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The Strike Zone

Manny Machado's season was one for the ages before unfortunate injury

Manny Machado, Orioles As good as he was offensively this season, Manny Machado was even better defensively. (Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)

By getting swept by the Rays from Friday to Monday, the Orioles were all but eliminated from the overcrowded AL wild-card race, but they endured an even more devastating loss in the series finale when Manny Machado suffered what appeared to be a major knee injury after hitting first base awkwardly in the seventh inning. He left the field on a stretcher, and while the final prognosis hasn't been announced, he's clearly done for the season.

It was an unfortunate ending to an impressive season for the 21-year-old third baseman, who dazzled defensively, chased longstanding records, earned All-Star honors and clawed his way into MVP discussions. Not bad for a first full year in the majors. Having played in 51 regular season games the previous year — not to mention six in the Orioles' first postseason appearance since he was five years old — Machado wasn't technically a rookie. In fact, given that his birthday is July 6, five days after the cutoff under most player age conventions, this year qualified as his age-20 season, and he put up one for the ages.

Machado's final batting line of .283/.314/.432 doesn't look terribly impressive, particularly given that he was hitting .310/.337/.470 at the All-Star break, and managed just a .240/.277/.370 line afterward. His 113/29 strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn't all that great either, particularly given the 4.1 percent walk rate attached to the latter figure, which puts him in the bottom 10th percentile among batting-title qualifiers. Even so, he finished the year with a 100 OPS+, a league-average performance but one that is no small feat for a player his age; he's one of 44 players from 1901 onward to qualify for the batting title while managing a season of at least that caliber by that age. Nineteen of those 44 are in the Hall of Fame, as are eight players who qualified for a batting title but finished below 100. Being able to hold one's own in the majors at that age is a sign of incredible promise, even if one isn't Mike Trout, who set the record last year with a 168 OPS+.

Machado finished this season with a league-leading 710 plate appearances, the third-highest total ever for an age-20 season behind Buddy Lewis (733 in 1937) and Ken Hubbs (716 in 1962), the latter of whom he almost certainly would have passes before season's end. His AL-leading 51 doubles were three short of the age-level record set by Alex Rodriguez — his favorite player, as it happens, and one he views as a mentor— in 1996. Through the end of June, Machado had 38 doubles in 83 games, putting him on pace to finish with 74, which would have shattered the single-season record of 67 set by Earl Webb in 1931. Alas, he doubled just once during a month-long skid in July and 12 times thereafter, thereby missing a chance to become the first player since 1936 to reach 60 doubles in a season.

While Machado's second-half slump took the shine off his offensive numbers, he's sparkled to an even greater degree on defense. Shifted from shortstop to third base upon promotion to the majors in August 2012, he has shown incredible range and a powerful arm, making great play after great play after great play — so many, in fact, that as of Sept. 20, he led all major leaguers in ESPN's Baseball Tonight Web Gems with 18, six more than runner-up Gerardo Parra. His signature play, highlighted in this space on July 7, may be this backhanded stop and subsequent peg to nail the Yankees' Luis Cruz at first base:

[mlbvideo id="28689219" width="600" height="336" /]

The play even drew comparisons to Hall of Fame Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, who won 16 Gold Gloves, a record among non-pitchers, and who ranks third all-time in Baseball-Reference.com's version of Defensive Wins Above Replacement.

Via Defensive Runs Saved, Machado himself leads the AL in Defensive WAR — Defensive Runs Saved plus the positional adjustment built into WAR to incorporate degree of difficulty, converted into wins — by a wide margin, with 4.4. Runner-up Lorenzo Cain, the Royals' centerfielder, has 2.8, while Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons (5.4) and Brewers centerfielder Carlos Gomez (4.4) are the only NL players in his stratosphere. Machado's 35 DRS is the AL's highest total, fourth in the majors behind Simmons (41), Parra (40) and Gomez (37). DRS isn't the only fielding metric that loves Machado, either; he's an MLB-high 30.9 runs above average according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, just 0.1 behind the highest total since the metric's inception in 2002 (Mariners centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez set that in 2009 with 31.0). He's first this year in Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average at 29.8, too.

Via DRS and Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement, Machado finishes the year with 6.5 WAR, fifth among AL position players behind Trout (9.1), Josh Donaldson (8.1), Robinson Cano (7.4) and Miguel Cabrera (7.3). From a historical perspective, that figure is tied for seventh among players in their age-20 seasons since 1900:

Rk Player Year TmWAR
1Mike Trout2012Angels10.9
2Alex Rodriguez1996Mariners9.3
3Al Kaline1955Tigers8.3
4Mel Ott1929Giants7.4
5Ty Cobb1907Tigers6.8
6Ted Williams1939Red Sox6.7
7TManny Machado2013Orioles6.5
Vada Pinson1959Reds6.5
Frank Robinson1956Reds6.5
10TJason Heyward2010Braves6.4
Mickey Mantle1952Yankees6.4

Some of those guys could play. All but Trout, Rodriguez, Pinson, Heyward and Machado are in the Hall of Fame, and at the rate Trout is going, they might as well start reserving space for his plaque.

That the seasons of Trout, Heyward and Machado -- not to mention that of teenage record-holder Bryce Harper (5.2 at age 19 last year) -- have happened in close proximity shouldn't obscure their relative rarity throughout baseball history. As fans, we're incredibly lucky to get to witness so many great young seasons in such a short time; to find the previous quartet of players posting at least 5.0 WAR at such a young age, one has to traverse back through more than half a century of baseball history, from Rodriguez (1996) to Ken Griffey Jr. (5.2 in 1990) to Johnny Bench (5.0 in 1968) to Pinson (1959).

As Heyward and Pinson show, some of those elite young players have trouble maintaining that level of play, while others go on to tower among the all-time greats. In the case of Mantle, some of them get there even after suffering career-altering injuries. Here's hoping Machado can recover from whatever injury he's sustained to continue along that special trajectory.
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