New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles

Baseball’s defensive spectrum is one of great little things in baseball, built partly on conventional wisdom and lore mixed with plain old common sense. The defensive spectrum works under the idea that once a player lands on a position, he can generally go down but not up. A second baseman is unlikely to become a shortstop and a left fielder probably won’t make much of a center fielder.

The common defensive hierarchy looks something like this: P-C-SS-2B-CF-3B-RF-LF-1B-DH. There are different ways to conceive it but it all shakes out the same. The positional adjustment portion of Wins Above Replacement follows this model as well.

It is insightful for its simplicity – a shortstop can slide over and handle first base duties without much stress while your average left fielder couldn’t handle a sudden second base assignment.

Manny Machado is a shortstop. He says so himself in no uncertain terms. Except for one tiny detail: since his call-up last July, Manny Machado has played just about every possible inning as the Baltimore Orioles third baseman. In that time, Machado has asserted himself as one of the premier defensive third baseman in the game – to say nothing of his offense which, at just 21, is setting records as he raps doubles at an uncommon rate.

Machado is in the midst of proving the idea of the defensive spectrum definitively true. A shortstop moved to third in (or even before) his prime vacuums up grounders and displays uncanny arm strength, pacing the league in highlight plays and advanced defensive metrics. Getting Blanked spoke with Manny Machado about adjusting his clock, learning from the best, and the most important part of playing defense.

Much has been written about Manny Machado’s defense already this year. Getting Blanked covered it in May when the first wave of eye-popping highlights surfaced. At that time, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN quoted Machado’s manager Buck Showalter praising the internal “clock” of his young third baseman. He never seems to rush and has a (seemingly) innate ability to know just how much time he has to get the ball across the diamond.

Getting Blanked – your manager and others speak highly of your “clock”, is this something you continue to develop as you take reps at third?

Manny Machado – No, it’s more of having a feel for who’s hitting. You have to know who’s fast who isn’t, who runs hustles. At the end of the day, you still have one goal – you have to catch the ball. Everybody thinks “you gotta make the out, you gotta make the out, you gotta make the out.” No, you don’t have to make the out, you have to catch the ball first. That’s why you have the glove on your hand. Once you catch the ball, everything else takes care of itself. Just catch and then throw it, you take care of it.

GB - You made a play in a game against the Angels with Mike Trout at the plate. If ever there was a guy that caused you to speed up your clock…

MM – You just make the play. Same as before, you have to make the play first. If you catch the ball first, then you have the ability to make the out. If you don’t catch it, you don’t have a chance to get him. It was one of those times were you just slow it down, catch it, and make the out. If he beats it out, he’s safe that’s one thing but you have to put it in the umpire’s hands.

The play in question is very nice but not one of the most spectacular entries in the Machado Web Gem oeuvre…until you recall that it is, in fact, Mike Trout hustling down the line.

A typical home-to-first time for a right-handed batter is about 4.3 seconds. This play (very roughly) times out around 4 flat, though Trout has sub-4 times on his resume. In that time, Manny Machado lunged, caught a hot shot, gathered himself, added an extra little hop, and fired a strike to first to get Trout for the out.

Some third baseman might not get snare that shot to their glove side, others might rush the throw or attempt to get off a riskier play when they’re off-balance. Machado got the whole thing right and ended the inning, sending his pitcher back to the dugout without adding to his pitch count.

GB – Slow rollers and bunts aren’t plays you get to make a lot as a shortstop. Now, as a third baseman, how are you learning and adjusting to a new type of batted ball?

MM – You always try to catch it with your glove. You know how slow the ball is and, depending on the runner, if you get a good read on it, all that comes into play when you’re going to bare hand something. I prefer to catch it with my glove first, make the transition and throw and try to put it into the umpire’s hands. If you don’t trust yourself and try to make a barehanded play and you drop it, it goes as a hit not an error on you. I just want to catch it first and make I put it in the umpire’s hands.

Machado might opt for a more modest answer but the truth of the matter is his hands are pretty much gloves on their own.

machado fingers

Despite his protestations, these charging bare-hand plays have become Machado’s signature.

GB – You play alongside J.J. Hardy every day. He’s a great defensive shortstop, what can you try to learn from him every day?

