Anyone who expected Orioles third baseman Manny Machado to return from left knee surgery and simply pick up where he left off was hoping for too much.
With so much attention devoted this offseason to the rehabilitation of his surgically-repaired left knee and the question of when Machado would be ready to return in 2014, many forgot that the 2013 All-Star selection and Gold Glove winner is still only 21 years old and far from a finished product. That’s what made such a disruptive offseason so concerning in terms of his development and ability to continue working on his craft.
Through his first 25 games and 112 plate appearances entering Friday’s game, Machado is hitting just .216 with a .555 on-base plus slugging percentage and three extra-base hits after clubbing a league-leading 51 doubles and collecting 68 extra-base hits in his first full season in the majors. Recognized as one of the best defensive players in baseball, Machado has also committed six errors in 87 chances after making only 13 all last season.
Some rust was certainly expected for a talent still more than a month shy of his 22nd birthday, but is it now time to be concerned about Machado’s poor start?
Considering how exceptional Machado’s defense has been from the moment he made his major league debut late in the 2012 season, there’s no doubt that his slow start in the field will turn around. The third baseman has made his fair share of exceptional plays since returning on May 1 and will undoubtedly find the consistency he displayed in his first two seasons in Baltimore.
But Machado’s struggles at the plate aren’t new to 2014 after he struggled significantly down the stretch last year. The right-handed hitter was batting .321 with an .839 OPS on June 30 to seal his first invitation to the Midsummer Classic, but his second half was a different story.
Machado hit only .239 and posted a .638 OPS from the start of July until a gruesome knee injury ended his first full season in the big leagues on Sept. 23, 2013. Despite his impressive gap power, Machado showed flaws in his plate discipline throughout his first full year by drawing only 29 walks in 710 plate appearances.
Strangely enough, Machado has shown better patience at the plate this season, already drawing eight walks and seeing 3.87 pitches per plate appearance compared to 3.53 last year. Looking beyond the conventional statistics, Machado has profiled as a much different hitter in the kind of contact he’s making so far this season.
Machado is hitting fewer line drives (17.9 percent of balls in play to 20.6 percent last year) and fly balls (23.8 percent to 32.3 percent last year) and many more grounders (58.3 percent to 47.1 percent last year), which doesn’t bode well when trying to hit for any kind of power. Such a high propensity for hitting the ball on the ground may work for a speedster such as Houston’s Jose Altuve, but Machado isn’t fast enough to leg out many infield hits and certainly has the frame to drive the ball with authority.
The third baseman’s contact percentage (79.9 percent to 80.1 percent) is nearly identical to what it was last year, so it’s not a matter of Machado swinging and missing more often, but you do wonder if rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee has zapped some strength from his legs that’s necessary for driving the ball. Even as he was struggling in the second half last season, Machado never had a groundball percentage higher than 53 percent in any one month, making what we’ve seen so far this year more perplexing.
Manager Buck Showalter sliding Machado to the No. 7 spot in the order on Thursday was a clear indicator that the Orioles are concerned enough about his slow start to try to alleviate some pressure and allow him to get on track. His defense is too much of a strength to even remotely consider sending him down to the minor leagues unless his slow start at the plate would continue for an extended period of time, but the Orioles need more production from a player who showed the ability to be an elite hitter in the first half of last season.
It’s important not to read too much into his first month of 2014 alone, but Machado is hitting only .234 in his last 411 at-bats going back to last July and is showing few signs of a hitter on the cusp of driving the ball the way he needs to.
Machado certainly isn’t alone in his slow start as J.J. Hardy is still looking for his first home run, but even the shortstop’s .361 slugging percentage dwarfs the .284 mark posted by the third baseman. For some context, the constantly-criticized Ryan Flaherty even has six extra-base hits — and a higher OPS — in 97 at-bats compared to Machado’s three in 102 at-bats.
The third overall pick of the 2010 draft certainly is one of several hitters still trying to find his way, but Machado’s continued development is critical to the club’s future with the likes of Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Hardy all becoming free agents over the next two offseasons. Machado and center fielder Adam Jones will be counted on to be two of the main pillars of the Baltimore lineup after the 2015 season when the makeup of the roster is likely to be very different.
The first priority was making sure Machado was healthy once again, but the Orioles need to start seeing more signs of the player he’s capable of being to improve their chances of contending in the American League East.