Manny Machado’s Light Bulb Turned On

Let’s watch a little MLB Gameday, you and I. I’ll select Saturday’s matchup between the Rays and the Orioles. Below, you’re going to see all four of Manny Machado’s plate appearances. Note that I could’ve selected Sunday’s game instead and demonstrated the same thing, but on Saturday, Machado faced more pitches. Four simple .gifs:

PA No. 1

machado-ab (1)

Swinging at a first-pitch fastball over the plate. Okie doke.

PA No. 2

machado-ab (2)

Here we see a more patient approach. Machado took some borderline pitches, each for balls. He also took a 3-and-0 fastball in a hittable zone, but a lot of hitters will take those pitches.

PA No. 3

machado-ab (3)

Look at the second and third pitches. They were basically identical, and the first of them was called a strike, but Machado still didn’t like it so he backed off when he saw it again. The ball on the second such pitch put Machado ahead, and then he went for the fastball over the plate, above the knees.

PA No. 4

machado-ab (4)

Pretty simple. Lay off the high fastball. Go after the hittable fastball.

Reflect on what you just watched. On Saturday, according to PITCHf/x, Machado saw eight pitches out of the strike zone, and swung at none of them. On Sunday, he saw five pitches out of the strike zone, and swung at none of them. The game before Saturday, four and zero. The game before that game, five and zero. Hell, even in the game before that, he swung at two of 18 would-be balls. All of a sudden, we’re observing a patient, more disciplined Manny Machado.

Take a look at the current list of hitters who’ve swung at the lowest rates of balls out of the zone. This is one of those things that doesn’t take very long to…well I hate the way people have misused “stabilize”, so let’s just say, out-of-zone swing rates tend to reflect hitter identities before some other stats do. We see Carlos Santana. Yeah, he takes a lot of pitches. So does Brett Gardner. Obviously, there’s Joey Votto near to the top. Michael Brantley makes sense. Mike Napoli makes sense. Machado’s in the top 10. Machado’s in the top eight, if we’re being needlessly specific.

Manny Machado. The one with the career walk rate of about 5%. So far this year, he’s more than doubling that. It’s not that Machado was ever a hopeless hacker of the most extreme degree, but we’ve always seen him as being aggressive. Now, in terms of out-of-zone swing rate, Machado is showing by far the largest decline between 2014 – 2015, at more than 14 percentage points. The single largest season-to-season drop observed between 2008 – 2014 belonged to Jonny Gomes, a bit above 10 percentage points. Machado’s season is far from finished, but at this point, he’s doing something highly uncommon.

To go along with that, Machado has improved his rate of contact. There’s no compelling indication Machado is now making worse contact. The take-home message here being, we’re always hoping for talented young players to improve their commands of the strike zone. Typically, any gains are incremental, if there are even gains to speak of. Machado’s made a leap forward almost overnight.

Let’s break it down a little bit, using Baseball Savant. First, here’s swing rate at first pitches in the strike zone. This demonstrates that Machado is still willing to swing, if he sees a pitch he likes:

  • 2012: 22%
  • 2013: 22%
  • 2014: 19%
  • 2015: 21%

And if he doesn’t? Here’s swing rate at first pitches out of the strike zone:

  • 2012: 8%
  • 2013: 10%
  • 2014: 14%
  • 2015: 4%

Keep it going. Swing rate at pitches out of the zone, when Machado’s in hitter-friendly counts:

  • 2012: 13%
  • 2013: 17%
  • 2014: 19%
  • 2015: 9%

And finally, swing rate at pitches out of the zone, when Machado’s in pitcher-friendly counts:

  • 2012: 28%
  • 2013: 25%
  • 2014: 26%
  • 2015: 18%

I’m throwing numbers at you, and I realize that. But the numbers are telling a remarkable story of blossoming discipline. Quickly, atypically blossoming discipline. Possibly driving this: Machado’s going after slightly fewer fastballs, and he’s going after slightly fewer offspeed pitches, but he’s cut his swing rate at breaking balls quite literally in half. I mean that: down from last year’s 50% to this year’s 25%. Machado is identifying those pitches, and he’s spitting on three-quarters of them. Two of them, he’s knocked out of the yard.

This is, I think, the craziest thing — Machado has flipped his counts around. Laying off pitches out of the zone isn’t just about trying to draw walks. It’s also about making contact on more hittable pitches, and it’s about getting more counts in your favor. A year ago, Machado saw 15% of his pitches while ahead in the count. So far this year, 28%. Let’s look at his career performance, in percentiles:

  • 2012: 15th percentile, rate of pitches seen while ahead
  • 2013: 41st
  • 2014: 15th
  • 2015: 100th

To make that clear — so far this season, no other batter has spent as much time in hitter-friendly counts as Manny Machado. Prior to this season, he was well below-average. Flipping it around, only Anthony Rizzo and Michael Brantley have spent less time in pitcher-friendly counts. An eighth of Machado’s plate appearances have gone 3-and-0. More than a quarter have gone 2-and-0. Nearly a fifth have gone 3-and-1. Machado has already been in 17 3-and-1 counts. Last year, he got into 16.

You have to assume, with anything this dramatic, part of what you’re seeing is noise. Machado’s turnaround is almost inconceivable, and at least recently more or less unprecedented. So if I had to guess, Machado’s numbers come season’s end will settle to be more aggressive than they are at the moment. But, even a slightly more aggressive Machado would be a considerably more disciplined Machado, and, what if this is just the new him? What if, somehow, the Orioles got to him, in a way that few teams are able to do with their swing-happy young hitters? You have to remember that Machado’s not even 23 years old. He walked 10% of the time in the minors. He’s not a finished product.

Imagine, though, the ceiling of a finished Manny Machado product, with unexpected plate discipline. Wouldn’t that just be something?

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.

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7 years ago

In related news he’s having his best wRC+ season of his career while holding onto a not so stellar .258 BABIP.