SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports baseball insider Bob Nightengale discusses the injury to Washington’s superstar
USA TODAY Sports
Manny Machado uses a Spanish-language baseball colloquialism to describe the struggles he endured during a trying first half of the season.
The Baltimore Orioles third baseman says he was “un muerto” — a dead guy — at the plate during an extended slump that saw him take a .216 batting average into July.
The three-time All-Star had designs on playing in a fourth midseason showcase, this one extra special because it was held in Miami, his hometown. Instead, he settled for watching brother-in-law Yonder Alonso and teammate Jonathan Schoop partake in the festivities.
Machado’s bat has sprung to life since. Monday night at Seattle, he hit his fifth grand slam in the past two seasons, and is now batting .339 with 26 RBI and a .921 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in 31 second-half games. And he’s a big reason the Orioles have stayed in the wild-card race – they’re two games back of the second slot – despite a 5.50 starting pitcher ERA, better than only Cincinnati in the major leagues.
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The turnaround didn’t come from Machado fixing a mechanical flaw or suddenly finding a way to lay off a pitch that was bedeviling him. Rather, in the immortal words of Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler, Machado is simply hitting them where they ain’t.
“I haven’t changed anything since the start. To this day I’m doing the same things,” Machado told USA TODAY Sports. “But those hard-hit balls that were getting caught are now falling in. That’s baseball. Sometimes you hit the ball hard and it’s still an out. That’s why we can go 3-for-10 and be among the best in the game. It shows you how difficult this game is.”
While some observers think Machado has regained his old form by hitting more to all fields instead of pulling the ball so much, a couple of modern metrics confirm his contention that he was hitting into bad luck.
Machado’s batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, a figure that tries to assess good and bad fortune for hitters, was at .239 before the break. His career mark of .303 is much closer to the league average, which hovers around .300.
Moreover, Machado has ranked among the majors’ top 10 in exit velocity — he’s currently 11th at 92.6 mph — for much of the season. And he leads the majors in hard-hit balls – struck at 95 mph or harder – with 180.
“I knew how I felt at the plate; I knew what I was doing. It just wasn’t producing results, but you can’t control those,” Machado said. “I know what I can do and what I can bring to this game. Everybody could see what I was doing at the plate. It’s not like I was striking out a lot.”
Indeed, Machado’s strikeout rate of 16.9% mirrors his career standard of 16.8%, and his walk rate is actually higher — 7.9% to 6.8% — both signs that his plate discipline had not deteriorated.
The resurgence actually began shortly before the All-Star break and has continued apace, with Machado entering Tuesday batting .260 with 23 homers, 73 RBI and a .792 OPS for the season.
“That’s a pretty significant hole he’s dug himself out of, and he’s going to have at the end of the year some statistics that people would love to have around the game,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Manny never said, ‘Well, it’s going to be one of those years.’ He never gave in to that. And it was tough. It’s been a challenge for a young player to fight through that emotionally.”
Especially after finishing in the top five in the AL MVP voting in each of the last two seasons. Machado, 25, said dealing with the prolonged futility taught him the importance of staying positive and sticking to his routine despite mounting frustration.
He turned to his wife, the Orioles coaches — who pushed him to keep working when he was feeling down — and baseball-playing friends such as Alonso, fellow Miamian Jon Jay, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz for guidance.
Machado also confided in his pal Schoop, the second baseman who rose through the Orioles system alongside him.
“This has been a season of learning for him,” Schoop said. “When he came up, he had one good season after another, so he had to learn how to deal with the bad times. He’s one of the best players in the major leagues, and I think he’s going to be better for the experience.”
The slump came out of nowhere. Machado began the season in a great frame of mind after having a blast playing for the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic. But veteran Adam Jones points out hitting has grown increasingly harder. Higher pitching speeds — the average fastball is above 92 mph — and the widespread implementation of shifts have made life tough on hitters. So while home runs are getting hit at a record pace, the majors-wide batting average of .255 is down 14 points from 2006, the year Jones broke in.
He argues it’s more common now to see a highly accomplished hitter endure a down season, as was the case with 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen last year. McCutchen, the subject of trade rumors in the offseason, returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates and lifted his OPS from a career-low .766 in 2016 to his current .899.
Machado is enjoying a similar offensive resurgence in the second half while continuing to make spectacular plays at third base.
“His defense has remained unbelievable, and he’s just finding his groove,” Jones said. “And the best part about it is we can now ride his back the rest of the year. If he goes, we go, because he’s that much of a talent.”
With his combination of skills, accomplishments and youth, Machado projects as one of the leading figures in the ballyhooed free agent class of 2018, which will include Bryce Harper and Clayton Kershaw if he opts out of his contract.
Naturally, that has led to speculation about the Orioles’ chances of retaining Machado, which seem slim, and to suggestions they should look to trade him and get value in return.
Machado, who is making $11.5 million this season and will more than double that annual figure when he signs a long-term deal, says he’s open to an extension with Baltimore.
“I believe we’re going to talk this offseason,” he said. “We’re waiting for their call, but yes, my family and I and my agency are always willing to listen to what they may bring to the table. This is my city. This is all I’ve known.”