Let's talk about Nick Markakis. There's a developing narrative among Orioles fans that Markakis is overpaid, a poor defender with declining range and arm strength, and a bat that never came up to its full potential. As the highest-paid player on the 2013 Orioles, Markakis is subject to some extra scrutiny, and any time he three-hops a throw to the plate, flies out to the warning track or pulls up just short of a low fly ball, it seems that fans are quick to jump on his case. You don't hear him getting booed at Camden Yards - he's not nearly at Pedro Strop or Ryan Flaherty levels of frustration - but you certainly see him getting lit up online (not excluding this very site) among the Orioles faithful.
Markakis was the Orioles' first round pick in the 2003 draft. He progressed steadily through the minors and joined the big club to start the 2006 campaign. Nick signed his current contract - a six-year, $66 million dollar deal - after a 2008 campaign where he set career highs in OBP (.407), walks (99), OPS (.897), OPS+ (136) and bWAR (7.5). At the time, he also had decent range in right field and a cannon of an arm that scared off would-be baserunners to the plate. With Markakis being only 25 when he signed the deal, fans assumed that he was a budding star who would live up to the growing dollar amounts attached to his name.
To put it simply, Markakis didn't follow the development track that fans expected. The peaks I cited above weren't his career highs as of 2008 - they're stats that stand to this day, in 2013. Markakis's bat and glove alike have oscillated somewhere between league-average and his peak season each year. If you've been frustrated with Nick Markakis because you expect a superstar, I may not be able to change your mind. Nick is not a superstar (current All-Star voting results notwithstanding). But I think it would be really helpful if Orioles fans would take a step back and appreciate what they do have in Nick Markakis.
Since 2006, when Nick Markakis debuted, he has had at least 470 plate appearances with an OPS+ over 106 every year. Nick is one of seven players who can lay claim to that pair of stats in that time span. You can say that's cherry-picking a pair of odd stats, but it tells you two things about Nick - he's never been below average for any extended period of time, and he's always been there doing his job. Consistency might be one of those words that raises the hackles of sabermetricians everywhere -- but you can make an easy statistical case for the consistency of Markakis.
Markakis also brings a skill -- patience -- that balances out the Orioles' lineup in an important way. Since 2006, Nick ranks 11th in total pitches seen. Again, you can call that cherry-picking and say that it's a simple function of being durable over that particular span, but the fact is that in any given game, Nick can play a vital role in wearing down an opposing starter even when he doesn't directly produce runs -- doubly important in a lineup full of hackers and first-pitch free-swingers like Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters. Markakis is one of the only guys on the current Orioles who could even conceivably put up an 0-fer but make an important contribution by helping the Orioles get into the softer part of an opposing team's bullpen (just last night he drew three walks against Justin Verlander, and helped the Orioles chase him out after five innings, even though he went 0-2).
By all accounts, Nick is a clubhouse leader. I can't quantify this on his Baseball Reference page, but you can see that Nick almost never shows an immature flash of emotion on the field. The other players respect Nick. Even Adam Jones, himself a big personality on the club, tweeted out that he couldn't nail Nick with a shaving-cream pie after a walkoff base knock. A lot of clubs have to burn a roster spot on a Michael Young or Mark DeRosa to bring a calming bit of veteran leadership into the clubhouse. The Orioles get theirs as a bonus with a productive everyday player.
Lastly, let's not underestimate the importance of the fact that Nick Markakis is a homegrown talent. Our own Eat More Esskay recently identified Nick as the Orioles' seventh-best draft pick of all time (even if he did seem a little surprised by it), having generated 24.4 bWAR since his callup. Since Markakis, the Orioles have had an inglorious history of developing their top picks. The only first-round picks since Markakis who are still with the major-league club are Matt Wieters (who himself is the subject of much "disappointment" chatter), Brian Matusz (who's been relegated to a bullpen roleplayer, albeit a relatively effective one), and Manny Machado (who is hopefully on pace to exceed the track record of those before him). There's still lots of hope for Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, of course, but there's also a lot of broken dreams in between Markakis and these more recent success stories. The vast remainder of the Orioles starters today had to be obtained by trade or free agency. Developing talent internally means that an organization can get a player's peak years (like Markakis's 2008, even if it was wasted on a miserable club), instead of trying to roll the dice on getting continued production after those years.
When the Orioles were in the midst of their surprising 2012 playoff run, I decided it was time to spring for a legitimate replica jersey from the team. With a minimum of hesitation, I picked a Markakis jersey. He wasn't the best player on that team, and he may never be the best player on another Orioles team that he plays for, but I knew then as I know now that I'll never be embarrassed to break that jersey out for a game. Even if Nick never has that explosive season, even if he signs with another team in 2015, I'll always think of him as an Oriole, and always as a pretty good one at that. Any successful club needs a couple guys like Nick Markakis, and even if they always need a couple better guys, too, the fans shouldn't be down on the one who's there every day and always has a chance to make a daily contribution to the club's success.