Where the Difference Has Been for Manny Machado

I watched Hisashi Iwakuma’s no-hitter, and I wrote about it, and in writing about it, I included the following screenshot:

iwakuma-elevated

That’s Jesus Sucre, setting up for a high fastball to Manny Machado. The pitch was executed well, and Iwakuma got his out. Now, writing about the no-hitter didn’t leave me much space to analyze individual matchups, but something I noticed was that Sucre set up high against Machado pretty often. Really, he just set up high pretty often, more often than in the average Iwakuma start, but it was the pitches to Machado that caught my eye, and it made me curious. Does Machado have a vulnerability upstairs, like last year’s version of Mike Trout? After finishing the no-hitter post, I turned my attention to Machado’s breakout year. Allow me to spoil the rest of this post: no. There is no high-pitch vulnerability. In fact, quite the opposite!

By now there’s a pretty good understanding of Machado’s big step forward. He’s sitting on a career-best batting line, with career-best power, career-best contact, and career-best patience. So he’s performed like one of the best players in baseball, and he’s remained healthy, and he’s 23 years old. He’s on track to be remembered as one of the greats, because he’s currently one of the greats, and all he has to do is keep that up. Not that that’s easy, but he’s very well positioned.

What I’ve given the most attention to before is Machado’s improved discipline. Generally speaking, a player either swings a lot or he doesn’t. You don’t see too much sudden refinement, but this year’s Machado has more of a clue. From our own swing-rate heat maps, behold 2014 Machado and 2015 Machado:

machado-2014-swing

machado-2015-swing

Far fewer swings low and away. Fewer swings in general. It’s not easy to explain improved discipline, but the most likely answer would be that Machado has just dedicated more of his time to learning what the pitchers are going to do to him. It doesn’t have to be that he just has better vision or something; he might just be better about recognizing patterns. You never know when a young player’s going to mature. I remember watching Felix Hernandez make the leap. This is probably Machado’s. It’s exciting.

But this goes beyond the discipline. I noted that the power is playing up. For a hint, consider this batted-ball velocity chart, from Baseball Savant:

machado-speed

I came in looking for a vulnerability against high pitches. It isn’t evident there — there, the highest batted-ball speeds are against high pitches. That isn’t enough on its own, so, look at Machado’s spray chart from last year against pitches in the upper half:

machado-up-2014

And now, this year, against pitches in the upper half:

machado-up-2015

It’s an incredible difference. Machado is catching up with those pitches, and he’s driving them, and he’s driving them to all fields. You see homers to left, homers to right, and some homers just to either side of center. This is a player who used to be known for his doubles. Before this year, all but eight of Machado’s home runs had been pulled. This is meaningful development, as Machado is putting more energy into the baseball.

And he’s having more success up, now, relative to lower in the zone or beyond it. I split all pitches so that they were either up or down, relative to the vertical middle of the zone. Stay with me here — there are a few details. A year ago, Machado slugged .399 against pitches down, and .481 against pitches up. So he had a difference of 82 points, which ranked him 97th-highest out of 265. You could say he had a slight preference up in the zone. Work through the details and it’s pretty simple.

Now, this year. This year, Machado has slugged .319 against pitches down, and .730 against pitches up, for a difference of 411 points. That ranks him highest, out of 198. So it’s a very strong preference up in the zone. Ideally, this could be done based on something other than batted-ball results, but we have to go with what we have, and it’s still pretty telling. Machado has done the bulk of his damage against elevated pitches. Previously, that hadn’t been the case.

That difference of 411 points is 329 points higher than the previous year’s difference of 82. It’s the fourth-biggest shift in baseball toward pitches up, behind Adrian Gonzalez, Trout, and Buster Posey. I don’t know what’s going on with two of those guys; maybe they’re worth their own analyses. We’ve looked at Trout, and now we’re looking at Machado. I entered this post curious if he’s showing a weakness against elevated pitches. Actually, he’s been much better against elevated pitches. That’s a huge, huge part of his overall improvement.

Annoyingly, Orioles broadcasts don’t seem to like to show many side-view hitting replays. So I gave up trying to look for video evidence of any changes. Helpfully, we can consider this recent interview:

Machado says he hasn’t changed his swing — rather, he just feels stronger in his lower body, after undergoing a couple operations. That much would make sense, and while a stronger lower body can still lead to swing changes, they wouldn’t be deliberate, like an altered hand path. Machado would just be finding that he has more forward drive in his swing. More power coming out of his legs, to transfer into the ball. As we all understand, the lower body is just as important as the upper body in a swing, and if Machado finds that his lower body is doing more than it used to, that would go a long way toward explaining his increase in pop. Throw in the better discipline and you have an elite-level 23-year-old, which is a sentence I both love and hate to type. (Kids these days are too good. It’s bad for my own self-confidence.)

Machado is batting with more of a clue, pitch to pitch. And he’s apparently batting with more lower-body strength and stability, swing to swing. The biggest visible change has been in his performance against pitches up, which he’s now driving all over the place like never before. And maybe that makes sense because, with pitches down, you can get your arms extended. Against pitches up, you might derive a greater proportion of your strength from your legs. I’m speculating here, but I think it makes sense, and it would definitely work as a simple answer.

Long story short: was Jesus Sucre on to something, when he set up high against Machado? Given that Machado struck out, you can’t say no. That pitch worked. Many pitches like it, though, have not worked. Not this year, not like they used to.





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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Jeff Long
6 years ago

You’re the best, other Jeff.