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Baltimore Orioles

MLB 25 at 25: No. 3 Manny Machado

09 July 2016: Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado (13) smiles after scoring the winning run against the Los Angeles Angels at Orioles Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, MD. where the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Angels, 3-2. (Photograph by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
(Photograph by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

Over the next several weeks, FanRag Sports will be counting down the Top 25 MLB Players 25 years old or younger (as of Opening Day) for the 2017 season. These rankings reflect composite scores by our staff of writers.

Checking in at No. 3: Baltimore Orioles third baseman/shortstop Manny Machado (285 points)

*****

When any young, handsome, Latin shortstop from Miami with all-around athletic skills bursts onto the scene, the comparisons with Alex Rodriguez are obvious and inevitable. In most cases, the athletic ability and the hype do not meet, and that shows itself relatively quickly. In others, though, the hype is real.

Such is the case with Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado.

Similar to A-Rod, Machado, 24, made it to the majors in his teens, established himself as a force by age 20, and in his mid-20s is set to cash in with a free agent contract that is likely to dwarf his contemporaries in a strong 2018-2019 free agent class.

Unlike A-Rod, he’s not perpetually sitting in a bubbling cauldron of controversy in which he lit the fire and slowly immersed himself of his own volition. Unlike A-Rod, he’s not as awkward, saying and doing things that emanate from what he thinks the ever-present “they” – the fans, the media, teammates, executives, business associates – want to hear. Machado has the swagger, but it’s less forced.

At the peak of his powers, were A-Rod to say the words “I’m the best,” it was followed up by the unsaid but known “Aren’t I?” as if he needed validation. With Machado, there’s a period at the end of the sentence that he’d never openly say, but knows to be the case. Like A-Rod, that attitude is sufficient to grate on opposing players. Machado has been the target of Jonathan Papelbon and the late Yordano Ventura.

As a testament to his class, he and Mike Trout – both of whom had dustups with Ventura – sent condolences to the Royals after Ventura’s tragic death.

For some players, these incidents of being thrown at are based more on the player’s attitude. With Machado, it’s an attempt to gain an advantage and gamesmanship to try and accrue an advantage in the one-on-one competition that is a matchup of pitcher vs. batter. He stood up for himself and didn’t let these transparent tactics affect him one way or the other. If anything, it made him more determined.

None of this would matter if Machado were a flash across the sky with lacking skills. The numbers show how good he is. Going beyond the numbers shows how great he can be. Stats abound in attempts to make an assessment and categorize players, but there are basic ways to look at a player’s numbers and determine whether they have to be contextualized to reduce expectations or predict bigger things in the future.

For Machado, the direction of his hits goes above and beyond the number of home runs, his OPS or OPS+. Machado hits the ball all over the field. Ordinarily, that might elicit a self-evident shrug. Hitters who “use the whole field” and do so with power are coveted. Machado does that. But what makes him a complete product is the number of balls he hits back through the middle.

Hitters in a slump will frequently try to escape their rut by concentrating on driving the ball up the middle. Once the timing is back, it’s easier to look for pitches to pull and try to knock out of the ballpark. Machado has fewer slumps and is less vulnerable to falling into bad habits because of the natural and apparently tactical methods he uses when he hits — try to hit it back through the box all the time and everything else will take care of itself.

The number of balls Machado has hit up the middle surpasses the combined number of balls he’s hit to left and right field. This is a window into Machado’s approach, how well he sees the ball, and the purity of his mechanics at the plate.

Critics will say that Machado doesn’t walk enough, but that too is a mistake made by taking walks as the end unto themselves – one that is often made by those who take sabermetric concepts literally without having the baseball background to grasp the necessary nuance when analyzing players. Were he an unproductive player with a low batting average and feast-or-famine results, then yes, the evident absence of selectivity could be viewed as a problem. That’s not the case.

Run by a general manager, Dan Duquette, who understands the numbers and places them into their proper context, and a manager, Buck Showalter, who used his own methods of statistical analysis long before the practice came into vogue, the Orioles are savvy enough to just let him be. Showalter knows that walks are useful, but he is far from a sabermetric manager in the classic sense – he wants his second and third hitters in the batting order to swing the bat – and that’s what Machado does. Who cares about the walks when he’s posting 75 extra-base hits a year and is poised to get better?

A devastating 2013 knee injury, which was so worrisome that his career was feared to have been significantly derailed by it, has become an afterthought as he returned with a flourish and played in 162 and 157 games in the two seasons since it occurred and finished in the top-five of the Most Valuable Player voting in both. The only question now is how much better he can be. At age 24 with the résumé he has, the answer is, “a lot.” And that’s scary.

*****

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