05 June 2013

Better Plate Discipline Fueling Machado's Offensive Improvement

This post was written by Zach Mariner. Follow him on Twitter here.

Manny Machado’s name has been brought up more and more in recent weeks by the media regarding baseball’s young superstar debate — one that’s been dominated by Bryce Harper and Mike Trout for over a year now.

On May 11, MASN’s Steve Melewski suggested that Machado was better than his fellow phenoms, at least through 84 games of their respective careers. Just last week, the folks at Baseball Prospectus took a staff poll regarding the order in which they would draft the three of them — a lengthy and interesting read. On Tuesday, ESPN’s baseball staff partook in their annual franchise player draft, in which writers and analysts select which player they would want on their team going forward — Machado went third to Aaron Boone. Trout and Harper went No. 1 and 2, respectively. ESPN.com’s Bill Baer doesn’t think Machado is there just yet, and Bob Nightengale of USA Today Sports just wants to stop the comparisons altogether.

It would appear on paper that Machado does indeed deserve to be in the conversation with Harper and Trout as one of the game’s best young players. The recent national buzz surrounding him is certainly warranted, seeing as the year he’s having would be impressive for a major league ballplayer of any age. 

Coming into Tuesday night’s game against Houston, Machado’s .327 average was good for sixth in the American League. His 81 hits ranked second in all of baseball, only to Miguel Cabrera, and his 3.1 WAR was good for fourth in the majors.

However, his wOBA stands at .375 — 15th in the AL — which is somewhat low for someone who has more hits than almost everyone in the league. The primary reason for that number is Machado’s 5.3 BB%, which ranks 143rd out of 168 qualifying major league hitters. Despite the low walk percentage, the 20-year-old has still matured as a hitter from his first two months in the big leagues at the end of 2012. His swing percentages are significantly lower than last year, leading to a much lower K% (18.8% in 2012, 13.7% in 2013) and slightly higher BB% (4.5% in 2012).

Machado swung at 48.5% of pitches thrown to him in 2012, including 33.2% of pitches outside the strikezone. This season, those numbers have fallen to 43.0% and 25.1%, respectively. The folks at baseballanalytics.org recently took a closer look at exactly where Machado’s been swinging, compared to 2012.

There are two big differences that jump out in the heat maps shown above. The first is Machado’s decreasing amount of swings on pitches low and away, which were around 50% in 2012 and have fallen to closer to 25% this season. This is oftentimes a spot where you’ll see a right-handed pitcher try to fool a right-handed batter with a breaking ball or slider — the ball looks like it’s coming over the heart of the plate, and drops off at the last second. Machado’s decreasing swing numbers in that spot indicate that he’s recognizing those pitches and laying off them.

The second major difference is the increase in the number of swings on the inner half of the plate and pitches that are sometimes even a little bit inside. Machado’s been having a lot of success turning on pitches — all of his home runs have been to left field, and 17 of his 26 doubles have been pull hits, as well. As noted last week by Bloomberg Sports, Machado is seeing a lot more inside fastballs thrown his way after he slugged just .289 against them in 2012. In 2013, that number has risen to .651.

Machado’s low walk rates are a bit of a concern, but his decreasing swing numbers are a sign that he’s getting a better feel for the strikezone, and that should continue to develop as he spends more time at this level.

One facet of Machado’s game that doesn’t seem to have developed yet is his power (just 12 home runs in 465 career plate appearances). While his secondary power has been there — he’s on pace to set the major league record for doubles in a single season — he’s yet to show any consistent pop (most scouts project Machado as a 20-25 homer guy in his prime). That would be more of a concern if Machado were a true third baseman, and not somebody that figures to end up at shortstop within the next few years. Also, Machado’s still providing more value as a third baseman — both offensively and defensively — than everyone other than Cabrera.

Defensively, Machado has been arguably the best third baseman in the majors since being recalled in August of last season. Using UZR, Machado is the most valuable player by position in the major leagues in 2013, having saved 10.9 runs. If you watch the Orioles regularly, it’s not difficult to understand why, as it seems like Machado makes difficult plays look routine on a nightly basis; the fact that he’s doing so at a position he’d never played until last August is what’s more impressive.

Whenever he does finally move to shortstop — which figures to be whenever J.J. Hardy leaves Baltimore — Machado’s value will finally peak, as he’ll be playing the most difficult defensive position in baseball other than catcher. Also, if Machado continues to improve his plate discipline and develops the power most scouts expect will come, by the time he is the shortstop in Baltimore, he could very well be more valuable than any other player in baseball. 

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