By Dan Connolly
The Baltimore Sun
8:15 PM EDT, August 23, 2012
It's not that Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis was opposed to batting leadoff.
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.
"I think the one thing it's allowed me to do is be a little more aggressive in the leadoff spot," he said. "But you know it is just another spot in the lineup. Once you lead off the game, the leadoff spot is pretty much over."
But what a first at-bat it has been for Markakis. He is hitting .400 with a .462 on-base percentage in the first at-bat of those 39 games. He has 11 singles, three doubles, four walks and just one strikeout.
"Why wouldn't he be good at leadoff?" Brady Anderson, special assistant to Duquette, asks rhetorically. "He has no weakness as a hitter — more than any other player on our team. He is one of those hitters that, really, there is no place in the lineup he couldn't hit. But he is very well suited for leadoff."
Anderson should know. A three-time All-Star who played most of his 15 big league seasons with the Orioles, Anderson is arguably the greatest leadoff hitter in franchise history. A power and speed threat, he holds the franchise's records for homers in a season and stolen bases in a career.
If there's one knock on Markakis so far as a leadoff hitter, it's that he hasn't stolen any bases (he has one this year, and that was while batting third). Base-stealing threats put extra pressure on opposing pitchers, especially early in the game, but Anderson doesn't think that is a major deficiency for Markakis, whose career high for stolen bases in a season was 18 in 2007.
Heading into Thursday's play, only five major leaguers have stolen 30 or more bases this season.
"There are only a few true basestealers in the whole league, on either side, and Nick certainly isn't slow," Anderson said. "He has good baserunning instincts. He doesn't steal bases, or he hasn't this year, but he is not slow on the basepaths."
Markakis said he's not going to suddenly attempt to steal just because that's expected protocol for a leadoff hitter
"That's something you need to work on in spring training. It's all about a comfort level," Markakis said. "Knowing when to go and knowing when you can't go. But right now I'm not going to change anything. I've got a good group of guys hitting behind me. If I hit a double, I am going to score almost 100 percent of the time with those guys behind me."
Markakis said he's not looking at this as a temporary assignment or as a possibility for the future. He's just filling the void until he is told he is needed elsewhere. And if it's decided that he is the best fit at leadoff long-term, he's fine with that.
"I'm here for as long as my name is in that lineup. I am here for whatever," he said. "That's ultimately out of my hands."
As for the man whose hands the decision is in, Showalter said simply that Markakis is currently the best option to start things off for the Orioles' offense.
"I play with lineups, batting orders, all the time. Right now, I am taking it day-to-day, see what tomorrow brings, Showalter said. "It's hard to mess with Nicky much right now."
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