BOSTON—Thirty-five pounds heavier and almost 3,000 plate appearances wiser than when he first reached the majors in 2012, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has become a man in full on a baseball field. Baseball greatness cooks at different speeds and temperatures, such as by microwave (i.e. the teenaged Bryce Harper) or by crockpot (i.e. Daniel Murphy). Machado’s greatness has cooked in a conventional oven, as steady and reliably as the most optimistic scouts project.
He still doesn’t turn 25 years old until July, but Machado has joined Harper as the most valuable properties in the game—that is, elite everyday players that actually will have their prime years available for purchase. Both will be free agents after next season.
If this spring's World Baseball Classic didn’t convince you of Machado’s worth—he played resplendently for the Dominican Republic, like the actor who steals the movie from a great ensemble cast—then you should have seen what Machado did at Fenway Park on a raw, Dickensian Monday night. Welcomed as public enemy No. 1 by Bostonians—his “crime” was accidently spiking beloved franchise icon Dustin Pedroia last week upon an awkward but perfectly clean slide—Machado must have heard Brahms instead of boos in his ears.
Becalmed, Machado smashed a massive, 420-foot home run over the Monster seats and made no less than four spectacular plays at third base, including one for the final out of a 5-2 victory that left his Orioles alone in first place. And when he was asked about exacting revenge on the city that bestowed villainy on him, Machado never even bothered to use the first-person pronoun.
“We came out with a W,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
And when asked about his Papi-like slow trot around the bases—Duck Boats in rush hour on Huntington Avenue move at a faster clip—Machado stayed just as cool and purred, “Normal. Nothing different.”
Said hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, “His bat really stays in the zone for a long time. He’s got great size and great leverage. There are very few like him. He’s one of the special breeds in the game.”
Machado continued his revenge tour on Tuesday. After Red Sox starter Chris Sale threw behind his legs in the first inning in apparent retaliation for Boston's Mookie Betts having been hit by Baltimore the day before—which was itself an apparent retaliation for Machado having been thrown behind on April 23 in reaction to his spiking Pedroia—Machado came up in the seventh and hit a long home run off Sale. The Orioles lost, and after the game Machado ripped the Red Sox, saying, "I've lost my respect for that organization, that coaching staff, everyone over there."
It's been a week that has highlighted Machado's talent and his competitiveness, two of the biggest reasons he's become so valuable. In fact, the more baseball devalues starting pitchers (fewer innings, more DL time, etc.), the more valuable position players become. They are essential to team branding because they play more often and sell the brand on an everyday basis. It’s all the more reason to appreciate the 2018 free agency of Machado, who was drafted as a line-drive hitting shortstop and will hit the market after next season as a slugging third baseman. (His days as a shortstop are over, given his 6'3" size, aplomb at third base and the need to keep his knees and bat strong.)
Machado’s game is reaching maturity. With increased strength, Machado, now 220 pounds, has become more of a slugger. Check out his progression over the past four seasons of how he is hitting more and more balls into the air (stats through Monday):
Fly BalL %
Machado has added lift to his swing, though without having to force it. Like many hitters today, he drops his back elbow into a slot near his side, which gets the barrel lower and into the swing plane earlier, which reduces the steepness of the swing. He also has added longer extension after contact and a slightly higher finish.
When I asked Machado recently if he tries to hit more balls in the air, he said, “Not really. Actually, when I do try to lift the ball is when I get into trouble. I try to drive the ball through the gaps, and if it’s up in the air, great, but I’m not especially trying for that. The way I look at it, flyballs are going to come naturally. And if they go out, that’s even better.”
But Coolbaugh acknowledged what the data has shown—Machado is launching more baseballs.
“The way defense is played today, damage is in the air,” Coolbaugh said. “Manny may have changed his stance when he first came up, and the strength he added is in his [butt] and legs, where power hitters get their power. What makes Manny special is his bat stays in the zone for so long. A lot of guys will have the bat move in and out of the zone, so sometimes they miss the slow breaking ball. But like tonight, on that [83 mph] breaking ball from [Rick] Porcello, Manny’s barrel stays in the zone so long he stays on the pitch. And very few hitters have as much extension through the ball after contact as Manny.
“The thing is, his trajectory is similar to what it’s always been. He’s in the 24 to 26 [degree] range [for launch angle]. That’s not close to some of the other home run hitters with high launch angles. The difference now is that with experience, with increased size and strength, those balls are carrying out of the park.”
The increased power is measurable. Machado is blasting tape-measure home runs routinely now. In the Statcast era (since 2015), Machado did not hit a ball 450 feet among his first 53 home runs. But he has hit four such bombs among his past 23 home runs, starting in July of last year.
