What’s Up With Manny Machado?

In this, The Year of Higher Launch Angles and Homer and Strikeout Spikes, most of the game’s marquee offensive players have joined the party. Mike Trout was Mike Trout when healthy, Bryce Harper is back, while Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, and others are leading the youth brigade. In the meantime, though, has anyone seen Manny Machado?

You know, the other contender, besides Harper, for the largest contract in the sport’s history. The guy who won’t turn 25 for a couple weeks, who is actually a couple weeks younger than Judge. He’s tooling around with an on-base percentage straddling .300 and a slugging mark under .450. The Orioles clearly have many bigger problems than their young third baseman, but if they want to go anywhere at all, they need him to start looking like a franchise player.

Today, let’s look at his 2017 body of work, including his strikeout and walk rates, plus the exit-velocity and launch-angle mix of every ball he’s put into play this season, to see whether his issues are real, or if he’s simply suffering from small-sample misfortune — or, perhaps, a combination of the two.

Machado was the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, a 17-year-old slam-dunk prospect featuring five tools, solid present production, and projection. Innate, joyful feel for the game, to boot. The minor leagues could not contain him; just over two years after signing, he was in the O’s lineup. Amazingly, the numbers he put up as a 19-year-old are virtually the same ones he’s posting this season. Not exactly what the O’s were expecting.

Each season, I prepare my own set of minor-league position-player rankings. They’re statistically based, with players needing to meet certain age/production levels to qualify. The list serves mainly as a master follow list of full-season-league prospects; the rankings themselves are secondary, and traditional scouting methods are used afterward. Still, for a youthful middle infielder whose physical ship had yet to come in, to rank 16th and 21st in 2011 and 2012, respectively, was quite a distinction; there are no positional adjustments in my system.

So, he met the eye test, met the numbers test, and quickly established himself as a Gold Glove third baseman who could easily slide over to shortstop and be an asset there if need be. The power showed up in 2015, cementing him as one of the most valuable assets in the game. At the time, he looked like a hit-before-power guy whose power had developed. Guys like that who also play elite defense on the tough side of the defensive spectrum are pure gold.

So what’s going on in 2017? In the two tables below, let’s look at Machado’s plate appearance frequency and ball-in-play authority data for 2016-17:

Plate Appearance Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Machado 17 7.7% 35.8% 14.0% 42.5% 21.1% 9.1%
Machado 16 6.1% 36.6% 20.0% 37.3% 17.2% 6.9%

BIP Authority/Overall Production Data
Machado 17 98 91-162 135-149 122-122 126 91 118
Machado 16 131 111-148 124-117 152-140 140 129 140

The first table breaks down all of Machado’s batted balls by type and also lists his K and BB rates for both 2016 and 2017. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. As usual, when I do these sorts of tables, red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average; orange cells are over one STD above; yellow cells over one-half-STD above; blue cells over one-half STD below; and black cells over one STD below league average.

The concepts of Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Score are central to the second table above. Unadjusted Contact Score (1st column) represents Machado’s production relative to the league (average of 100) on all batted balls — i.e., his production with K and BB stripped from his batting line. Adjusted Contact Score is what Machado “should have” batted relative to the league if each of his batted balls produced at a league-average rate for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket”. Columns 2-4 list Machado’s Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for flies, liners, and grounders, respectively. Column 5 lists his overall Adjusted Contact Score, column 6 lists his actual wRC+, and Column 7 lists his Projected Production (Adjusted Contact Score with the K and BB added back to the equation). All data extends through Friday night’s games. Red font indicates that an extreme grounder-pulling penalty was applied to his Adjusted Contact Score and Projected Production level.

So what have we got? Let’s start with the frequency data. The very high pop-up rate is the first thing that jumps out. While it’s not that unusual for a power hitter to pop up quite a bit, it is unusual for a hitter with an average-range fly-ball rate to record a pop-up rate over a full standard deviation above league average. He’s encroaching upon two STD at this point. His pop ups as a percentage of his flies are in the danger zone. This is the darker side of the increased launch angle: once you get above 35 degrees on any individual fly ball, the odds of it becoming an out increase exponentially. That’s one point in favor of there being an actual problem, rather than simple small-sample noise.

Now for some small-sample noise. That 14.0% liner rate ranks with the very lowest among AL regulars. The good news here is that individual hitters’ liner rates correlate very poorly from year to year compared to those of other BIP types. Machado’s liner rate ranked in the 91st and 71st percentiles among AL regulars in his first two full seasons, and in the 19th and 39th his last two. While it is a bit concerning that his liner rate has been low since his power kicked in, I’m still willing to bank on a near-term rebound in the second half.

