MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Cleveland Indians

One of the great storylines of 2013 has been the play of Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles. A defensive wizard playing every day and hitting at the top of a playoff team’s lineup, Machado showed that he was one of baseball’s top prospects for good reason.

Just 21-years old and still filling out, Machado lacks the home run pop of his youthful contemporaries Mike Trout and Bryce Harper but, for most of the year, the story was his doubles. Machado was on a near-record pace, clubbing the second most doubles in the first half of a season with 39 at the break (albeit in many more plate appearances).

Rk Player Split Year G 2B GS PA
1 Edgar Martinez 1st Half 1996 85 42 85 393
2 Manny Machado 1st Half 2013 96 39 96 435
3 Craig Biggio 1st Half 1999 87 38 86 406
4 Lyle Overbay 1st Half 2004 86 37 83 371
5 John Olerud 1st Half 1993 87 37 87 372
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/4/2013.

On July 1st, Machado already had 38 doubles, 12 more than any other hitter in baseball. He seemed all but assured to crack 50 or even 60, with a shout at the single season record of 67, set by Earl Webb of the Boston Red Sox in 1931.

After basically being 50% ahead of the rest of the league in doubles, Manny Machado now has 46 two-base hits. Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals has 45 doubles this season, just one behind the Orioles third baseman. Machado has seen all his offensive numbers fall off as the season progressed, dogged by the sort of mediocre production expected of a player with his profile (low walks, relatively little home run power).

machado matt carp doubles

Unfortunately for those of us who enjoy historical bookkeeping, Machado could not keep up the pace. Unfortunate but understandable. Unfortunately for the Orioles, when Machado’s doubles left him, so did just about everything else. Manny Machado is a study in the importance of home runs and walks.

Since July 1st, Manny Machado can only claim a .257/.288/.381 slash line with eight doubles and six homers across 243 plate appearances. He still keeps his strikeouts in check (14% compared to a league average just under 20%) but his walks fall below the average hitter, as do his power numbers. If we use the “rolling wOBA” measurement, we can see how his production tails off as the season progresses.

[Ed note: This method provides a better look, I feel, at the ebbs and flows of a season worth of production than the day-to-day style available on Fangraphs.]

machado rolling

The other hitters profiled using this method (Pedro Alvarez, Adam Lind, Ryan Braun and Giancarlo Stanton) tend to be home run hitters, players who experience more extreme peaks and valleys. Without the home runs to buoy him through the slumps and without the sort of patience which keeps him productive even when the balls aren’t falling in, we see Manny Machado serve as more of a hole in the Orioles lineup.

The reasons behind Machado’s fade are pretty typical of young hitters – the league stopped challenging him with fastballs. Using July 1st as our arbitrary endpoint, we see a sharp drop in the number of fastballs he sees and overall pitches in the zone. More pitches on the black and, as his struggles mount, Machado expands his zone and chases more pitches off the plate.

So now is the time for questions about the viability of keeping Machado locked into the second spot in the Orioles batting order, just as the questions were asked of Bryce Harper at this time last year, before the 19-year old made his required adjustments and spent September scorching the baseball. Manny Machado comes across as the kind of player with a high baseball IQ, so there isn’t a lot of doubt he’ll make some adjustments and return to hitting line drives for extra bases.

There are two other factors working in Machado’s favor as far as his offensive future. The first is his age – playing in just his age-20 season and already showing an uncanny knack for putting the bat on the ball, combined with his large frame, Machado profiles as the type of player who hits doubles now but will turn to homers as he adds strength. More specifically, can anyone think of a superb defensive third baseman who broke into the league at 19 and, after experiencing some ups and downs as a young player, came into his own and became a future Hall of Famer?

If you guessed Adrian Beltre, you’re exactly right!

After a nearly identical number of plate appearances, Manny Machado has slightly better numbers than Beltre through his age-20 season. Beltre walked more than Machado but became more free swinging as he matured, never posting a walk rate above the 9.7% of his age-21 season.

There are many, many possible outcomes short of “Adrian Beltre” for Manny Machado but there aren’t many defensive vacuums playing third base as teenagers so the lazy comp works in this situation. The other side of this hopeful coin gives a different kind of promise for Orioles fans – Machado isn’t a third baseman at all, he’s a shortstop.

If Manny Machado moves back to shortstop, he’s already above-average even if you only count his awful last 250 PAs. League average shortstop line goes .254/.308/.366, which even broken, struggling-to-adjust Machado can muster in his sleep. He’s that good and can surpass this impossibly low bar without making much of the required adjustments.

Combine the two (Machado bounces back after a tough second half AND moves to his rightful home at shortstop) and you have one of the best players in baseball. Full stop. His defense is more than enough to keep him in the starting lineup for any team in baseball. Even if his first half abilities aren’t “the real” Manny Machado, a reasonable facsimile of that productive offensive player can suit up for me any time.

The Orioles should make some decisions on what to do with Machado’s spot in the lineup, though the team that kept Chris Davis hitting behind the ghost of Nick Markakis for the lion’s share of the season doesn’t seem likely to upset the apple cart this late in the game. His high-contact approach is well suited to the second spot in the lineup, but the alarming rate at which he makes outs should attract a little bit of critical attention.

There is no reason to worry about Manny Machado’s future, Orioles fans. But for a team trying to get into the playoffs for the second straight season, there is reason to…wonder about his role in the offense for the rest of the season. The doubles dried up in July and so did his ability to help his team with a bat in his hands. Oh well, I suppose settling for one of the three best defenders in baseball at an unnatural position will suffice for now.