We’ve reached third-base week, which means we’re talking about the most top-heavy position on the fantasy slate for 2016. Looking at the NFBC ADP data, four third baseman are going in the top nine, and it is the most well-represented position in the first round of 12-team leagues. There is one particular pairing in this elite group that fascinates me more than any positional matchup in fantasy baseball this year, and they make up this week’s Tale of the Tape. It’s Manny Machado vs. Nolan Arenado.
This matchup starts off with a bang, as these two are essentially interchangeable in average. Last season, Arenado’s .287 mark edged out Machado’s .286. In fact, over their respective careers they have both hit .281. Looking at 2015, both third basemen were able to put up good averages despite carrying career-low BABIPs. In Machado’s case, it was the first time in his career he put up a sub-.300 BABIP, as his line-drive style has allowed him to maintain a .320-plus BABIP through his career. Arenado is more of an average hitter on balls in play. While the Rockies’ third baseman does carry the career advantage in strikeout rate, his plate discipline numbers have been trending down while Machado’s have been getting better each year. In fact, he finished 2015 with a lower strikeout rate. Given that trajectory and his higher true-talent BABIP ability, Machado gets the slight edge here.
Although these two were close in average last season, Machado dominated OBP with a .359 mark compared to Arenado’s .323. As I alluded to above, the former’s plate discipline has gotten much better than the latter’s over the course of their respective careers. In terms of pure walk rate, Machado took a massive leap forward to nearly 10 percent last season, while Arenado was stuck at 5 percent. With the two players being so close in average, it all comes down to drawing walks here and Machado has a clear advantage.
Once again, these two were very close in 2015. Machado’s power breakout of 35 home runs would’ve beaten most players, but it was outdone by Arenado’s own breakout in which he hit 42. It was a huge step forward for both players—neither of whom had hit more than 18 before 2015—and appears to be largely sustainable moving forward. Finding a separating factor proves difficult, though. The two young third basemen finished the season with nearly identical finishes in both HR:FB rate and average flyball distance. They also both call strong hitter’s parks home. The best way to find some separation between the two is looking at track record. Arenado had a better pre-2015 major-league track record in the power department, as well as preferable minor-league numbers. That, combined with a marginally better home park in Coors, gives Arenado the edge in another close call.
It seems we’re alternating close calls and blowouts in this edition, as Arenado destroyed Machado (and basically everyone else) here last year with his 130 RBI. Obviously, he’ll be looking at a bit of regression this season. Arenado will also suffer from playing on a rebuilding Rockies team. He’ll no longer have even a half-season of playing with Troy Tulowitzki and he also has to deal with the loss of Corey Dickerson. Even with that, he’s still in the middle of a lineup that provides him a solid top third in Jose Reyes, Carlos Gonzalez, and Charlie Blackmon. Machado, meanwhile, will be closer to the top of an Orioles lineup that lacks a real table-setter. He’ll be relying on Hyun-Soo Kim, J.J. Hardy, and Jimmy Paredes to provide RBI opportunities. Arenado has both the power advantage, however slight it may be, and the stronger lineup in front of him.
While Arenado had the clear advantage knocking in runs last season, Machado scored 102 runs to Arenado’s 97. Of course, these are both great totals that we’ll take from most players this season. In looking at who will perform better in 2016, lineup context again means everything. In this case, Machado fares much better. While the top of Baltimore’s lineup is weak, they don’t lack for power in the middle. Machado will have the benefit of hitting in front of the likes of Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, and Matt Wieters. Arenado, meanwhile, will be relying on Gerrardo Parra, Ben Paulsen, D.J. LaMahieu, and Nick Hundley. It’s not impossible that this group can be relatively productive, but it’s hard to see them all having big years at the same time. In addition to the lineup advantage, Machado also has the better on-base skills and is a superior baserunner, making him an easy winner.
Machado broke out in a big way here, swiping 20 bases in 2015 while Arenado stayed stuck at two. In the past, neither of these players was a very big help, but Machado finally had a chance to use his athleticism to his advantage after a big knee injury in 2013. There’s certainly a possibility that he’ll take a step back in 2016, but it still leaves him well ahead of Arenado, who’s never stolen more than two bases in a season. Machado has done it before, which is more than one can say for Arenado.
One good thing about picking either one of these two in the first round is that neither is a particularly big injury risk. Although both missed some time in 2014, they each played every day in 2015. Arenado was out for 40 games two years ago with a finger injury suffered on a slide. Machado, on the other hand, suffered a major knee injury at the end of 2013 that caused him to miss time the following year. Although neither is a big injury risk, their histories give Arenado a slight advantage. Machado’s injury was much more severe, and knee injuries are more likely to creep back up than one to a finger.
Advantage: Arenado… slightly
We’ll make this one short and sweet. Both players are going to play every day. Neither is at risk of missing time due to rest, platoon splits or a younger player breathing down their neck. It’s a push.
The thing about first-round picks is they all have high ceilings. That is certainly true of both Machado and Arenado, so the rest of this section is going to be an exercise in picking nits. With that being said, we’ll start with Colorado’s third baseman. Arenado has a huge ceiling, and it’s very likely we saw something very close to it in 2015. It’s hard to see him topping 42 home runs and 130 RBI, and he’s never going to be a force on the base paths. The only real improvement he can make is with batting average. Add that 2015 production to something around a .300-.310 AVG and you have Arenado’s likely ceiling. Machado, meanwhile, can still grow in a few areas. It’s not hard to see him taking a significant leap in AVG to somewhere in the .320-.330 range given his improved plate discipline and line-drive hitting style. It’s possible he can manage to do that while also keeping his 35-plus home run power and 20-plus stolen-base speed, giving him the higher ceiling in this pairing.
If you’re picking in the bottom half of the top 10 in drafts this year, you’re likely going to be choosing between these two players. If we’re being honest, you really can’t go wrong. With that being said, it’ll be the first pick of your draft and you can’t make a mistake here. In this competition, Machado came out with a 5-3 advantage to go along with a higher ceiling, winning everything but the power categories. It’s a close call, but Machado gets the victory this week.
And the winner is… Manny Machado
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