he’s not a rah-rah type, Markakis leads by example, and the young players have taken notice. He is very respected in the Atlanta clubhouse, and the chemistry on this team is important.
Maybe, after three subpar, less-than spectacular seasons, the Braves are getting more than their money’s worth. It’s likely Markakis will be replaced by someone younger and even better this winter, as he might go back to the American League for the final years of his career.
For now, the Braves will gladly take Markakis as a vital part of the lineup. If this team is to do something special this season, Markakis must continue his outstanding season. Don’t bet against him.
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