Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado appeared preternaturally cool in the big leagues last year. He started the season at age 20 and finished it with the most doubles in the American League and acclaim as its best defender. This year, with his play and behavior turning sour, a vexing question keeps coming up about the guy who appeared to be a reliable star on the rise: What's wrong with Machado?
"It's a good question," Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said.
Machado's play and comportment have been so problematic Duquette would not rule out sending him to the minor leagues.
"That's always an option," Duquette told SI.com. "The kid's proven he can play in the big leagues. He was the defensive player of the year in the American League last year. But he's only, what, 21 years old? He doesn't turn 22 until next month. I think what happened was he got to be a big star in a hurry. Some people need a little more time to mature. I think what we're looking at is a player development issue with Manny. [A minor league assignment] is always an option."
Machado is also facing the possibility of a suspension because of what umpires called his "intentional" throwing of a bat upon swinging at a pitch Sunday against Oakland. Major League Baseball officials are reviewing the incident, with a decision expected Tuesday. Machado is likely facing a suspension of four games or more. In 2002, Boston outfielder Trot Nixon was suspended for four games for throwing his bat in the direction of Tampa Bay pitcher Ryan Rupe during a swing. Unlike Machado, Nixon was not ejected by umpires at the time of the incident. MLB officials also are reviewing plays involving Machado in the same game Sunday in which his bat twice hit Athletics catcher Derek Norris on his backswing. Though the contact appeared incidental, Machado showed no concern or professional courtesy toward Norris.
Under one scenario, if Machado is suspended, the Orioles could assign him to the minors at the conclusion of the discipline in order to get him at-bats after the inactivity and to issue a wake-up call. Machado is the fifth-youngest player on an active roster. He missed all of April while working his way back from surgery on his left knee after injuring it last September.
"I think the knee is solid," Duquette said. "The time off can send your timing off. You need a little more time to train."
Machado was hitting .235/.291/.346 entering Monday night's game against Boston and the quality of his at-bats has been lacking. For instance, he was hitting .176 when he put first pitches into play (3-for-17) and .194 in counts with no strikes (6-for-31) -- counts when a hitter should be attacking only preferable pitches to hit. Moreover, he was hitting .063 in his first at-bat of games (2-for-32) and had knocked in only seven of the 74 runners who were on base when he batted.
Most perplexing was his behavior last weekend in the series against Oakland. It began Friday night when Machado threw a tantrum after Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson tagged him between second and third base for the third out of an inning. Machado tried to evade the tag by twisting away from Donaldson, but Donaldson tagged him with the ball in his glove hand on a hard but perfectly clean jab to Machado's chest. It's the way a manager would want a tag applied: Firm and allowing no uncertainty for the umpire.
Machado, however, overreacted to the tag -- perhaps wary of risk to his surgically repaired knee caused by losing his balance. As he fell to the ground, Machado grabbed his helmet off his head with both hands and fired it down in the direction of Donaldson. He yelled at Donaldson as he stood up and charged toward him. Benches emptied but no punches were thrown. It was petty, unprofessional behavior and it should have resulted in his ejection from the game.
Worse still, on Sunday, Machado appeared to throw his bat intentionally on a bogus swing on an inside pitch from Oakland pitcher Fernando Abad. There were two outs and nobody on in the eighth with Oakland leading 10-0 when Abad threw inside twice to Machado. On the second inside pitch, Machado swung after the ball had passed him, then allowed the bat to fly out of his hands helicopter-style. It landed near third baseman Alberto Callaspo (who had moved from second to third to replace Donaldson that inning) and stopped rolling when third base umpire Angel Hernandez used his foot to block it. Home plate umpire Larry Vanover ejected Abad and Machado, indicating after the game that both the second inside pitch and the throwing of the bat were "intentional."
In the same game, Machado twice hit Norris on his backswing, forcing the catcher out of the game with a head injury. The contact appeared to be incidental, but Machado showed none of the usual professional courtesy or concern that typically occurs on such a play. It is standard practice for a hitter to show some level of concern and regret, especially when the catcher is so obviously stunned.
The Orioles begin the week 31-30, 5½ games behind first-place Toronto in the AL East. After 61 games last year, they were 34-27, three games out. Machado hasn't been the only cause for concern. First baseman Chris Davis, who last year led the majors with 53 home runs and 138 RBI, has just nine and 29, respectively, this season.
"Manny and Chris Davis were super-duper stars last year," Duquette said. "So far they have not been that exactly."