Otherwise, it’s a pretty vanilla frequency profile. There’s a little room for his fly-ball rate to grow, but he’s got to do something about the pop ups. Strikeouts have never been a big problem for Machado, but while he’s still in the average range in that department, he’s been trending upward. Something else to keep an eye on. On to the authority/production profile.

Obviously, Machado’s actual performance on batted balls (his Unadjusted Contact Score) is way down, from 131 in 2016 to 98 in 2017. Again, our aim is to determine how much of that is real, and how much is due to random chance.

Machado would benefit from (a) a more all-fields approach and (b) better luck. (Photo: Keith Allison)

On fly balls, Machado has been bitten quite a bit by context this season. His Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 91 is actually below league average, while his adjusted mark of 162 is well above. His average fly-ball authority of 95.6 mph ranks among the league’s best and is well above his 2016 average of 90.4. Normally, such a high average velocity would translate to an even higher Adjusted Contact Score, but it’s a bit misleading in this case, as Machado hasn’t hit a single blooper under 75 mph all season, while hitting 17 cans of corn between 85-95 mph.

Another key note on the fly balls, which would also support Machado getting more air production as the summer heat turns up. A few weeks back I posted my first 2017 interim progress report on seasonal park factors. I use the same logic used to determine Adjusted Contact Scores to derive park factors — i.e., what has happened to batted balls vs. what should have happened. Through May 20, Camden Yards had an 82.5 overall park factor and an even lower 71.4 fly-ball park factor. Cool early spring in the mid-Atlantic. Since then, the O’s pitching staff has imploded, and those factors have certainly begun to tick upward. Bottom line: the power side of Machado’s game is intact.

Machado absolutely scalds his line drives. A 149 Liner Adjusted Contact Score is elite level, and it’s well up from 2016. His average liner has been hit at 102.1 mph, up from 98.3 in 2016. He’s been a tad unlucky on them (135 Unadjusted Contact Score), but no big deal. On the rare occasion that he’s hit a liner, he’s toasted it. Here’s to more toasted liners in the second half.

Now to the nub of the issue, the grounders. He hits them plenty hard, at an average of 91.2 mph in 2017, and 90.3 in 2016. That’s well above league average. Problem is, he has developed an extreme pull tendency, which I define as hitting more than five times as many grounders to the pull side than the other way. Around that point, defenses begin to overshift, and a hard cap forms over a hitter’s ground-ball production. I cap such hitters’ adjusted grounder production at their actual production level, which in Machado’s case, isn’t bad. Based on his actual authority level, he “should” be hitting over 50 points higher on grounders, if only he used the field.

Machado is fortunate to still be hitting in the .250 range on grounders; ask Ryan Howard, David Ortiz, and others how low one’s grounder average can go once you become an exclusive puller. There is real downside here. Machado is way too young to be falling into this trap. Hitters can get intoxicated by the long ball and try to force the issue. This guy, at this stage in his career, can hit 30 homers by mistake, and with his contact-making ability, there is no reason that a .300 average shouldn’t also be an annual occurrence. He has to nip this grounder-pulling thing in the bud.

So, once it’s all factored in, Machado “should” have a 126 Adjusted Contact Score, rather than his 98 unadjusted mark, and 118 Projected Production, rather than a 91 wRC+. A stingy home park in April/May is no fault of his own, and that low liner rate should at least partially take care of itself. A player with such defensive chops with 118 Projected Production is a darned good player.

Thing is, Machado should be better than that. We should be talking about him with the Trouts and Harpers. He must get back to hit-before-power, rather than his current power-before-hit modus operandi. If he weren’t so power-focused, that pop-up rate would probably drift downward, and he’d spray bullets all over the infield to keep defenders honest. Then we’d be seeing the 140+ wRC+ younger version of Josh Donaldson that we know is in there.

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6 years ago

Great player to watch but anyone else surprised his wRC+ is only 115 for his career? For a guy about to break the bank that seems pedestrian. When compared to his perceived value.

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

hes taken off the last two years, silly to judge his career numbers when hes 19 and 20 years old. and considering hes only 24 there was reason to expect him to reach those monster levels as he entered his prime.

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

. His first 3 years at age 20-22 were league average offensively. He broke out the last 2 years. Harper only had 1 great year in his first 4 years. Only Trout has been consistently great after his first year

6 years ago
Reply to  Paul22

He put up 8.6 war in 260 games across his first two seasons (wRC+ of 121 and 137), I know the bar’s sky-high for him but those are absolutely not “league-average” seasons for anyone, much less somebody not old enough to drink.

6 years ago
Reply to  Eltneg

Through 2014 his career wRC+ was 103. His WAR was supported almost entirely by his defense.