First and forceful: Markakis' numbers have soared since he moved to leadoff spot
Right fielder batting .341 as the top hitter in the lineup — and enjoying the new role
Nick Markakis has batted .341 with 10 doubles, 2 triples, 5 home runs, 19 RBIs in 39 games as a leadoff hitter. (Greg Fiume, Getty Images / July 28, 2012)
It's just that the concept never crossed his mind.
Or, really, anyone else's in the organization. At least not until desperation set in this July, when oft-injured table-setter Brian Roberts was placed on the disabled list again.
"I didn't think I'd ever be leadoff. But somebody's got to do it with BRob being out," said Markakis, who has batted first in every game since the All-Star break after never doing it before in his career. "And nobody really was solidifying that role."
Consider it solidified.
In his first 39 games in the Orioles' top spot, Markakis has hit .341 with 10 doubles, 2 triples, 5 home runs, 19 RBIs and an impressive on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .911 — 125 points higher than his OPS while batting third in his first 50 games of 2012.
His 56 hits since the second half began are tied with the Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman for second most in the majors behind only the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter, who has had 58 hits since July 13.
"It's been fun. I have fun doing it. I like it. I like it a lot," Markakis said. "On the road, you are pretty much almost guaranteed that fifth at-bat. And being on the DL and missing so much time, it allows me to make up at-bats here and there."
The Markakis leadoff experiment was created by necessity.
Roberts played just 17 games this season because of injuries. Nolan Reimold, who began the season hitting leadoff and was flourishing in the role, lasted just 16 games before a herniated disk in his neck basically ended his season April 30.
When Markakis returned from his own, six-week DL stint July 13 — after surgery for a broken hamate bone in his right wrist — there was no bigger need for the Orioles than an igniter.
Six players, including Reimold and Roberts, had combined for a dismal .264 on-base percentage in the first half. That was the lowest mark for any of the Orioles' nine lineup spots, exceptionally troubling considering a leadoff hitter's primary responsibility is to get on base.
In his first six seasons in the majors, Markakis had compiled a career .365 on-base percentage. And that was enough for manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette to consider moving Markakis away from his traditional spots of third or second.
"Buck came up to me right after I got off the DL and he was throwing around some ideas," Markakis said. "And I said, 'You've got to do what you've got to do to make this team better. So I'm up for whatever.'"
Showalter said it's rare for a player to have the talent to hit in any spot in the order.
"You know what's rarer? Showalter said. "The ego [to switch spots] and not make excuses."
Showalter wanted to make sure Markakis was on board with the idea, but in typical Markakis fashion, the pushback was non-existent.
"I don't have a lot of deep conversations with him about it other than the first couple times we talked about it," Showalter said. "His responses were pretty short and to the point. If you know Nick, that's kind of him."
What Showalter stressed to Markakis is that he shouldn't change his approach at the plate. Markakis hasn't, really, except he admits he's swinging a little more — because he is getting more fastballs as pitchers try to establish the strike zone early. But he's also been focused on working the count and seeking out a pitch he knows he can square up. That combination has led to immediate success batting first.