Last year, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper had two of the best seasons for age-19/age-20 players in baseball history. We might not ever see anything like Trout’s 2012 season from a 20-year-old again. Those two ruined our expectations for what underaged position players are supposed to do in the big leagues. Everyone else pales in comparison to what we just saw.
That shouldn’t cause us to overlook the fact that there’s another 20-year-old putting his mark on Major League Baseball right now. In Baltimore, Manny Machado is showing the early signs of being a superstar.
For instance, let’s just start with a fun little comparison to another third baseman who came up at a similar point in his career. This is their MLB performance through their age-20 season.
Miguel Cabrera is going to go down as one of the best right-handed hitters of all time. Manny Machado, through a similar number of plate appearances accrued at roughly the same point in his career, has put up an almost identical batting line. Other hitters who were slightly above average through their age-20 season? Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Roberto Alomar, and Joe Torre, to name a few.
Of course, 350 solid plate appearances at a young age doesn’t guarantee greatness, as Machado’s numbers are also pretty similar to what Ruben Sierra put up at the same point in his career. Machado probably isn’t going to turn into Miguel Cabrera, who was always lauded for his exceptional offensive abilities as a prospect. Machado has never been lauded as that kind of hitter.
But, Machado doesn’t have to be that kind of hitter to be a superstar. Despite the fact that they have similar numbers to start their careers, and both are listed at the same position on the line-up card, Machado is far more than just a hitter. In fact, his defense is his real calling card right now.
While you need to heavily regress defensive metrics in a 700 inning sample, it’s still worth noting that both UZR and DRS have Machado at +12 in a half season’s worth of playing time, and since he was only moved off of shortstop because of the presence of J.J. Hardy, we should expect that he’d grade out as an above average defender at third base. Machado’s profile as a prospect always suggested he could be a true shortstop, so we’re essentially seeing a guy play a position that he’s overqualified for. Even if he projected as just an average shortstop, we’d expect him to be something like a +5 third baseman just based on the difference between his peers at the two spots.
So, no, you shouldn’t expect Machado to keep up his +25 UZR/150 pace. However, you shouldn’t be regressing him back to zero either. The rest-of-season forecasts for both ZIPS and Steamer, which add in significant regression, both project +7 defense over the next five months, which works out to a forecast of about +10 runs saved over an average third baseman for a full year. Calling Machado a +10 defender at third after just a few hundred innings might seem aggressive, but for a guy who is a natural shortstop and has effortlessly made the conversion to a new position, it’s probably in the right ballpark.
If Machado’s a +10 defender at third base, then even with league average offense, he’d be roughly a +3 win player right now. And the offense clearly has room to grow.
If we take all the players in the last 60 years — essentially, taking us back to the post-WWII era where things got somewhat back to normal — who posted a wRC+ between 100 and 110 through their age-20 season (minimum 300 PA) and then look at what they did at age 21, you see some huge steps forward.
A group that posted an average 104 wRC+ through age 20 jumped to an average of 124 at age 21. Machado is at the point where his offensive performance could trend upwards in a hurry, and this kind of leap — combined with his defensive value — would make him one of the best all around players in the game.
It’s hard not to look at Machado and see him as the heir apparent to Evan Longoria if he stays at third base. The bat might not be quite as Cabrera’s level, because Cabrera’s bat is one of the best we’ve ever seen, but when you add in the defense and athleticism, Machado has a chance to be a legitimate MVP contender, and perhaps in the not too distant future.
The game is absolutely flooded with superb young talent right now. A few years ago, we were writing about how spectacular Justin Upton was at a young age. Then it was Jason Heyward. Then it was Giancarlo Stanton. Then it was Trout and Harper. It seems like we’re writing these articles every year now.
But that doesn’t make them any less true, nor should we overlook what Machado is on track to turn into simply because we have great young player fatigue. Given what he’s done in his first few months in the majors, Machado is probably on the verge of becoming one of the game’s elite performers. Bryce Harper deserves all the accolades he’s been given, but let’s save some for the other great 20-year-old playing not too far away from the nation’s capitol.
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