As for his defense, well, just know that Machado won the 2013 Rawlings Platinum Glove Award as the best overall defender in the league, an honor that earned him a Rawlings glove with a platinum label. He used it during batting practice Monday night. When I asked him if he would use it in a game, Machado replied, “Yes, maybe halfway through the season, when it’s ready—or after I make five errors. After five errors for the season, or the second one in a game, that’s it for my glove. Then it’s time to change. Because it can’t be my fault. It must be the glove’s.”
Machado made only six errors in 2016.
On Monday night he played third base with such dexterity and skill that Orioles manager Buck Showalter compared his defense to the Celtics clearing out the floor to let Larry Bird isolate against a defense.
“We’re just trying to figure out a way to throw a pitch where they hit it toward Manny,” Showalter said.
Machado already is off to one of the most prolific starts to a career of any third baseman. The home run last night was number 111 for him. Only three other third basemen had more by the end of their age 24 season: Eddie Mathews (190), Bob Horner (138) and Troy Glaus (118), and none of them played Gold Glove defense the way Machado does.
Machado had been known for impetuousness on the field. Just seven months ago, for instance, he caused a ruckus when he thought Porcello was throwing at him—with a perfect game in order and holding a slim 2-0 lead with a red-hot Mark Trumbo behind him. Last June he charged the mound when Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura hit him after throwing inside twice in an earlier at-bat. Three years ago he was suspended for five games for throwing a bat toward third base out of anger at A's pitcher Fernando Abad, who had brushed him off the plate.
But the maturity in his game is obvious this year. Said Coolbaugh, “He was off a little bit earlier, but he realized this year he really wasn’t seeing many pitches to hit as the number three hitter and had to be a little more patient.” Machado is swinging at a career-low 41.5 percent of the pitches he sees, down from 49.8 percent last year.
By any measure, Machado is getting more powerful with every passing year—and more valuable.
Another Oriole, Adam Jones, drew headlines during the series in Boston when a fan was ejected for throwing peanuts at him on Monday. Jones alleged he was called the N-word multiple times, and while the Red Sox apologized and their fans greeted his first at-bat Tuesday with an ovation the incident further heightened the debates over fan behavior, racism in sports and baseball's lack of African-American players.
Before all that happened, though, Jones already was expecting to have a big week. On Friday he will reach a notable milestone: “It’s the day I become a 10-and-5 guy,” he said.
Players with at least 10 years of major league service, including at least five with their current team, earn full veto power over trades. Only about 16 active players enjoy 10-and-5 rights. Jones isn’t going anywhere. He said the Orioles agreed last winter to treat his partial no-trade provision as a full no-trade provision in advance of his 10-and-5 rights. He is signed through 2018.
Jones is another good example of the money players leave on the table when they sign extensions rather than using the leverage of free agency. Though Jayson Werth (222 homers, 1,428 hits, .820 OPS), Justin Upton (1,335, 226, .822) and Jones (1,509, 229, .778) have had similar careers, Werth ($136 million total earnings) and Upton ($183.5 million) cashed in on free agency to outearn Jones ($95 million).
Asked how long he wants to play, Jones replied, “Until I’m 40. I want to get the most out of it. It’s like Torii Hunter. He could still play when he was 40, but he decided he wanted to go home. I’ll be the same way. If it’s 37, 38, whatever, when I can’t play at a high level, I’ll go home. But 40 would be nice.”
Meanwhile, Jones is proud of another recent accomplishment: 1,500 career hits.
“I heard there have been 19,000 players and only 622 reached 1,500 hits,” Jones said. The actual numbers are 18,642 and 623—leaving him among the rare 3.3%. “That’s pretty cool. That’s really not that many in the history of the game.”
If you ever wanted to watch your home team take batting practice, your time has finally arrived—but not for long. Major League Baseball and the players association have agreed to flip the order teams take batting practice, but only for the first series after the All-Star break.
It’s a great idea. The home team typically takes batting practice first, and is done before the gates of the ballpark open to fans. Why shouldn’t Yankees fans, for instance, watch Aaron Judge take batting practice rather than the visitors? If they did they might have gotten to see what he did Tuesday, when he smashed a TV far beyond the centerfield wall at Yankee Stadium with a BP blast.
“Think about it,” the Orioles’ Jones said. “Fans in Boston never saw David Ortiz take BP.”
Home teams like to hit first because they can get in early work before their regular BP session and because they have more down time leading up to the game.
“We have longer hitting groups at home and more condensed time on the road,” Jones said. “At home we go back in and have two hours before the game starts. This would just leave us with less time, which is not that big a deal. Hey, I could roll in around four o’clock. More time at home.”
The idea makes so much sense, MLB should adopt this trial as a full-time practice.