Manny Machado’s Lost Season Now Found

The numbers are different. The players isn’t, though. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Manny Machado turned 25 on July 6. If he checked his stat line after that day’s game, he probably wouldn’t have liked what he saw. A little over halfway through the season, Machado had come to bat 350 times and hit 16 homers, which is pretty good. He was also slashing .215/.283/.418, though, equivalent to just an 80 wRC+.

That didn’t seem right. After all, the young infielder entered the season with a 119 career wRC+ — and had actually produced an even better 130 mark between 2015 and -16. At Machado’s age, hitters tend to improve, not collapse.

Machado’s performance gave the impression that something might be wrong, that something might need to be fixed. Whether that impression was correct at the time, it’s moot now: over the past two months, all he’s done is hit.

Here are a few relevant hitting stats for Machado from earlier this season compared to 2015 and 2016, when he was one of the better hitters in baseball.

Manny Machado’s Peripherals Early On
2015-2016 19.6 8.4 % 16.4 % .228
2017 through 7/6 21.9 8.6 % 20.0 % .203
Difference -2.3 -0.2% 3.6% -.025

While Machado began the season striking out a bit more often than in recent seasons, his walk rate was fine. And while his power took a dip, it still compared favorably to the league average. There’s nothing here that would reduce Machado from one of the top-20 hitters in baseball to one of the 30 worst.

Here, though, are some other relevant stats from those same time periods.

Manny Machado’s Early Season Stats
2015-2016 .303 .290 .351 .518 .368 133
2017 through 7/6 .223 .215 .283 .418 .296 80
Difference -.080 -.075 -.068 -.100 -.072 -53

The batting results from that period through July 6 line are poor — but almost entirely a product of a lower batting average on balls in play. Now, that lower BABIP could reveal some decline in Machado’s game. An injury or change in approach. And if the drop in BABIP were paired with other observable differences, it might warrant further consideration.

And there were some differences. For example, while most of Machado’s batted-ball profile — including pull percentage, infield flies, ground-ball rate — remained largely unchanged, he was swinging outside of the zone a little more and making a little less contact. His swinging-strike rate had increased from 8.3% in 2015 and 2016 to 11.5% in the early going this year. The combination of some extra strikeouts and reduced power certainly affected Machado’s production. Again, though, their effect was pretty minor compared to the massive drop in BABIP drop.

To get a sense of the influence his batted-ball struggles exerted on his overall line, we could go through and normalize the numbers for a league-average BABIP. We have better resources available, however. With the aid of Baseball Savant, I ran a search of players with at least 250 at-bats through July 6 for xwOBA compared to their wOBA. Research indicates that xwOBA — which is based on launch angle and exit velocity — might be a better indicator of future performance than wOBA itself. Of the 144 players in the sample, the 41-point gap between Machado’s xwOBA (.344) and wOBA (.303) was the fourth biggest in the game.

Such a gap didn’t necessarily guarantee better future performance. Of the other players included among the top-10 xwOBA underperformers, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gordon, and Mitch Moreland have gotten worse in the meantime; Kendrys Morales, Nick Castellanos, Matt Carpenter, and Kyle Seager have stayed pretty close to the same; and Machado, Brandon Crawford, and Carlos Santana have gotten better.

Leaving aside future performance for a moment, though, Machado’s poor luck severely disadvantaged his line on his birthday. If Machado had a wOBA of .344 at the time, his wRC+ would have been 113, perhaps not up to his standards of the previous two seasons, but a decent season that with an uptick over the second half could see him get a third straight six-win season.

Of course, he didn’t have a wRC+ of 113 at the time. He does have one better than that now thanks to a great two months of hitting. Since turning 25, Machado is hitting .354/.391/.633 with a 166 wRC+. Let’s take some of the tables from above and add in the last two months.

Manny Machado’s Resurgence
2015-2016 19.6 8.4 % 16.4 % .228 .303 .290 .351 .518 .368 133
2017 through 7/6 21.9 8.6 % 20.0 % .203 .223 .215 .283 .418 .296 80
7/7/2017 through 9/4/2017 15.5 6.9 % 10.1 % .279 .337 .354 .391 .633 .421 166

Machado has been more productive offensively over the past couple months than he has over the last few seasons. He’s cut his strikeout rate considerably by swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone and (in a possibly related development) reducing his swinging-strike rate to 6.9% over the last two months.

