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July 3, 2015

Pitching Backward

Manny Happy Returns

by Jeff Long

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Before this season, Manny Machado finished eighth in BP's preseason AL MVP polling. He received four third place votes, from Ian Frazer, Bret Sayre, Jon Shepherd, and yours truly. That's more love than I expected Machado to get, especially coming off a season shortened by two knee injuries (one to each knee), back issues, and a groin strain. That was before the season, though.

Of late, there's been a lot more chatter, and for good reason. He's not only one of the best young third basemen now, he's one of the best players period. Machado seems to be blossoming into a superstar, one who very well could join players like Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in the ranks of the game's elite.


(May 19, 2014 – Source: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

In order to see how Manny's superstar argument might play out , we need to see how he compares to his contemporaries at his position and the rest of the American League as a whole.

***

Let's start by looking at Machado and the glut of talented young third basemen that baseball fans get to watch on a nightly basis. There has been a lot of conversation around these talented players and how they compare to one another recently. Kris Bryant, Many Machado, Nolan Arenado, Joey Gallo, etc. are seemingly written about on a weekly basis.

Comparing all these young players started, for me anyway, a few weeks ago with a straw poll I ran on Twitter. I asked:

You're starting a team and get first pick of 3B. Ignore service time. Who do you pick: Arenado, Bryant, Gallo, Machado, or Rendon?

The results were as follows:

Player

Votes

Manny Machado

11

Kris Bryant

10

Nolan Arenado

1

Evan Longoria

1

Machado fares well here, but my Twitter following skews towards Orioles fans, so they probably aren't exactly a representative audience. For something slightly less biased we can go to the Effectively Wild Facebook group and Eric Morris' poll. The results from that are below:

Player

Votes

Kris Bryant

61

Manny Machado

31

Nolan Arenado

27

Josh Donaldson

13

Todd Frazier

2

Corey Seager

2

Trevor Plouffe

1

Chris Johnson*

1

*This is probably a joke, but Tupac Shakur received votes in the 2012 presidential election so who am I to judge?

The Kris Bryant hype train is very real, and I might argue that the EW group skews toward overvaluing Bryant as a prospect because prospects are more exciting than grizzled veterans like Machado. I do think one takeaway from this is that Machado is pretty clearly the best young third baseman in the American League. The only competition there is Donaldson, but he's nearly seven years older. Machado would figure to be the pick if a team was looking for a young centerpiece to build around.

(The closeness of the Machado-Arenado vote reminds me that I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Ben Lindbergh's breakdown of how those two compare to one another.)

***

Machado compares well to his fellow young third basemen, but he should also be in the discussion with the best players in the game. After all, he is only 22 and continues to blossom as a hitter. His plate discipline, mentioned by Lindbergh and also detailed by Jeff Sullivan, has improved by leaps and bounds this season. One of Machado's primary weaknesses, plate discipline, is now arguably a strength. Combine that with improved power output driven by strong batted-ball velocity—he has hit 118 balls over 90 mph this season, tied for the third-best mark in MLB—and you have a recipe for continued success at the plate.

J.P. Breen also wrote about Machado's superstar credentials two weeks ago, noting that the Orioles' third baseman is "blossoming into a genuine superstar." Breen pointed out that Machado's extremely slow start coupled with Kris Bryant's promotion may have nudged him even further under the radar than he otherwise would have been. That coupled with Machado's exceptionally hot last month has given his season an odd feel.

Machado certainly has the stats to back up a superstar title. He's currently hitting .308/.358/.526, good for a .304 TAv. While this level of offensive performance is new to him, solid production is not. Only during his rookie season, when Machado was just 19 years old, did he post a below-average offensive output. If you like the long ball, then Machado is a fun player to watch. He's already hit 16 home runs this year (the most recent as I wrote this), eclipsing his previous career best. The same bat that generated 51 doubles in 2012 is now making the fabled exchange for homers that we hope for from all maturing hitters.

Defensively he's still one of the best players in baseball despite not quite recreating the absurd defensive stats of his first few seasons. Machado's 2013 season was arguably the best defensive season in the modern era, and by FRAA he's already about a win above average this year. Baserunning hasn't ever been a calling card for the third baseman, but he's 11 for 13 on stolen base attempts this season. Statistically, Machado is a very well-rounded player.

Superstardom, though, is about much more than just putting up stats. There's a certain flair or personality we demand. Maybe it's diving catches in the outfield, or a disarming smile at the postgame presser. It might be the reckless abandon of his overall approach or the swagger he carries on and off the field.

Machado has always shown glimpses of that potential, especially in the field. His calling card early in his career was showing insane awareness for a 20-year-old:

Top of the ninth, tied game, go-ahead runner on third. It didn't matter.

Cool under pressure is a recurring theme in Machado's career. That time he bobbled a grounder while ranging toward the third base line? No problem.

Part of being a superstar means making the hard plays look routine. Nothing looks quite as routine as a groundball to Machado's right.

The ease with which Machado fields his position belies his incredible talent at the hot corner. Part of the allure with Mike Trout is that he makes those leaping catches at the wall look so easy, something that Machado replicates at third base.

There's also Machado's age. Have we mentioned that he's only 22? (Oh, we have? Well, it's still impressive.) He is about six months younger than Kris Bryant, with a 1,300–plate appearance experience advantage in the big leagues. He's not quite Bryce Harper, but Machado's age is certainly one of the most important factors that makes people say "What?!"

You remember that fun fact about Bryce Harper never having faced a younger pitcher than him as a pro despite High-A rehab assignments the last two years. It was 588 games before Harper would step into the box against a younger pitcher, a truly absurd statistic. Machado's streak of never facing a younger pitcher isn't quite as extreme, but it stood at a formidable 427 games before Machado ran into a younger pitcher on, where else, a rehab assignment at Hi-A Frederick to start the 2014 season.

***

Manny Machado seems to be doing all the things that we expected him to do. His plate discipline is bouncing back to his minor-league levels. His doubles power is all of a sudden home run power. What was solid defense at shortstop is now some of the best third base defense in baseball. He is the whole package, and few seem to be noticing because he's old news at this point. Baseball is awash in young talent; Machado might not be new, but he's just as young and already a star.

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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