The Washington Nationals had a stranglehold on the National League East during Spring Training, at least on paper. The rest of the division was vying for a Wild Card spot at best. When the season started the Nationals turned into a paper tiger, while the Phillies and Braves vaulted to the top of the East as their rebuilding efforts bear fruit. Few people expected either team to play this well into mid-September.
Leading the Braves resurgence is a consummate professional. The breakout season by rookie duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña, and another outstanding season from perennial All Star in Freddie Freeman have gotten much of the attention. However, it is the veteran Nick Markakis leading the charge in Atlanta.
It is past time to appreciate and honor the consistency of Nick Markakis. Markakis is leading baseball in hits, and leading the National League in sacrifice flies and is tied for the National League lead in doubles. He is a compiler, like Craig Biggio. Compilers are rarely given the respect they deserve as they grind, often under the radar. Markakis rarely misses a game, playing an average of 155 games each season. He has played fewer than 147 games in a season only once in his 13 year career.
This season he ranks in the top 10 in baseball in Batting Average, Plate Appearances, At Bats, Games Played, Hits (leads all of baseball), Singles, Doubles, Times of Base, Sacrifice Flies, Intentional Walks, and At Bats per Strikeout. While these stats do not make him a super star in the eyes of fans, teams know a player like Markakis is critical to their success.
Nick Markakis consistently puts the ball in play. Could he quietly be grinding his way towards Cooperstown? (Hyosub Shin/ HShin@ajc.com)
2018 is not an outlier for Markakis, he has been a force his entire career. He has eight seasons with 170 or more hits. He averages 182 hits per season, yet has never had a 200 hit season. He will finish close to 200 hits yet again as he has 174 hits with two weeks left to play. Markakis has nine seasons with 30 or more doubles and five seasons with 40 or more doubles. He already has 40 doubles this season, above his 39 doubles in an average season. He has scored 75 runs, hit 14 home runs, and drawn 63 walks which are around an average season for him. His .306 batting average is the best of his career, he will have his third season hitting above .300, yet his career .289 average shows his consistency at the plate. Markakis has struck out 70 times, well below his average of 93 per season. His career 6.8 At Bats per Strikeout is well below the Major League average of 4.6. A career .359 OBP, with .371 this season. He has never been a power bat, but he puts the ball in play and sets the table for the power bats behind him in the line up.
Markakis finished sixth in the crowded 2006 American League Rookie of the Year. He is a two time Gold Glove winner, 2011 and 2014, winning both awards without committing an error in over 1,300 innings in the field each season. He was voted to his first All Star game this season. He played the most games and collected the most hits before playing in his first All Star game in baseball history.
Grinding away, Markakis is quietly sneaking up on 3,000 hits. He currently has 2,226 hits. If he can remain healthy and continue collecting an average of 182 hits every year, Markakis would reach the mystical 3,000 hit mark before his 40th birthday. This would present the baseball writers with an intriguing question. Does collecting 3,000 hits automatically make you are a Hall of Famer? A few more good seasons by Markakis could force the baseball writers to confront this question.
Much of what Markakis provides Atlanta is not found in the stats. His veteran leadership has helped the young Braves rise to the top of the division earlier than expected. Veteran leadership is disappearing as teams are unwilling to pay veteran prices for players past their primes. In Markakis, the Braves have a veteran leader in the clubhouse and on the field. Time will tell how far his leadership can lead Atlanta and how valuable he is on the free agent market after the season.
The Houston Astros are rolling through the American League yet it is not a single dominant player that is leading the team, rather it is a full cast. A.J. Hinch is managing an offense that can pound opponents from different angles and a pitching staff that is above average. Put the two together and it is clear why the race for the American League West ended a long time ago.
Offensively the Astros are not a one man show, rather they are a cast of many. A quick rundown of the statistics paints a vivid picture. Houston has:
- 7 players with 100 or more hits: Jose Altuve, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Marwin Gonzalez.
- Carlos Beltran has 94 hits.
- 4 players with .300 or better Batting Average: Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, and George Springer.
- Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel are hitting .295.
- 6 players with at least 50 RBI: Carlos Correa, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick.
- 4 players with 40 or more walks: Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer.
- Marwin Gonzalez has 37 walks.
- 8 players with 50 or more Runs scored: George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, Alex Bregman, Carlos Beltran, Yuli Gurriel, and Marwin Gonzalez.
- 11 players with 11 or more home runs: George Springer, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jake Marisnick, Josh Reddick, and Evan Gattis.
Houston can hit for average and power, can get a runner over and then in. The Astros have the fewest strikeouts in the Majors, they put the ball in play and good things are happening. Even with Correa, McCann, and Gattis sporting injuries, this team still has enough firepower to continue rolling along. Not relying on one or two players for their offense should prevent the Astros from running out of steam in October.