MM – Oh definitely. You want to talk about a guy who has one of the highest percentage of caught balls, you’re talking about him. He makes every play on every ball hit to him. At the end of the day, that’s it. You have to catch it first and he does that. He makes all the routine plays and that’s the whole thing: you gotta catch it. He definitely deserved that Gold Glove last season.

GB – You two work as a team to get to more balls, as well.

MM – It’s a huge advantage for us, having him over there and with me having a little extra range as a shortstop playing the third base position. I certainly helps us to get some balls in previous years we don’t get to. We work together, look at each and decide “hey, I’m playing a little more over here on this pitch” of if this guy is pulling the ball. We look at his other and just click, we know where best to go.

To Machado’s credit, “making all the routine plays” describes his play thus far in 2013 in addition to that of his Golden Gloved teammate. According to Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved, Machado is the best of both worlds. His +22 DRS is tops among third basemen this season despite having not posting any of what the system describes as “great fielding plays.” Machado handles “routine” balls hit to him smoothly in addition to leading all 3B in out of zone plays – balls he ranges to with his quick feet and long reach. Of his six errors in 2012, only one came on a batted ball, the rest on errant throws.

GB – A lot of shortstops like to peer in for a look at the catcher’s sign, hoping to anticipate where a ball might be headed based on the pitch sequence. Is that something you miss as a third baseman? Or something you try to read from JJ when he’s doing it?

MM – Not really. There isn’t enough time to look over at JJ while the pitch is in the air. There’s no chance to do it all in time. At third, you just have to play your game, trust your reports, and trust your coaches. We trust Bobby D (Bob Dickerson, Orioles third base coach & infield instructor), he puts in the position where he thinks we should be playing. He’s a big reason we’ve been so successful as a team playing defense.

He’s absolutely right about a lack of time – the hot corner didn’t earn that name by accident. These reaction plays are the type shortstops just don’t have to deal with. It is on these plays where Machado demonstrates all the attributes scouts love about him. As Orioles instructor Mike Bordick told Crasnick in his ESPN piece: “He has a real good pre-pitch setup, his feet come off the ground a little bit, and it energizes him so he has good first-step quickness.”

GB – What aspect of being a shortstop helps you the most at third base?

MM – Just having more range. Being able to move around to get to more balls. Third base is more a of a stationary position so it’s a big advantage to get to more balls than a normal third baseman won’t get to. Having that shortstop mentality, where I just want to catch every thing coming my way.

GB – Would you say there’s been one particularly difficult shortstop habit to kick since moving over to third base?

MM – I don’t know…I mostly just think about trying to catch the ball. I haven’t cut out my shortstop habits but I mean it’s the same position in that you have to catch it and make the outs. I don’t really think there’s a big difference in that respect.

GB – Who is your favorite third baseman to watch in the league right now? Is there you try to learn from?

MM – You learn from all the third baseman up here. Adrian Beltre…the best third baseman that’s playing the game. Longoria, he’s a great third baseman. Brett Lawrie that plays here plays great defense. Miggy, Donaldson. You learn from everybody because everybody plays the game differently.

When I play against all these guys, I look over there and see how they play that position and, if I see something I like, I might put it into my own perspective. Everybody in the big leagues can play, you know. Everybody is in the big leagues for a reason. I’m still learning so every opportunity to watch these future Hall of Famers at third base, I’ll do what I can to take it in.

GB – Is there one play of yours that you’re particularly proud of? One that stands out in your memory as a play you really liked?

MM – All of them. I mean, I’m still learning a brand new position and this is my first full season in the big leagues. So every opportunity, every highlight play I make it’s a highlight for my life.

The one note Manny Machado repeatedly came back to in his answers was “you have to catch the ball.” After we spoke, Manny Machado made one of the more spectacular plays you will see in 2013, throwing out Luis Cruz from the third base coaching box.

A simply spectacular play which, if you asked him, he’d likely lament his own inability to field it cleanly the first time. Luckily, Orioles fans get to simply enjoy this highlight-reel throw for what it is – a play they’ll remember for a long, long time.

Hat tip to Fangraphs and ESPN Stats & Info for a helping hand.

MY APPROACH featuring Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Pablo Sandoval, Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Gonzalez, Evan Gattis, Tyler Flowers, and Tim Lincecum.