Thursday, July 26, 2012

Nick Markakis at Home at the Top

At long last, Nick Markakis has been made the team's leadoff hitter. I have suggested such a solution several times on this blog but it's hardly a revolutionary idea. Since the collapse of Brian Roberts' performance and body, there is no one else on the team who demonstrates such patience and on base skills as Markakis does. Nolan Reimold was the only player who comes close and he can't stay on the field. But instead, Buck Showalter has favored speed over on base skills and given the majority of leadoff at bats to the like of Endy Chavez and Robert Andino.

Among Oriole leadoff hitters with more than three games in the spot, only Xavier Avery (.309), Nolan Reimold (.328) and Nick Markakis (.411) have OBP's higher than .300.

Let's take a closer look at that .411 mark for Markakis. Splits for Nick based on batting order for 2012:

Split          G GS BB SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS TB
Batting 1st   12 12  5  1 .353 .411 .451 .862 23
Batting 3rd   50 50 22 37 .256 .333 .452 .786 90

That batting average is aided by a high BABIP (.360) but that's not too much higher than his .321 BABIP for his career. The bottom line is, he just looks more comfortable in a role at the top of the order.

And this is not new. Career splits for Markakis based on batting order:

I         Split   G   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS BAbip
    Batting 1st  12 .353 .411 .451  .862  .360
    Batting 2nd 296 .313 .384 .489  .873  .336
    Batting 3rd 545 .281 .355 .438  .794  .310
    Batting 4th  52 .273 .314 .417  .731  .282
    Batting 8th  22 .456 .538 .588 1.126  .525
    Batting 9th  65 .264 .312 .364  .676  .303

The thing that's important is to look at the split between Markakis when he's batting 1st/2nd versus his numbers when he's batting 3rd/4th. He has been quite a bit better at the top of the lineup than when he is in the heart of the lineup.

I am ususally of the opinion that a player is the hitter he is regardless of where he is in the lineup. Frank Thomas had the approach of a #3 hitter and when he was batting cleanup for Toronto late in his career, he was criticized for walking too much and not swinging more. But he was what he was and that wasn't going to change. If you bat Mark Reynolds leadoff, he will take the same approach he always does.

But I think Nick is a player who does change his approach based on his spot in the lineup. He may feel more pressure to be aggressive at the plate in the 3 or 4 hole to drive in runs. But he does not seem to feel that pressure as a 1 or 2 hitter. And his natural talents (working the count, drawing walks, good baserunning) are well suited to that role.

And while all of this seems obvious, it did not appear to be obvious to Buck Showalter. Markakis as lead off hitter may have come too late to make a difference to the Orioles' fading playoff hopes in 2012.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Oriole Acquire Jim Thome; Is Dan Duquette All In?

The Orioles acquired legendary slugger Jim Thome from the Phillies yesterday for a couple of minor league prospects. My first thought was, "Can he pitch?"

There are lots of ramifications to this trade so let's take them one at a time.

First, let's look at who the Orioles acquired. Unlike the Vladimir Guerrero debacle of 2011, Thome's skills include the ability to get on base and his ISO is still top notch. He's still a legitimate power threat at the plate and a well above average hitter overall. His addition make the Oriole lineup better, you can argue about how much better but there is little doubt that he helps the offense.

Second, Dan Duquette traded away two legitimate prospects to acquire Thome for half a season. Say what you will about the Taylor Teagarden trade but RHP Randy Henry and SS Greg Miclat were not considered top prospects at the time of that trade. In the Oriole farm system, RHP Kyle Simon and C Gabriel Lindo are ranked #18 and #21 respectively by Baseball America. They are at the lowest levels of the organization but these are not spare parts; Simon is a legitimate starting pitcher prospect and Lino is at the very least a great defensive catching prospect. It's a high price to pay for three months of Jim Thome.

Thirdly, how is this going to affect the configuration of the existing lineup? If today's lineup is any indication, Mark Reynolds may have a hard time getting off the bench. Thome will be exclusively a DH which removes a lot of flexibility that Buck Showalter had when filling out his lineup card. With Reynolds utterly unable to play third base, there is now a 3-man rotation of Reynolds, Thome and Chris Davis competing for at bats among DH and first base. And you have to include Wilson Betemit in that mix too. With Reynolds unable to find his power stroke at the mid-point of 2012, he may find playing time sparse. Even today, Showalter is more comfortable putting Davis in right field than starting Reynolds at first. Reynolds has not played third base since early May, look for Robert Andino and Ryan Flaherty to handle most of that duty.

Lastly, to what end have the Orioles added Thome? What's the end game here? Does Dan Duquette believe that Baltimore has a shot to make the playoffs? With this pitching staff? He must or he would not part with two prospects as highly though of as Simon and Lino are. I don't share that belief. I have said often this season that this team could be the one that breaks the 14-season losing streak but I never thought they would make the postseason. But Duquette is signalling that this team will be buyers at the trading deadline.

I don't get it. Maybe Duquette is smelling blood int he water with the massive injuries to the Blue Jay rotation and the Yankee rotation, the general ineffectiveness of the Rays offense and the myriad of issues facing the Red Sox.

But I don't think this team has enough to make the postseason and it's troubling that Duquette does. I wonder what other decisions he'll make in that belief and what the long-term impacts are of those moves.