The Astros hope to continue the celebration in October. (Aric Crabb/ Bay Area News Group)
Even if the Astros offense gets hurt and/or all runs cold the pitching staff is capable to keeping the team going. While not as dominant as the offense, it’s a tough act to follow, the Houston pitching staff has a 4.24 team ERA, below the MLB average of 4.34. They lead MLB in strikeouts with 1,201 and are only slightly above average in walks allowed with 397, average is 389. The team WHIP is 1.288 against the MLB average of 1.342. None of these numbers are eye popping. They merely point out that the Astros have a serviceable pitching staff able to keep games close enough on those nights when the offense slows down a step. Despite his own injuries, Dallas Keuchel leads the starting rotation with a 2.77 ERA in 15 starts. Injuries to Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh have meant the linchpin to the pitching staff’s success has been the bullpen. Set up men Chris Devenski and Will Harris have ERAs below 2.86, while closer Ken Giles has an ERA of 2.80 with 23 saves and 40 games finished. The ability to shorten a game to only six or seven innings on a given night means even in close games opposing teams have to get their offense going early otherwise the Houston bullpen can shut them down.
Houston lost a lot of games for several years to rebuild into a contender. The plan has worked. The Astros are one of, if not, the best team in baseball. The discomfort of losing season after season should result in winning season after season for the foreseeable future. A.J. Hinch’s team shows no sign of slowing down. The offense is carrying the team, yet the pitching staff is good enough to keep the success going once playoff baseball arrives. Time will tell, but for now Houston looks almost unstoppable.
Christmas is not the only cause for celebration on December 25th. One of the most unique players in baseball history celebrates his birthday around the Christmas tree, Rickey Henderson. The career leader in Runs, Stolen Bases, Caught Stealing, and Self-Confidence turns 58 today.
The legendary speedster terrorized opposing pitchers and catchers for 25 seasons. Rickey Henderson’s game was built upon speed, confidence, and skill. Henderson had a career .279 BA and .401 OBP. Simply put, he got on base and then used his speed to help his team win.
Getting on base by a walk or a hit did not matter to Henderson, his job was to just get on base any way he could. The ability to know the strike zone means not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Avoiding bad pitches forces the pitcher to throw strikes if they are serious about getting the batter out. However, his speed on the bases meant pitchers did not want to give Henderson a free pass which led to 3,055 hits and 297 career home runs. Force is mass times acceleration and Rickey Henderson had enough speed to spare for some added power. Pitchers were forced to decide if they wanted to play with speed or power, neither was a good option.
Rickey Henderson is second all time with 2,190 walks. He led the American League four times in walks and had seven seasons of 100 or more walks. A walk for a player with the speed and skill of Henderson was just as good as a hit. Henderson averaged 0.456 steals per game in his 25 season career. A walk meant a high probability of a man on second in the near future, so there was not much difference between a walk and a double.
The speed that made Henderson a Hall of Famer was never in short supply. Henderson stole 50 or more bases in 14 seasons and for three of those seasons he stole more than 100. He led the league in steals 12 times, and holds the all time record for most career steals with 1,406. Hall of Famer Lou Brock has the second most career steals with 938; Brock’s career total is about two-thirds of Henderson’s career total. It took Lou Brock 19 seasons to collect his 938 steals, whereas it only took Henderson 13 seasons to catch and pass Brock. Henderson played 12 more seasons after surpassing Brock’s record. The longevity of Henderson’s career has made the task of breaking the steals record among the most difficult records to break in all of baseball. Henderson first led the American League in steals in 1980 with 100 steals at 21 years old. He led the American League for the 12th and final time in 1998 with 66 steals at 39 years old. Even as he approached the twilight of his career, Henderson continued to run, he stole 109 bases after turning 40 years old.
Getting on base and stealing bases is exciting, but scoring runs is what matters most to the team. Henderson led the American League five times in runs scored, scored 100 or more runs in 13 seasons, and holds the all time career record with 2,295 runs scored. Getting on base means opportunities to score runs. Stealing a base or taking the extra base only increases the chance to score and puts pressure on the pitching and fielding.
The self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time. (www.SI.com)
Examining the career or single season numbers for Rickey Henderson from now until eternity can only do so much to convince a person of his greatness. The true test of greatness is continued success despite the opponent knowing what you are trying to do. Much like Mariano Rivera throwing the cutter, the opposition knew when Henderson was going to steal and were mostly powerless to stop him. Henderson was successfully in 80.75% of his stolen base attempts; a success rate above 65% is considered good. Everyone in the ball park knew Henderson was going to steal when he got on, yet opposing pitchers and catchers could do little to prevent him from running wild. Henderson’s speed on the bases meant pitchers had to pay attention to him otherwise a walk could result with a man on second or third.
Rickey Henderson was elected to 10 All Star games, won the 1990 American League Most Valuable Player award, and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in an era that placed the emphasis on power not speed. He was not a return to the dead ball era of baseball where speed carried the day; rather Rickey Henderson was something baseball had never seen, and most likely never will again. Many players arrive in the Majors with the ability to steal bases and develop their home run power later. Only a select few have the ability to maintain their speed while developing that power. It’s a rare sight to see them causing havoc on the bases for 10 seasons, much less 25.
Happy Birthday to the Greatest of All Time