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Zimmerman vs. Markakis, Straight Up (Poll Added)

Tonight at Nationals Park, the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles renew their rivalry. Feel that buzz starting to build around the region?

Me neither. It's hard to get too juiced about two last-place teams that are a combined 25 games below .500, and that have had neither the time nor the inclination to build up any sort of hatred for each other.

But let's try to stir up some debate anyway. I'll make the argument here at Baseball Insider and provide an excerpt and link at Nationals Journal, in hopes of getting some perspective from more fans.

Over the course of a few months in the early part of 2009, both the Orioles and Nationals locked up their top young players in long-term deals: six years $66.1 million for Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis, and five years $45 million for Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Despite the bottom-line difference in dollars, the contracts were structured very similarly, in that Markakis makes $47 million during the same five service-class seasons covered in Zimmerman's deal -- the difference being that sixth year in Markakis's deal (in essence, his third free-agent season) at $15 million, plus a $17.5 million option with a $2 million buyout.

The similarity in the contracts was somewhat by design; the Zimmerman camp fully acknowledged both during and after the negotiations that the Markakis deal served as its benchmark.

Here's Zimmerman a few days ago speaking about the Markakis deal: "If you look at our career numbers, they're almost exactly the same. He has more walks, so his on-base [percentage] is higher. His [batting] average is a little higher, but we're less than 10 home runs apart, I think. I might have a few more RBIs, but the doubles are almost the same. We're very similar players. As hard as it is to compare infielders and outfieldrs, we're about as close as you can get."

Zimmerman is correct. His career numbers, and those of Markakis, are eerily similar. Let's take a look:

Zimmerman... .24.... 2,125.....555....274....68....290.. .288... .347.... .475
Markakis.........25.... 2,131.....568....311....66....296.. .302... .377.... .482

An argument could be made that Markakis's 37-point edge in OPS is negated by the fact Zimmerman plays a more demanding position, and plays it better than Markakis plays his. What about Markakis's reputation as an exceptional defensive player? It isn't exactly backed up by the numbers. Looking at UZR (ultimate zone ratings) at Fangraphs -- to my mind the most complete and widely accepted measure of defense -- Zimmerman clocks in at 29.6 runs above average for his career, while Markakis comes in at only 11.1.

Before this season, Markakis's standing in a Markakis-vs.-Zimmerman debate would have been much stronger than it is today. Zimmerman not only missed about a third of the 2008 season, but also saw his OPS decline for the third straight year, while Markakis was having a borderline all-star season (.306/.406/.491 with 20 homers and 106 RBI).

But this year, Zimmerman has put some distance between himself and his nominal rival from up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway:

Player............... PA........ H...... R....... HR..... RBI..... BA...... OBP..... SLG
Zimmerman..... 193....... 61.....34...... 10....... 32..... .353.... .409..... .607
Markakis......... 182....... 52.... 36........ 7....... 35..... .327.... .401..... .541

On defense, Zimmerman has a 6.7 UZR (tops among all third basemen in the game), while Markakis actually has a negative -6.3 UZR. (By the way, I looked at the plus/minus defensive ratings provided at the subscriber-only BillJamesOnline -- another well-regarded measure of defensive performance -- and the numbers checked out: Zimmerman leads all MLB third baseman with a plus-10 rating this year, while Markakis is rated a minus-5.)

Since we're going all sabermetric this morning, let's go all the way. Here is how Zimmerman and Markakis compare for their careers using some of the most sophisticated, complex statistical measure out there:

Win Shares (BillJamesOnline): 61 (six in 2009).
Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 14.9 (2.8 in 2009)
Wins Above Replacement Player (BaseballProspectus): 16.3 (2.5 in 2009)

Win Shares (BillJamesOnline): 63 (eight in 2009)
Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 12.9 (0.9 in 2009)
Wins Above Replacement Player (BaseballProspectus): 19.8 (0.9 in 2009)

My conclusion: It's hard to argue with the evidence that Markakis has had the better career to this point, while Zimmerman (duh!) is having the better season. Who would I take straight up? Given the one-year difference in age, the gap in defensive performance, the relative difficulties of their positions and the apparent likelihood this year of a major leap in offensive performance, I'd take Zimmerman. Can't say I would have made the same call a year ago, or even six months ago.

