Nick Markakis is so good that he constantly forces me to adjust my conception of what he can be. That's extremely high praise for an athlete, something I'd say about LeBron James or Tiger Woods. And it makes me wonder if we take Markakis for granted sometimes, because he has played on losing teams and has not made a national splash.
At Camden Yards on Saturday, my colleague Dan Connolly spoke to an NL scout about which outfielders he'd trade Markakis for. The scout's list stopped at Carlos Beltran and B.J. Upton. Dan and I tossed the question around a bit. I wouldn't trade Markakis for either of the scout's guys. Beltran is great but probably on the downside of his career. Upton is a tremendous physical talent who played great in 2007 and showed some signs of growth despite worse overall numbers in 2008. He has not established the same level of consistency as Markakis.
After some stammering, I came up with Grady Sizemore. He's not a .300 hitter like Markakis, but he plays center field, hits a few more home runs and runs better. What about Josh Hamilton, Dan asked? Well, Hamilton has more freakish physical gifts than Markakis. He's more likely to hit 40 home runs. But he doesn't control the strike zone as well and he lost so many developmental years because of his drug problem. Ryan Braun? Again, he's more of a power hitter, but he doesn't walk, so he's not on base nearly as much. Curtis Granderson? Terrific guy, center fielder, does everything well. But he doesn't get on base as much as Markakis either, and he's three years older.
The point is that you can list the very best young outfielders in baseball and it's not at all clear that you'd rather have any of them than Markakis.
So let's take it a step further and ask how many players you'd rather have if you were starting a team.
I'd rather have Albert Pujols, because he's the best player in baseball and still not 30. Hanley Ramirez is the same age as Markakis, has outhit him the last two years and plays shortstop, so he's a yes. David Wright has established a higher level of consistent performance.
I'd probably take Jose Reyes higher, because he's such a combination of gap power and speed at a premium defensive position. Id take Sizemore over Markakis. Miguel Cabrera? He's a better hitter for sure, but he is of no value in the field or on the bases and faces conditioning questions. Dustin Pedroia? He has played like a superstar for one season and little in his previous record suggests he can sustain it. Joe Mauer? Love the on-base skills from the catcher spot, but his durability is in question. Evan Longoria? He'll have to outplay Markakis for a season before I consider him.
Again, you don't have to get very far down this esteemed list to find guys who might not be better than Markakis.
So why isn't he generally talked about this way? Well, I see several reasons. The quality of the team is one. But beyond that, he doesn't do anything spectacularly well. He hits .300 but he hasn't challenged for a batting title ... yet. He's not a 40-homer threat. He doesn't make Torii-Hunter-style SportsCenter catches. He just does everything well. He hits .300. He adds 45 doubles to his 20 homers. He bumped his walks to 99 last year, meaning his on-base percentage soared past the magic .400 mark. He's one of the best right fielders in the league. He has improved his performance against left-handers. And that's just the level he has established at age 25. Who's to say he can't hit 30-35 homers in his best seasons or push for a few batting titles?
After all, he has always pushed ahead of our expectations.
When few projected him to make the team in 2006, he outplayed almost everyone at camp and forced the club's hand. When fans wondered how the kid would handle his debut, he homered and reached base four times. When they questioned his ability to adjust, he played better in the second half of his rookie year than the first. Sophomore slump? Nope, he played better in every area in 2007. Stagnation in year three? He answered with an extra 38 walks and 44 points of OBP. Complacency over a new contract? Sorry folks, he's playing better than ever in year four.
It's a little hard to think of good comparisons for Markakis. When I asked Bill James about this, he mentioned Dwight Evans. But Evans was a low-average hitter in his twenties and really didn't blossom into an all-around star until he was 29. After that interview, a reader suggested Paul O'Neill. And Markakis does resemble O'Neill in his thirties -- .300 hitter, gap power, plenty of walks, good base runner. But he was nowhere near as good as Markakis at age 25.
Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system dredges up some relatively unflattering comparables such as Steve Kemp, Ben Grieve and Leon Durham, guys who hit well in their early twenties but never grew from there. I don't quite get that because I see so many more facets to Markakis than those guys. PECOTA also lists Keith Hernandez, which might be kind of close, save for the position. Hernandez was a near-Hall-of-Famer, so there's no shame in that (though I see more power in Markakis.)
I could see him as Larry Walker without the Coors Field inflation. On the really high end, Markakis could be Stan Musial lite. Musial led the league in OBP and slugging and won the MVP at age 22, so he was obviously in a different class. But if you dream a little, you can see Markakis adding 20 points of batting average at his best and maybe 10 homers a year in his late twenties. He's like Stan in that he controls the strike zone, hits lots of line drives and plays an excellent corner outfield early in his career. Musial is one of the 10 greatest players ever, so don't take this as a comparison. It's just that Musial is the best-ever version of the kind of player Markakis appears to be.
Could Markakis become the best Orioles right fielder ever? That's a tough one because of a guy named Frank Robinson. Markakis will probably never match Frank's 1966, when he won the Triple Crown, hit 49 homers and led the club to its first World Series. The chance of him matching Robinson's career is probably less than 1 percent. But remember that Robinson had the rest of his best seasons in Cincinnati. He was still great for the Orioles from 1967-1971 but not so great that Markakis could never assemble a fatter body of work in a Baltimore uniform.
Let's say this. He could certainly vie with Ken Singleton for second place. Singleton was a hell of a player from 1977-1980 -- great OBP, 20-25 homers a year (and 35 in 1979) in a less powerful era, decent glove. But Markakis does more things well and has already reached a level close to Singleton's best.
It's actually an interesting position for the Orioles. They've filled it with a lot of stars who were over the hill or just passing through. Reggie Jackson, Albert Belle, Eric Davis, Sammy Sosa. Lots of guys no one thinks of as Orioles.
How about this one: Is Markakis the best Orioles player since Cal Ripken at his peak? Probably not. We remember the disappointing end of Miguel Tejada's tenure but he was an MVP-level player in 2004 and 2005. How many shortstops in baseball history could combine above-average defense with a .300 average, 30 homers and tremendous durability? But Markakis is certainly set up for a longer run.
Melvin Mora in 2004 and Brian Roberts in 2005 were awesome, but those felt more like peak seasons than representative performances. Roberto Alomar was incredible in 1996 but his tenure was so short. Brady Anderson could never maintain his highest level.
Look, the answer to all or most of these Markakis questions is that it's too early to answer them. But it's pretty fun to have a player in town who can make the mind wander in such fashion. Enjoy it, folks.