Even as a fan of a different AL East team, seeing Manny Machado go down with a knee injury this Monday saddened me. Fortunately, reports indicate the injury is not as serious as originally feared, and Machado could return for spring training. Machado is part of a class of young stars that have simultaneously taken baseball by storm and wrecked the grading curve for everyone to come after them. People are already giving up on Jurickson Profar because he isn’t a star at an age when most players are in Low-A ball. Bryce Harper ranks in the top 20 in the MLB in wRC+ at the age of 20, and hardly anybody notices. Anyways, I digress. So where does Machado’s age-20 season rank?
Machado compiled 6.2 WAR in 2013, good for 10th in the MLB. In the last 55 years, only Alex Rodriguez in 1996 and Mike Trout in 2012 have posted a higher WAR in their age-20 season. Of course, there were some better seasons before then, but Machado probably wouldn’t have been allowed to play in those days.
Unlike Rodriguez and Trout, Machado’s offensive numbers, while impressive for a 20 year-old are league average overall. A-rod had a 159 wRC+ in ’96, and Trout had a 166 wRC+ last year. Machado managed a 101 wRC+, providing most of his value with the glove. UZR credited him with 31 runs saved, best in the majors. After a very hot start that was fueled by an inflated BABIP, Machado slowed down.
So what can Orioles fans expect from Machado going forward?
Machado is an aggressive contact hitter. His walk rate of 4.1% is one of the lowest in the MLB, and his strikeout rate of 15.9% is well below the MLB average. While Machado will never be Joey Votto, the walk rate will improve as he matures. His minor league walk rate was above 10%. Additionally, Machado should hit for more power. I could just say that he hit 51 doubles and those will turn into home runs. But, that would be lazy, and doubles don’t always turn into home runs as a player develops. Sometimes they turn into singles. Just ask Nick Markakis.
However, there are other reasons to believe Machado will hit for power. First of all, he has excellent bat speed, and there’s no lack of raw power. Some of the home runs he has hit are very impressive. Of the 14, ESPN Home Run Tracker classifies 10 of them as either No Doubters or Plenty. The average speed off the bat was just a shade behind Robinson Cano. Furthermore, despite playing in one of the best home run ballparks in the league, and having an average fly ball distance on par with Nick Swisher, Machado’s HR/FB ratio of 7.9% is in the bottom third of the MLB. Bet on this ratio improving. While he does have a very high rate of infield flies (9th in MLB), he should be able to bring that down with improved discipline.
Hopefully for Orioles fans and baseball fans, Machado will have a complete recovery from his knee injury. It might be hard to live up to expectations after producing a 6.2 WAR season at age 20, but with improved offense Machado could be up to the task. Expect the plate discipline and power to improve, as the defense inevitably regresses from a season that stretched the upper bounds of UZR. It’s a very small group he’s in, but star players at age 20 tend to be stars at 25.