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A Manny Machado Breakout?

Behind only Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in the banner crop of “under-22” phenoms rocketing into the baseball the last few years, Manny Machado still hadn’t fully convinced redraft owners heading into 2013. The SS-turned-3B was not drafted by a starter at the hot corner in standard leagues, coming off the board 189th (at least, in ESPN leagues), making him a mid-teens third baseman in the mid-teens rounds (for those in auction leagues, a $2-4 player). Owners willing to take a chance were rewarded with surplus value, as Machado finished 10th in Zach Sanders’ end-of-season FVAR rankings, posting $11 of sweet, sweet value. But is it rosy skies ahead in 2014 and beyond for the future face of the Orioles franchise?

Good news? Well, Machado is getting better with age! Yes, those 21-year-olds generally make strides after being in the bigs for a little while; in 2013, his strikeout rate fell from 18.8% to 15.9%, highlighted by decreases in his swinging strike rate and O-Swing%. At his young age, ability to whiff less is an expected, but certainly welcome sight. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear his ability to take a walk has improved all that much. Even though his discipline metrics are not too far off the league average, his BB% fell to 4.1%. This is a killer in OBP leagues; while Machado put up a solid .283 average, his .314 OBP was nothing to write home about. He posted 88 runs and 71 RBI, in large part thanks to the fact he strolled to the plate 710 times (4th in the AL, 7th in all of baseball).

With all those plate appearances, we know he’ll get enough counting stats to stick around the top-10 most years. Aside from the aforementioned flaws in OBP leagues, the one category that may be make or break for Machado is his power. In 2013, that power actually fell a bit. His .148 ISO was a fair bit lower than the .183 mark his posted his rookie year. Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t get an extra base hit, as he put up an astonishing 51 doubles in 2013. Poster boy for the old “doubles turn into home runs, adage?”

Searching for potential power improvements is an interesting job. His batted ball distance on fly balls was a rather unimpressive 278 feet. Add to that, when looking at where his homers land, and you’d think “man, all he can do is really, really pull the ball” as evidenced by the below figure (data courtesy of ESPN Home Run Tracker).

Machado_Manny_2013_scatter

Aside from one little poke just to the right of center, he appears to have the definition of “pull power.” While this is fine if you’re Mark McGwire circa “when he was sticking needles his backside,” it’s historically not been a successful strategy for young infielders who own mediocre batted ball distances. However, if we look a little deeper and find his actual spray chart (for 2012 and 2013, hattip Bill Petti), we see he’s not quite so one-minded as the homers would lead you to believe.

Machado 2012 2013

Machado actually does a very impressive job taking balls in the air (the above plot shows fly balls and line drives) to all parts of the field. He merely lacks to pop to homer beyond his pull side that his fellow youngsters (Trout and Harper, for example) have. There’s still plenty of time for Machado to turn a lot of those deep fly balls (all those doubles?) to center and right into home runs. However, given those batted ball distances and the fact power peaks at 26, that ceiling and window may not be as high and wide as people may think.

It’s not wholly unreasonable to think Machado is a 20ish home run hitter in his prime, as opposed to the 30-40 mark that cropped into scouting reports last season. While valuable in both real-life and fantasy, 20 homers is not what fantasy owners envisioned when they saw Machado ranked in the top 5-10 overall players on keeper/dynasty boards. Aside from his amazing glove (not counted in your league unless you manually added UZR as a category), he just hasn’t shown that upside exists yet; it remains projection.

And of course, we have to consider Machado’s injury as well. He suffered a gruesome tear to his medial patellar tendon during the last week of the season. Originally choosing the rest and rehab route, he eventually conceded he had to go under the knife and now is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. He is young and managed to avoid major ligament damage to the ACL/MCL combinations, so thankfully, it sounds like he’ll be productive eventually next season, but it may take a while for him to round into form (as well as do things like play day games after night games, etc.). All of this means you aren’t looking at the plate appearance return he gave you in 2013.

So where does that leave us? Machado remains a hold in dynasty and keeper leagues. If you were lucky enough to get in on the ground floor, you probably have him locked in at a decent rate through his ascension years. Of course, you could make a compelling argument that if he’s locked up so favorably, another owner might trip over themselves to value Machado has a top-5 overall player over the next 5-10 years. Selling the next “can’t miss hotshot” for five guys who can help me now in dynasty is always fun. However, for those in redraft leagues, there are serious question marks going into next season. Knee injury aside, we have a hitter still searching for walk rate improvements who showed mediocre power (and only to the pull side of the field) and accumulated starting 3B value through sheer volume.

Headed into his age 22 season, it’s ludicrous to think he’s at his ceiling, but putting him even just a tier behind other youngsters like Trout and Harper is probably a mistake, even if he does play a more premium position. Life gets more interesting if the Orioles dispose of J.J. Hardy and move him over the shortstop, but that’s unlikely to happen in 2014. Put this together and Machado is a prime candidate to be overdrafted in 2014. He’s unlikely to be significantly overdrafted (ironically, probably thanks to his knee issues), but may not be a guy value-minded owners will want to take a stab at in redraft leagues.