When he signed a six-year, $66.1 million extension 15 months ago, Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis was convinced that the organization was headed in the right direction and that he wanted to be a part of it.
But with the Orioles saddled with an 18-48 record and on pace for one of the worst seasons in franchise and baseball history, the normally mild-mannered Markakis publicly expressed his frustration with the organization for the first time, questioning both the direction of the club and the offensive approach of the team in an interview with The Baltimore Sun this week.
"At this point, yeah. Where are we going?" Markakis said when asked whether he is concerned about the lack of progress the organization has made. "I know we have a lot of injured guys. We're in the toughest division in baseball, and we're a last-place team. But at this point, it's mind-boggling. You don't even know what to think, but you still have to be professional and go out and play every day."
Asked how damning it is that the Orioles are just slightly ahead of the pace set by the 1962 New York Mets, the standard bearer for baseball futility with a 40-120 record, Markakis paused and then said: "That's a hard question. I don't know the answer, and I don't know what to say. I really don't. There is only so much you can do. I don't know what the hell is going on around here. It can't get worse. It really can't."
Markakis, the highest-paid and second-longest-tenured Oriole behind injured second baseman Brian Roberts, didn't single out any teammate or team official in his criticism, which came before the Orioles' 4-1 win over the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday. It was just one of three victories for the club over the past 20 games.
But he acknowledged that things need to change, particularly with an offense that is last in the American League in runs, last in the majors in batting average with runners in scoring position and near the bottom of the AL in most major offensive categories.
"It's a team game," said Markakis, who leads the Orioles with a .300 batting average, 21 doubles and a .394 on-base percentage but has drawn criticism for accumulating only three homers and 21 RBIs in 65 games. "You can't just rely on one or two guys to carry a team. I don't care if you stick Albert Pujols in this lineup. We still have a lot of holes, and, unfortunately, we have had a lot of injuries. But one guy, one big bat, is not going to make that much of a difference. You can stick a guy hitting 50 homers in this lineup right now, and he really is not going to do anything until we all get on the same page. We all need to have better approaches at the plate."
In questioning the team's approach, Markakis said that means Orioles hitters need to do a better job of working the count, having team at-bats and moving base runners, using both sides of the field and executing a plan against specific pitchers.
Overall, the Orioles are second to last in the AL in on-base and slugging percentage. They have the fewest walks in the league, and they see the fewest pitches per plate appearance (3.73). They also have the fifth-worst "chase percentage" in baseball in that they swing at 30.2 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone.
They've also let 18 of the past 20 starters they've faced to go at least six innings and allow three runs or fewer.
"Sometimes, guys are going up there and it looks like they have no idea what they're doing," said Markakis, who has drawn 39 of the Orioles' 185 walks, a testament to not only his batter's eye and his patience, but also to teams frequently pitching around him.
"I'm not saying that to bash guys. I want guys to be successful. I want this team to be successful, and I have to produce as well. I'm part of this. But it takes a lot more than one big bat. We definitely need that one guy who could hit you 40 home runs, but from top to bottom, you need guys getting on base. You need guys in there who have a plan, who have a clue and who know how to execute that plan and get on base. We don't need every guy in this lineup trying to hit home runs. We're paid to get on base and figure out how to score and drive in runs. You look at the Yankees. They have guys who can hit home runs, but everybody in that lineup can get on base."
Markakis said the team's offensive woes shouldn't be attributed to longtime hitting coach Terry Crowley, who is known for advocating an aggressive approach at the plate.
Crowley "has 110 percent nothing to do with the way we are going about our business at the plate or on the field right now," Markakis said. "You can have anybody come here, and you still are going to have a couple of guys who are not going to change their approach and fix it. It's worthless. You can point your fingers here and there, but it is what it is. You're in the big leagues. You have to change your approach on your own. This is the best of the best, and if you go up there clueless, you're going to come back [to the dugout] clueless. It's that simple.
"We're all bad right now. It's obvious. Everybody watches the games. They see it; they know it. It is what it is until we start making adjustments. You can't say guys aren't trying. Guys are busting their butts. I just don't think they have the right approach going up there. It's like, 'See ball, hit ball.' You can't do that. You have to make the adjustment, and you have to change your approach. Until you do that, this is going to keep happening."
Markakis repeated several times that he wasn't singling anybody out and that everyone has a responsibility to help turn things around. After Wednesday's 6-3 loss to the Giants in a game in which the Orioles stranded 13 base runners, Markakis pointed to his lack of execution in failing to get a run home with men on the corners and one out and his team trailing by one run. Giants closer Brian Wilson struck out Markakis on four pitches.
But privately, teammates and friends have noticed the frustration building within the even-keeled Markakis, stemming from a variety of factors, including the Orioles' dismal won-lost record, his getting few pitches to hit and the lack of opportunities he has had with runners in scoring position.
"I look at Nick's numbers right now, and I know that he is a better hitter than that," said Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff, Markakis' teammate with the Orioles for the previous three seasons and a close friend. "I think the frustration is wearing him down and he can't help it. You look at his first three or four years, and he's a really good hitter. You just have to have pieces that fit around him."
Markakis' comments were well-received by several other prominent Orioles. The 26-year-old is respected by his teammates for the way he goes about his business, and several have privately urged him in the past to take more of a vocal leadership role with the club. Markakis, however, has always kept mostly to himself, saying very little, especially to the media.
Several Orioles agreed that he was making a valid point in his critique of the team's offensive approach.
"I think a lot of times, we don't go up there as a whole with plans," said infielder Ty Wigginton, who leads the team with 13 homers and 38 RBIs. "You have to go up there with an approach for every single pitcher. You're not always going to execute it, but when you're going good, that's what you're doing."
Interim manager Juan Samuel said that he had no problem with Markakis' comments.
"When you see something for a long period of time and it's not working, you always know things you have to change," Samuel said. "You have to do something. The game is about adjustments, and we have to make them. That's the whole basis of this game."
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