Some of his recent fortune might be a part of good batted-ball luck. It’s possible he hasn’t quite “earned” his more recent numbers — just as he didn’t deserve the poor BABIP numbers from most of the first half. And the ball-tracking data supports this possibility: Machado’s xwOBA of .412 is currently being outperformed by his actual wOBA of .430, per Baseball Savant’s wOBA calcu;ations. Now, if he only had a wOBA of .412 over the last few months, then his wRC+ would be 159 over that time period.

We’ve established that Machado hit decently for a while and wasn’t getting as much credit for it due to poor results. We’ve also established that he started hitting really well and has been getting credit in the form of positive results. What would it look like if he had been luck-neutral this whole season?

The answer to that is found in his full-season xwOBA mark, .372, which equates to a wRC+ of roughly 132. In other words, exactly how he performed the last two seasons. Had Machado actually produced that mark, he would be on his way to a third straight six-WAR season and his fourth in five years, all before reaching his age-25 season. The list of players with three six-WAR seasons before age 24 (like Machado) is impressive and includes Andruw Jones, Mike Trout, Ted Williams, Arky Vaughan, Mel Ott, Eddie Matthews, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins, and Ty Cobb. Only Mike Trout, Ted Williams, Arky Vaughan, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, and Ty Cobb have recorded four years of at least six WAR before their age-25 seasons, with Trout and Cobb producing five such seasons.

It would appear a bit of poor batted-ball luck this season will prevent Machado from joining the more select group, but he’s still off to one of the best careers in MLB history. Since 1946, here are the best careers through age-24 for a position player.

Best Careers Through Age-24 Since 1946
Name Position PA HR wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Mike Trout CF 3558 168 167 42.8 317.8 13.1 47.5
Mickey Mantle CF 3493 173 164 5.3 279.4 4.9 41.1
Alex Rodriguez SS 3515 189 137 10.6 183.7 58.2 35.0
Ken Griffey Jr. CF 3606 172 144 0.7 191.0 33.3 35.0
Al Kaline RF 3777 125 130 0.5 138.5 57.8 32.3
Eddie Mathews 3B 3142 190 152 2.2 209.3 8.3 32.1
Johnny Bench C 3228 154 127 -2.9 97.7 73.3 30.7
Andruw Jones CF 3312 150 109 4.9 45.8 156.9 30.3
Albert Pujols 1B/LF 2728 160 166 6.0 237.7 -22.8 30.0
Hank Aaron RF 3173 140 145 0.9 173.9 5.1 28.3
Frank Robinson 1B/LF 3156 165 143 5.1 171.1 0.8 28.0
Bryce Harper RF 3242 150 142 10.7 174.0 -7.1 27.9
Cal Ripken SS 2855 108 131 -3.4 102.1 72.5 27.8
Vada Pinson CF 3551 102 127 9.4 121.8 19.0 27.2
Cesar Cedeno CF 3491 103 131 20.7 141.5 -6.4 27.1
Manny Machado 3B 3273 137 118 -4.6 66.6 81.1 26.9
Rickey Henderson LF 2891 35 131 38.4 142.4 18.1 26.6
Willie Mays CF 1978 116 153 4.5 137.7 37.2 24.2
Dick Allen 3B 2039 89 159 1.6 140.2 -9.6 22.0
Jim Fregosi SS 2837 58 116 2.0 55.1 67.1 21.8
Jason Heyward RF 2819 84 117 16.2 72.2 45.5 21.6
Giancarlo Stanton RF 2640 154 145 -1.6 134.2 -13.5 21.4
Roberto Alomar 2B 3349 39 114 17.7 71.6 20.6 21.3
Barry Bonds CF/LF 2388 84 123 7.3 68.5 60.3 21.2
David Wright 3B 2312 97 139 16.4 132.5 6.4 21.1

Machado might climb a few more spots on this list before the year is out. Even if he doesn’t, though, the start of his career is impressive. The only third baseman ahead of him on this list is Eddie Matthews. Go back to the turn of the 20th century and the only third baseman ahead of Machado is still Eddie Matthews. Everybody takes a back seat to Mike Trout now — and perhaps will for the foreseeable future — but when it comes to the second-best young player, Machado is nearly even with Bryce Harper in career.

Machado is again making his case, and has somehow found himself in the middle of another pennant race. If Machado and the Orioles had been just a bit luckier earlier in the season, they might be favorites for that second Wild Card instead of merely being in the race.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

Mike Trout. Could it have been anyone else on top? It’s amazing how often an article about “look at this awesome player” has to say “Also: Mike Trout is almost twice as good.”