I was working on this post but then I was at that game last Saturday night at OPACY when C.C. Sabathia hit Nick Markakis with a pitch and broke his thumb and it thoroughly bummed me out so I set this post aside. I'm going to post it anyway since I think his recent performance still hints at future greatness...
If I consider Nick Markakis' Oriole career disappointing, it's only because I had such high hopes. As early as 2007, I was comparing the young outfielder to Hall of Famers and All-Stars. But mostly, I compared him to Enos Slaughter, the Hall of Fame outfielder who chiefly played for the 1940's and 50's St. Louis Cardinals:
As the (2008) season went on, I became more convinced that Markakis is the second coming of Enos Slaughter. Both are/were lefties, both play(ed) rightfield and both are/were very good fielders with great arms, at least when young.
Their bats are very similar as well:
OPS+ Age 22 Age 23 Age 24 Markakis 106 121 134 Slaughter 105 122 133Spooky, huh?
Slaughter's OPS+ at age 25 was 141. How do we get Markakis there? I'll say:
BA 2B HR OBP SLG OPS OPS+ Markakis '09 .315 40 29 .415 .520 .935 141
Using the Slaughter comparison beofore the 2008 season, I had fairly accurately predicted Markakis' offensive output. I assumed this steady improvement would continue in 2009 but I was wrong.
As it turned out, 2008 was the offensive peak for Markakis thus far. From 2009-2011, his OPS+ was 116 and only 2010 could be pointed to as "not disappointing". I was never a huge believer in Nick's ability to be a 30+ homer guy but 20-25 homers, load so doubles, a perennial .300 batter and a stellar walk rate figured to be in his future.
Instead, he never hit even 20 homers again, his hit tool has not proved to be as formidable as I thought and the walk rate has been good but not outstanding. He was becoming Mr. Average at the plate. A guy who did several things well but excelling at none.
Before his first injury, Markakis was going about his season at a 110 OPS+ clip, about what he had averaged over the last three seasons. But upon his return and subsequently taking on the role as leadoff man, he has done what I predicted back in 2009:
2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS Markais (leadoff) 15 5 .335 .390 .489 .879
Markakis, in the 54 games since his return, is hitting at what would be about a 140 OPS+ and even taking his season in total, he ranks 21st among American League hitters in OPS+. His BABIP is a little higher than his career totals but nothing abnormal.
What I'm saying is that in the leadoff spot, as I've discussed before, Markakis has found the elevated level of talent that I and many others projected for him after those first three great seasons. Sure, 54 games is a small sample size and I would feel a lot better about all of this if Nick hadn't broken his thumb and could keep this momentum going but if I believed in the talent before, I have to believe in it now. Nick is Enos Slaughter reborn, even if he is three years behind schedule.