Before this season, Manny Machado was a talented young player who’s remained something less than elite due to injuries and a bat that was closer to average than star. He added offense to his game this season and earned his status as a star-level player. Debuting just a month removed from his 20th birthday back in 2012, Machado combined an above-average bat with amazing defense, but a switch flipped this season and Machado joined Mike Trout and Bryce Harper as one of the very best players in the game. Machado is one of the game’s very best third baseman defensively, but a couple times this week, the Orioles have experimented with him at shortstop. While the long-term implications for Machado and the Orioles are unclear, early returns suggest a happy outcome for the club and the 23-year-old, were he to return to his original spot on the diamond.
Drafted out of high school as a shortstop, Machado was projected to remain at shortstop given his solid hands and arm, although there were whispers that somewhere down the line his body might outgrow the position. The Orioles certainly expected his future was as a shortstop, putting him there for all but two of his 208 minor league games. When the Orioles found themselves in a pennant race in 2012, they already had one of the best defensive shortstops in the game with J.J. Hardy so they moved Machado to third base. The move worked, as the Orioles won a wild-card spot and an ensuing wild-card game to make the American League Division Series. With Hardy continuing to provide excellent defense, Machado has remained at third base until now.
Machado has provided amazing defense at third since his debut in 2012, but both 2013 and 2014 ended early for Machado as he has had surgery to each knee, with the 2013 injury representing the more serious of the two. Perhaps with some uncertainty regarding Machado’s ability to return to a pre-surgery level — the sort of level that would allow him to return to shortstop — as well as a recognition that J.J. Hardy still offered very good defense at shortstop, the team signed Hardy to a three-year, $40 million contract extension. Two knee surgeries, continued good defensive play from Hardy, and a three-year contract extension for Hardy provided little impetus for moving Machado back to shortstop.
By the numbers, Machado has been one of the best third baseman over the decade and a half for which we have UZR data. By way of illustration, the chart below features the highest UZR/150 for third basemen over that time period. (Note: chart is sortable).
We know that Machado has been great at third base. He won the Fielding Bible award for third base in 2013, and still received votes in 2014, finishing seventh, despite playing only half the season. Given the innings disparities, a little more context for the chart above can help frame Machado’s defense. After all, Machado’s innings are only through his age-22 season, and defense tends to decline with age. Looking at every four-year period beginning with 2002, the highest UZR/150 is listed below (min. 3000 innings).
|Years||UZR/150 (min. 3000 innings)|
Machado’s recent run is one of the very best over the last decade and, even with the knee surgeries, Machado still looks great out in the field. While Hardy is signed for two more years and $28.5 million, he is having a miserable season at the plate and was put on the disabled list more than a week ago with a groin issue, his second stint on the DL this season (shoulder). With just a month left in the season and the Orioles in a tailspin that has removed them from the playoff race, seeing what they have with Machado at shortstop make sense.
While Machado had not played a single inning at shortstop in Major League Baseball before August 23, and had not recorded a single start there until Monday, he has spent some time fielding in the shortstop’s general area.
Teams implement the shift in different ways. Some teams opt to send their third baseman behind the second-base bag, leaving the shortstop in his normal position to cover the largest area of land. Given Machado’s range and athleticism, the Orioles have felt comfortable leaving Machado to cover the entire left side of the infield. In the footage below, Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas attempted to beat the shift with the bunt. Machado defied him.
Moustakas is not a fast runner, but he does have six infield hits and three bunt hits out of eight attempts. On a different play where Machado held down the left side of the infield on the shift, Machado showed range going to his left and throwing out Shin-Soo Choo.
While he had played the shortstop’s role on those times the Orioles have shifted, he did not get a start at the position until Monday. With two knee surgeries in his past, there might be some question of whether he could return to the position he played so well before reaching the majors. In his first opportunity at shortstop, he made an error in an extra-innings loss to the Twins. Despite the initial error, his skills seem to have transferred quite nicely in his first two starts. The 80-grade arm that was useful as a third baseman is at least as useful at shortstop. In limited action, his range also looks to be shortstop quality. Here is a play in his first start at shortstop where Machado shows off the arm and range, going deep in the hole before making an incredibly strong throw to beat catcher Rene Rivera.
Buck Showalter said that Machado seemed energized by the position switch, and Machado echoed the comfort he seemed to have on the field with his statements afterward:
“It came back pretty easy,” Machado said. “I’ve been playing that my whole life. I didn’t play third base until I got up here. It just came natural. I was out there just trying to make the plays and as the game went on, I just started feeling more comfortable out there.”
Machado is used to starting double plays, having initiated 25 of them this season (second in MLB behind Kyle Seager) and 80 over the past three seasons (third in MLB behind Seager and Josh Donaldson), and he had no problem starting the double play on Monday.
Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of the third-base-to-shortstop move is making the turn on the double play. The quality of Machado’s arm is beyond doubt even while throwing at odd angles or without the feet completely set, and it could make up for potential deficiencies in other areas. The footwork can be tricky, but Machado passed his first test last night.
With J.J. Hardy still signed for two more seasons, Machado’s position of the near, and likely long-term, future is still probably third base. Should Hardy’s bat decline even further to be unplayable — or should he suffer more injuries — Machado should provide an option at shortstop. Machado gives the Orioles added flexibility with the bench should they have a solid bat who can play some third base. The transition is still in its early stages, and it is likely to be temporary or perhaps infrequent, but right now, Machado still looks like he has the chops to slide over to shortstop.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.