Baltimore Orioles' right fielder Nick Markakis has become the face of the franchise in Charm City. He was the first of the team's "young guns" to make it to the big leagues back in 2006, and after a fantastic rookie season and even better sophomore campaign, he put up solid number in '08 and '09, only to regress considerably in 2010.
The regression, however, was more than likely not his fault.
Last year, the right fielder put up a batting average of .297, which is very solid anyway you look at it, and consistent with what he has done throughout the rest of his career. His OBP was .370, a great number. But he only hit 12 bombs and drove in a measly 60 runs, while generally being the No. 3 bat in the lineup.
I'm telling you, it wasn't his fault.
Consider, if you will, who was batting in front of him much of the season—Julio Lugo, Corey Patterson and occasionally, Cesar Izturis. Second baseman Brian Roberts appeared in only 59 games last season, and being the Orioles' leadoff man for the past six or eight years, it's fairly obvious he's something special atop the lineup.
Without Roberts getting on base in front of Markakis, the right fielder had no one to drive in almost every at-bat. And when someone in front of Markakis did manage to get on, they usually didn't get extra bases, making it hard for Markakis to drive them in with the pitches he was being thrown.
Which takes us to the next part of the equation: How he was being pitched to.
Imagine, you're a major league pitcher going up against the 2010 Baltimore Orioles. The middle of their lineup consisted of Markakis, Ty Wigginton, Luke Scott and Adam Jones. Who would you like to avoid out of the four of them? If you said Markakis, then your line of thinking is exactly what almost every other pitcher had last season.
Markakis was easily the most talented hitter in the Orioles' lineup last year and is probably still in the top three-headed going into the 2011 season with the O's revamped lineup. But last year, he had virtually no protection and pitchers gave him a healthy serving of fastballs down and away the whole season. How can one pull a fastball down and away over the right field wall? The opposing pitchers could afford to do this because if they hit the strike zone, great, but if they walked him, there were easier guys to get out hitting behind him.
Although he did hit 45 doubles last year (his fourth season in a row with 40+ doubles), he was limited to a lot of singles due to those outside pitches. Even though his batting average with runners in scoring position was somewhere in the .330 range, it was hard for him to drive in a guy from second when all he could do with what he was being pitched was to slap it to left field for a single.
This season, expect all that to change.
A healthy Roberts will do wonders for this team's run scoring potential, and though that is no guarantee, so far this offseason the O's offensive catalyst has proclaimed he is as healthy as ever. If the most important hitter in the O's lineup can stay on the field, he will give the rest of the guys plenty of opportunities to drive in some runs.
As far as the rest of the guys, Markakis has some new lineup protections and it's pretty stacked. Markakis will be pushed up to the second hole in the batting order, where he has historically hit better at anyway, due to the talent the Orioles have brought in to fill out the order. First baseman Derrek Lee will most likely be hitting third, and after having an injured, down year last season (a down year in which he still drove in 80 men), his thumb is all healed and he's ready to show he's still a big hitter on his one-year deal.
After Lee, DH Vladimir Guerrero will probably be hitting fourth, and we all know what Vlad is capable of. The next three bats will most likely be left fielder Luke Scott, third baseman Mark Reynolds and center fielder Adam Jones. Scott and Reynold could be flipped depending on how the opposing pitching matchup looks. How's that for lineup protection?
With less pressure and better pitches to hit, I expect Markakis' numbers to go back up to at least what he did in 2009, when he had a line of .293/18/101. For a No. 2 hitter, that is phenomenal, but he is capable of so much more.
All O's fans should hope for Markakis to return to form, but at the same time, they shouldn't be to worried about him. He's a great talent with an awesome bunch of guys hitting behind him, so he should see his share of fastballs inside that he can yank onto Eutaw Street out over the big scoreboard in right. But even if he can't drive in runs like he used to, he'll still be a great contributor to the team, hitting around .300 with 40+ doubles and working plenty of walks, all while playing Gold Glove caliber defense.
Anyway you cut it, he's a valuable player to the team. Expect him to return to the value he had shown prior to this past baseball season.