Now it's your turn: Who do you like?

By Dave Sheinin  |  May 22, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Nationals , Orioles  
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definitely take zimmerman.

Posted by: longterm | May 22, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: natsfan1a1 | May 22, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Can I have both?

I'm a little skeptical about using 1/4 season defensive numbers, especially for a corner outfielder. Unless you think Raul Ibanez is a golden glove. Having said that, Zimmerman plays well at a MUCH more important defensive position. Equivalent offense from a 3d baseman when compared to a corner outfielder and better defense gives a decided edge to Zimmerman. That's not to say Markakis should not be an all star, too.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | May 22, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

While we're being sabermetricians, let's throw in one I like, Fangraph's WPA (Win Probability Added).

Zimmerman's career WPA total is 6.39, Markakis' is 4.35. Though Z had a negative year last year, and Markakis has not had a negative year yet. Z's 2006 year is where most of the difference is (I personally saw him hit 2 walk-off HRs that year, and I didn't go to all that many games).

To those unfamiliar with WPA -- it basically calculates how likely a team is to win before a given play, then calculates how likely the team is to win after the play, and sees what the difference is, then gives the credit/blame to the appropriate players. The example given on Fangraphs is: "In game 4 of the 2007 World Series, the WE [win expectancy] for the Rockies started out at 50%. When Jacoby Ellsbury doubled off Aaron Cook in the very first at-bat in the game, the Rockies WE declined to 44.2%. The difference or WPA was .058 wins (5.8%). Ellsbury was credited +.058 wins and Aaron Cook credited with -.058 wins."

Basically the point being that it takes into account the game situation -- a walk-off grand slam when your team is down by 3 counts for far more than a grand slam when your team is already up 16-0. You can make arguments as to exactly how valuable WPA is -- I don't think it's a perfect stat, but I like it anyway.

Posted by: cocyach | May 22, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse


His numbers have been better over the last few years; I'd want to see if Zimmerman can keep up this pace for at least a whole season before I change my vote.

It's kind of crazy how close those numbers are though, both for their careers and this season. I'm sure just about any team would love to have either of these guys.

Posted by: dugly2ugly | May 22, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

More numbers: According to hit tracker, Zim's average home run distance this year is 418.1; Markakis' is 393.9. Zim has been consistently higher throughout his career. I'd see this as a measure of raw power, and future homer potential. If that's right, Zim may actually be the 30+ homer player he looks like this season, and Markakis the 25 homer player he's consistently looked like.

Posted by: jcj5y | May 22, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Nick is a flat out stud competing against much better players in a much tougher league. Zimmerman has had a great 1st quarter of a season this year and Nick has had a great start too. The difference is Nick is a notoriously slow starter. He will smoke Zimmerman over the long haul of the season. Nick is the best right fielder in the game. Is Zimmerman the best 3B?

Posted by: lavar609 | May 22, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

I think lavar's point about competition is a good one. Markakis is batting in the AL East, Zimm in the NL East.

Posted by: BurgBarbL | May 22, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Markakis benefits from having played his entire career in a good hitters park while Zimmerman has yet to have a full seasons worth of at bats in Nationals Park. RFK was obviously death to hitters so his numbers are skewed down. Zimmerman plays a more important position and is a tremendous defensive player. I'd take both but if forced I'd take Zimmerman.

Posted by: ouvan59 | May 22, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I would take Markakis, although it is great that Zimmerman is coming into his own this year. Hopefully it can be a start to a brillent career. I don't think those defensive stats are a good way to compare. They play two different positions. Also, I wonder if they take into account that Markakis let the league in assist last year and I think is among if not the league leader this year.

