The draft happened recently. I’m not a draft expert, which is why I seldom write about it, but one of my favorite and least-favorite things about the draft are the player comps. I like them for the color, but I dislike them for the hype. The draft does have to do something to sell itself, and the casual public wouldn’t benefit if drafted players kept getting compared to guys who never made it out of Double-A, but too many drafted players draw comps to elites, like, say, Roger Clemens, or Clayton Kershaw, or Cal Ripken. It’s like the amateurs are set up to disappoint from the get-go. Comparing amateurs to Hall-of-Famers sets expectations impossibly high, and does little to inform the viewers of the reality that most draft picks go nowhere. Tough sport.
We all remember players who were hyped as something they never became. We all remember players who fell short of their big-league comps. It’s almost impossible for a high pick to turn out as good as his comp, given that comps have mostly had long and successful major-league careers. There are some success stories. Obviously, there’s that Mike Trout fellow. And there’s Manny Machado. Even before he was drafted, Machado was compared to Alex Rodriguez. There were, in fairness, a lot of similarities. In unfairness, Rodriguez is one of the best players in the history of the game. The pressure was on from the beginning. And, say, would you look at that, but Machado is actually starting to resemble the very player who seemed to set too high a bar.
I’ve been wanting to write about Machado for a little while. He homered on Tuesday, so that’s good for the timing. He’s also been playing shortstop for the Orioles while J.J. Hardy has been out. He’s third among position players in WAR, and the gap between him and first is within the presumed margin of error. Over the past calendar year, Machado’s still in third among position players, yet he remains the forgotten man in the group that also includes Trout and Bryce Harper. And, sure, maybe some others, I don’t know. I’m not trying to establish the boundaries of the upper tier. I just feel like Machado belongs in it, and he’s taking his offense to a higher level. Machado’s about to turn 24, and he’s hitting for more power than ever. It doesn’t seem like an accident:
Big hard-hit rate, and more balls in the air than ever. Machado has been tapping into the only resource he wasn’t already mining. A year ago, Machado finished with a .216 ISO, which was a career high. He presently stands at .299. The only possible criticism you could make is that Machado hasn’t yet stolen a base.
Here’s where this gets really fun. Growing up, Machado idolized Alex Rodriguez. As a draft prospect, for so many reasons, both performance-wise and personally, he was compared to Rodriguez. Similar build, similar skills, similar background. Here’s a note on the inevitability of the Rodriguez comparisons. Rodriguez later became a mentor. He and Machado are friends! Alex Rodriguez has real-life friends, and Manny Machado is one of them. The two have been linked since Machado was a teenager. Maybe even earlier than that. Machado dreamed of becoming baseball’s best shortstop, in the Alex Rodriguez mold.
So now, going back to 2002, here are the highest wRC+ marks for qualified shortstops:
I put the plate-appearance column in there for a reason. It’s a reminder that, as encouraging as the 2016 numbers are, the season isn’t close to half-over. Machado is hundreds and hundreds of plate appearances short of Rodriguez’s 2002, so they can’t be directly compared, but there is at least something happening here. This establishes some context for Machado’s offense as a shortstop. And now we can zone in on Machado and Rodriguez. In the table below, I’ve included 2016 Machado, and 2000 – 2003 Rodriguez, having decided that that period captures him at his peak.
|Alex Rodriguez||2000 – 2003||157||137||92||0.305||12||7.7|
Of course, that’s four years of prime Rodriguez, and less than half a year of seemingly prime Machado. So we can’t say that Manny Machado has become as good as prime Rodriguez. But we can say that Machado is looking about as good as prime Rodriguez, and the offense might be for real if you’re buying the change in batted balls. Rodriguez drew more walks, but he also struck out more often, relative to the league. Machado’s been better at contact to this point. The power is about identical. Machado isn’t doing any real base-running, but while that was a plus for Rodriguez, it wasn’t exactly the key to his skillset.
Prime Alex Rodriguez was worth about seven and a half wins per 600 trips to the plate. Machado is on course to be worth about seven and a half wins per 600 trips to the plate. Machado has even had to re-learn the shortstop position on the fly after Hardy got hurt, so maybe that’s a little variable. His defense has been fine, if short of outstanding. Meanwhile, I might as well throw in a swing-related pair of screenshots. There are even visual similarities here:
That designated prime for Rodriguez began when he was 24 years old. Machado turns 24 in a matter of weeks. As draft comps go, there’s almost no such thing as a higher bar than Alex Rodriguez, and Machado hasn’t officially gotten there yet, but he’s on the way, and he might even be ahead of schedule. The fact that this is a possibility in the first place is mind-blowing. When he was a young shortstop, Rodriguez was the ultimate all-around player. Machado is trying to be the exact same thing. Even if Hardy is going to bump him back over to third in a little bit. That spoils things to some degree, but Rodriguez wound up at third base too early, himself. And Machado could always move back.
Imagine the pressure of being compared to maybe the best shortstop in the history of baseball. Imagine compounding that with the reality of having idolized the same shortstop as a youngster. Manny Machado is on course to be exactly what the draft experts said he could become. More often than not, that very achievement is unachievable.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.