Manny Machado’s growth into his potential

Baltimore Orioles LogoTaken third in the 2010 draft, expectations and comparisons for Manny Machado were lofty right off the bat. As a shortstop from south Florida, he was reminiscent of another hot young prospect from the same position, in the same area – Alex Rodriguez. Machado showed elite defense and a strong bat, both of which contributed to his high draft rank and prospect pedigree. Things were moving along well in his development through the Orioles’ system until they found themselves in the middle of the 2012 playoff race unexpectedly. Needing some extra firepower, Machado’s development cycle was throttled into overdrive, and he made his major league debut at just 19 years old.

Over his first couple seasons, Machado hit about league average with a 97 and 102 wRC+ mark in them. Some concern loomed about whether his potential would always be larger than the sum of his tools, as neither his power nor contact had developed particularly well. His discipline matched him with the worst in the league, walking in under five percent of his plate appearance. His swing rate on pitches outside the zone creeped towards 33%, putting him in the top quarter for undisciplined. His swing rate on outside pitches in pitcher friendly counts was in the top ten percentile. Yes he defense was elite, but fans were worried that’s all there would ever be.

But it’s always so important to remember how young he was (and still is). Where our culture and media gravitates towards instant gratification and a “what have you done for me lately” mindset, Machado had just turned 22 coming into 2015. And the difference just a couple of seasons can make for someone so young who just oozes with talent can be as enormous as the bombs Machado was getting ready to launch…

It was looking like Machado was starting to harness his contact abilities well, but his lack of discipline severely limited him from bringing them to a great level and, consequently, allowing himself to consistently tap into his power potential that he flashed intermittently throughout his career. With hard work in the offseason, he focused on cutting down on his strikeouts and chases, as well as learning to take the walk.

The results speak for themselves. He brought his strikeout rate down from 19.2% in 2014 to 15.2% in 2015, fueled by lowering his chase rate from 36% to 25%; an improvement from absurdly bad to almost too patient. He swung at less pitches inside the zone as well, going along with his more selective approach, at just 61% which is four percentage points below his career average. Being more selective brought better contact numbers, bringing his whiff rate down from 11% to just 6%, and bringing his contact percentage up six points to 84%.

That’s a lot of data to digest, but here’s the overarching point; by being more patient and selective, Machado was able to get his pitch more often, leading to better contact rates and even more bases thanks to pitchers staying around him (first pitch strike percentage dropped five points to just 58%).

Better approach, maturing strength, a home ballpark that plays like a hitter’s paradise – yep, it is a perfect combo. Machado’s 35 homers and 134 wRC+ speak for themselves, and his additional 20 stolen bases was just icing on the cake for an all around amazing year for the young man holding down the hot corner. And interestingly, while his power numbers shot up astronomically (career ISO marks of 183, 148, 153 then 216) his contact stayed almost the same, virtually the exact batting average as the year before. Machado wasn’t hitting more necessarily, he was just hitting better.

Averaging 33% fly balls over his first three seasons was decent for a contact hitter, but when that number went up to 39% in 2015 his batted ball splits truly reflected that of a power hitter. More fly balls means more chances to hit a home run, and 17.6% of Machado’s flies are winding up on the other side of the fence. If that sounds impressive, it ranked just 26th despite him hitting the 13th most bombs over the course of the season. The scary implication (well, for AL East pitchers it’s scary) is that he has even more strength to tap into to hit even more homers.

What is most miraculous about this transformation is that it’s not driven by some wild mechanical switch, but almost entirely by shear will. Linked below is a video put together by MASN, the Orioles’ local broadcasting team, where he talks about how he’s improved. The biggest things he credits to his success are his new approach and strengthened legs. After the end of his 2013 year where there was concern over his ACL being torn, if someone had said Manny Machado would turn into an elite player because of his approach and legs, you would almost definitely have been considered insane.

It’s hard to believe sometimes just how quickly players can breakout, and how lasting the turnaround can be, but Manny Machado is the most recent example of a legit superstar finding his way after a few struggling campaigns. His defense and power are both elite, and his speed and contact are both at least plus. There just isn’t another third baseman who you should expect to outproduce him over the near future – Manny Machado is here to stay.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.