Posted by: hailtotheskinsalways | May 22, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Zimmerman is by far and away the class of th is field. Markakis is good, but Zimmerman is much more classy and will stand the test of time.

Posted by: cokedispatch | May 22, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Isn't the NL East the home of the defending World Champions. And don't forget the difference in runs scored in the AL vs NL because of the DH. The average AL team scored 40 more runs than the average NL team. You can't stick an NL batter's numbers next to an AL batter's numbers and compare them and pretend they mean something. An NL batter with identical stats to an AL batter (assuming similar park factors) has put up better numbers.

Posted by: ouvan59 | May 22, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Both guys should be all-stars this year. Both guys are players you can build a winning team around.

The similarities between the Nats and the O's not only extends to being last place teams. Both have become better hitting teams, but the pitching sucks on both teams.

Posted by: ecglotfelty | May 22, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Both of them are really solid players, and I would love to have them both on a team. If I had to pick one, I would go with Markakis. Zimmerman first off has been injured off and on during his career already. Given the demand of the position that could prove problematic. I know what the zone rating said but how about the plain fact that teams dont try to advance runners with Markakis out there? Markakis plays in the tougher division (its very close) and better league (not even close).

Posted by: Killerangel81 | May 22, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

The fact that the vote is ~50/50 on the Washington Post website tells me that Markakis is understood to be the better player. Put this poll on the Baltimore Sun site, and it would be 90/10 for Markakis. Put it on ESPN, and it would be 70/30 for Markakis.

Having watched them both, it is clear that Markakis is the more talented player. He plays a less valuable position, but he has shown more power, and has been more CONSISTENT defensively. Not to mention he has shown steady improvement throughout his career, while Zimmerman has had ups and downs, and proven himself to be not as durable as Markakis.

All that said, can I have them both?

Posted by: jterp118 | May 22, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I like Zim a lot, but he's not even the best 3rd basemen in his division. Markakis is with little doubt a top 3 rightfielder - with a great approach at the plate, good speed, and a great arm that makes him an assist machine.

Its a tough call, but pour me a Natty Boh, I'm going for Markakis.

The class argument is dumb...and irrevelant. They both are classy ballplayers in tune with their face of the franchise status.

Posted by: WaPoLiveFan16 | May 22, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Markais is the better player now and more likely to sustain it over a period of time; simple fact of life is it is easier to sustain outfield play as opposed to playing third base.


Posted by: h20law2000 | May 22, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I like both of them a lot, they approach the plate the way you want your 3-4-5 hitters to. That said, i think its easier to find an outfielder that can produce 75% of markakis's numbers than a 3b that can do what zimmerman does and play the hot corner. The challenge argument of the AL vs NL isnt as relevant for hitters as for pitchers, so I don't think that plays much into it. the RFK argument does however, and i think thats what puts zimmerman over the top. Its hard to lose with either (on an individual level anyways....) but if forced, i take the zim

Posted by: ngraham1 | May 22, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

can i pick matt wieters?

Posted by: ian10 | May 22, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Wieters is in the minors last I looked. Zimmerman never went there.

Pick Zim, early and often, especially given his performance in the midst of all the adversity that is the Washington Nationals. Pick Zim uber alles.

Posted by: periculum | May 22, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

This is a funny poll. Markakis isn't even the best player on his team while Zimmerman is the ONLY player on his.

I'm a fan of both but I'd still take Markakis over Zimmerman if I wasn't allowed to take Adam Jones.

Posted by: dantrimble1 | May 22, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Zimmmmm mer man___________ of the Ryan Variety!

This is the first year that Ryan has had someone else in the lineup that's supposed to be that can hit the ball a mile. I think that's helped him get the hits he's gotten this year.

Posted by: CALSGR8 | May 23, 2009 1:49 AM | Report abuse

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