Markakis the best homegrown talent since Eddie Murray?


In an otherwise miserable 10-17 start to the 2009 season, Nick Markakis has been one of the few bright spots for the Orioles thus far.

Now playing in his fourth season, the 25-year-old right fielder has performed in relative anonymity outside of Baltimore due to the team’s woes over the last decade.  However, his blistering start has finally forced the rest of the baseball world to take notice.

Entering Wednesday, Markakis ranks in the top-10 of the American League in batting average (8th), runs (1st), on-base percentage (5th), runs batted in (4th), and walks (9th).  Though only one sixth of the way through the season, Markakis is on pace for a .356 average, 24 home runs, and 162 RBI.

After years of clamoring for a homegrown middle-of-the-lineup hitter and watching failed prospects from Jeffrey Hammonds to Ryan Minor, fans have almost begun to take Markakis for granted due to his quiet nature and consistency.  He is clearly the club’s best player and arguably the best right fielder in the game.

But the question remains:  how does Markakis stack up against the great Orioles of the past?  It’s difficult to compare players across different eras accurately, so I’ll compare Markakis to the last two great homegrown Orioles (with apologies to Brian Roberts—a different type of player):  Hall of Fame members Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken.

Here’s a comparison of how the three performed in their first three full seasons in the majors:

Markakis .299 59 261 275 181 .851
Murray .288 79 282 256 177 .828
Ripken .297 82 281 314 212 .857

It should be noted that Markakis was 22 entering his first season while Murray and Ripken were each 21.  However, Murray and Ripken both spent time at Triple A while Markakis had only 143 plate appearances at Double-A Bowie in 2005 before jumping to the Orioles in 2006.

The young outfielder hit for a higher average but did not hit as many home runs or drive in as many runs as the Hall of Famers in their first three seasons.  Markakis’ OPS (on base + slugging percentage) and extra base hit total actually exceeded Murray’s numbers.  Ripken clearly had the most productive start of the three, following up his 1982 Rookie of the Year campaign by winning the MVP in 1983.

Perhaps the most encouraging statistic to project Markakis’ future numbers is the substantial improvement in OPS—.799 in 2006 to .848 in 2007 to .897 in 2008.  The numbers indicate the right fielder will continue to improve, though probably not at the same rate.  The continued improvement is something the Orioles are expecting after signing him to a 6-year, $66.1 million contract prior to the season.

There is no way of knowing whether Markakis is going to live up to the contract over the next six seasons, but taking a look at the next six seasons in the careers of Murray and Ripken gives us a picture of what we can possibly expect.  The following numbers are averaged out over a 162-game season as a result of Murray’s 1981 season being shortened to 99 games due to the players’ strike.

Murray .303 33 119 104 68 .911
Ripken .265 24 91 93 56 .780

Murray took his offense to another level over the next six seasons, continuing to be one of the most feared hitters in the game while Ripken’s production leveled off and even declined over his next six seasons.

The physical demands of playing shortstop and his renowned consecutive games (and innings) streak are logical factors explaining Ripken’s declining production after his first three seasons.  Murray was also durable in his next six seasons, playing no fewer than 151 games, not counting the strike-shortened 1981 season.

So what does this mean for Markakis as he enters his fourth season in the big leagues?  It’s hard to say.

The fact that Markakis plays right field, not nearly as demanding as the shortstop position, gives him a great chance to at least maintain the same rate of production barring injury.  If this happens, he will continue to be a good—but not great—player for the Orioles.

When considering Markakis’ unbelievable start this season and improvement over his first three seasons, it would be reasonable for him to become an elite offensive player in the American League.  It would be unfair to expect him to post numbers similar to Murray’s over the next six years, but it would not be impossible.

Other than the obvious need to stay healthy, the biggest question moving forward will be whether Markakis can hit more home runs while still hitting a high number of doubles.  If he can do this, he will become the Orioles’ best homegrown run producer since Murray.

Obviously, these comparisons will not tell us whether Markakis will be the next Oriole to be enshrined in Cooperstown.  After all, we’re talking about a player only entering his fourth season.  However, if Markakis can even maintain the same level of production in his first three seasons over the next 15, he will cement his status as one of the better players in franchise history.

The numbers show us that Markakis compares favorably with Ripken and Murray over his first three seasons.  If he can take his play to another level like Murray, he will surely be recognized as one of the game’s great players.

No one can tell what the future holds for Markakis, but it’s fun to wonder whether the best is yet to come.  Even the greatest players in the history of the game were still an uncertainty in their fourth season.

The 2009 Orioles are already looking like a forgettable club, but take some time to enjoy the play of that kid in right field.  He’s exactly what Orioles fans have wanted since Ripken walked off the field in 2001.

And perhaps he can be even more one day.