On the heels of the record-setting free agent contract that he signed in February, Manny Machado’s career with the Padres began inauspiciously. He hit just .236/.325/.368 in March and April, and as recently as June 12 was slugging less than .400. Since then, he’s been just about the hottest hitter in baseball, and it appears that he’s turned his season around.
Off the bat, it’s worth remembering that this hasn’t been a typical season for Machado. The 26-year-old superstar agreed to terms on his 10-year, $300-million deal with the Padres on February 19, officially signed two days later, and thus got a late jump on spring training. He didn’t make his Cactus League debut until March 2, a full week into the exhibition season, and it’s fair to wonder if he was fully in shape to start the regular season. He struck out in 25% of his 120 plate appearances in March and April, a figure more than 10 points higher than last year’s 14.7%, and more than eight points above his career 16.4% mark. His 88 wRC+ for the period was the first time he left the gate with a below-average month; last year, he sizzled at a 157 wRC+ clip (.361/.448/.676) in March and April.
Machado was much better in May (.283/.365/.485, 120 wRC+), and he even cut his strikeout rate to a much more normal 16.5%. Towards the end of the month, however, he fell into a 4-for-40 slump, his worst stretch of the season. That carried into June; through the games of June 12, his line stood at .240/.329/.397 with 10 home runs and a 93 wRC+, placing him in the 25th percentile among all MLB qualifiers. Since June 13, Machado has been nearly unstoppable, batting .400/.427/.914 in 75 PA through July 1. His slugging percentage and 10 home runs in that span are both tops in the majors, while his 237 wRC+ is tops in the NL (it fell behind DJ LeMahieu’s 248 with an 0-for-2 showing in Monday’s loss to the Giants).
Through all of those ups and downs, and the aforementioned arbitrary endpoints, Machado is now batting a respectable .276/.349/.513. His 20 homers are tied for 10th in the NL, and he is on pace to surpass last year’s career-high of 37. His 124 wRC+ is tied for 25th in the league and is three points ahead of his career mark. His 2.3 WAR is tied for 20th. He spent five weeks manning shortstop in the absence of the injured Fernando Tatis Jr., where the small-sample metrics say he was slightly below average, but now back at the hot corner, he’s been above average.
Machado’s numbers are disappointing only relative to last year, when he set across-the-board career bests (.297/.367/.538, 141 wRC+); he’s certainly been better than in 2017 (.259/.310/.471, 103 wRC+). His hotly anticipated free agency, and before that the unending controversy stemming from his October comments (“I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’” etc.) and actions (clipping Jesus Aguilar’s heel at first base, plus a few questionable slides) served to heighten the pressure on him to deliver from the outset of his Padres career.
Machado is still amid controversy, awaiting word on his one-game suspension stemming from a June 15 ejection in Colorado after which he threw his helmet and other equipment, and may or may not have made contact with home plate umpire Bill Welke. That incident drew an embarrassingly disproportionate response from the umpires’ union, and while it may have earned Machado a bit of sympathy in some quarters, it didn’t lessen the scrutiny on him.
Comparing his season numbers as a whole to last season, the biggest change for Machado — besides his uniform and home ballpark — has been his rising strikeout rate (20.6%, nearly six full points higher than last year) and swinging strike rate (11.3%, up 1.7 points from last year and his highest mark since his 2012 rookie season). It’s worth digging into his pitch splits (via Pitch Info):
Machado is seeing far more four-seam fastballs than last year, and he’s flat-out destroying them, but while not only rarely chasing but also laying off an even greater share of those in the strike zone; his swinging strike rate against the heater has remained constant. He’s beating up on sinkers as well, again showing discipline to lay off those outside the zone but attacking those within with more frequency.
On the other hand, Machado’s performance against sliders has eroded, though last year’s 142 wRC+ against them was itself an anomaly given his career mark of 96. He’s prone to chasing them, and his swinging strike rate against them has risen significantly. While he doesn’t see curves, changeups, or cutters as often as the first trio of pitches, he’s scuffling against all three of those offerings, whiffing significantly more often and having less success upon making contact.
As for when he makes contact, Machado’s ground-ball and fly-ball rates haven’t changed appreciably (39.0% and 43.2% this year), though he’s popping up a fair bit more often (16.2% IFFB compared to last year’s 11.6%). He’s pulling the ball a bit less often (35.4% versus last year’s 38.1%), but his pulled fly-ball rate has barely budged.
Statcast-wise, Machado’s hot streak has brought his numbers in line with his recent history. His average exit velocity of 90.7 mph is down a hair from last year’s 91.6 mph, but within half a click of his 2015-17 rates, and his 13.8 degree average launch angle (down from last year’s 14.4) is consistent with his previous numbers as well. His average fly ball distance of 335 feet is 17 feet further than in 2018, and represents an improvement of 13 feet relative to the league averages (319 feet last year, 323 feet this year). Of more concern is that he’s making hard contact less frequently (43.2% versus last year’s 48.0%, which has dropped him from the 94th percentile to the 73rd) and his .348 xwOBA is about 25 points below his 2016-18 numbers (he’s dropped from last year’s 90th percentile to the 64th this year). His rolling averages over his last 50 batted balls are generally better than at the start of the year, so I don’t think that there’s much to suggest this is anything but typical variance.
Whether it’s because of his recent controversies or his tepid early-season performance, Machado didn’t come close to making the cut for the final All-Star voting; as of June 17, he was sixth among NL third basemen, with less than half the vote total of the top four (eventual finalists Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, and Josh Donaldson plus Justin Turner) and just over half that of fifth-place Anthony Rendon. His 2.3 WAR is a full win behind the selected trio of Arenado (the starter), Rendon, and Bryant, so it’s tough to argue that he’s been snubbed, even with his recent hot streak.
That said, given that he’s on close to a 5-WAR pace through his first half season in San Diego, it would be disingenuous and a tad ridiculous to argue that Machado has been a bust, or pretend that he couldn’t have helped most of the other clubs who shunned him in free agency. He’s hardly the sole reason the Padres, who lost 96 games last year, are 42-42, but he’s already nearly doubled the 1.3 WAR of the 2018 squad’s third basemen (primarily Christian Villanueva, with Wil Myers and Cory Spangenberg seeing significant time there as well), which is to say that he’s been a significant part of the team’s improvement, if not its sole driver. He’s great player who all told has merely banked a pretty good half-season, not a stellar one. That gives ammunition to his critics, but as a perpetually polarizing player, he’ll never satisfy all of them. Eh, that’s baseball.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.