Saturday, July 6, 2013

Happy Birthday Manny

Manuel Arturo Machado turned 21 today. Along with Chris Davis, he is the primary offensive driver behind the Orioles’ 48-40 record. He’s batting .316, seventh in the league, and leading the majors with 38 doubles. According to advanced fielding metrics, he’s also playing the best third base in the league.

You don’t often hear about a 21-year-old leading his team. But Machado isn’t like most  21-year-olds. That has been obvious since he joined the Orioles last August at age 20. Probably more than anything else, this play showed us all that he’s something special. 

This game was on September 12. The Orioles were in a pennant race, tied with the Yankees for first. The game was tied 2-2 in the ninth. This brilliant play ended a scoring threat in a game the Orioles went on to win 3-2 on a Nate McLouth single in the last of the ninth that scored, naturally, Manny Machado.

Three things about this play:
  1. It was heady baseball. It’s the kind of play you associate with a smart, slick-fielding veteran, like Adrian Beltre or Evan Longoria. Earlier, it’d be Scott Rolen. Long ago, it’d be Orioles legend Brooks Robinson. Savvy play.
  2. Manny Machado was a 20-year old in the heat of a pennant race. In other words, he was playing baseball at the highest level at a time when most of us were cracking the books at the start of our junior year in college.
  3. This was Machado’s 33rd game at third base in his professional career. He was drafted as a shortstop and played 203 games there in the minors. He played two games at third at Class AA Bowie before he was recalled to the Orioles. He made this gem on his 33rd day of on-the-job training.

He put up good enough numbers for his age: .262 batting average, .445 slugging percentage, 18 extra base hits in 51 games. Going into the year, the forecast by Baseball Prospectus in its 2013 Annual seemed reasonable: “Expect Machado’s 2013 to be more struggles than triumphs.” After all, he entered the year just 20 years old, with only 219 minor league and 51 major league games under his belt, coming off a season in which he had only a .294 on-base percentage. Instead, he’s having a historic season.

How historic? A lot of people have focused on his doubles. With 38 through 87 games, he’s on pace for 71. The all-time record is 67, by Earl Webb of the Red Sox in 1931, one of the great flukes in baseball history. Webb played in the majors only seven years, was a regular only three years, and had only one season with more than 30 doubles. Yet his record has stood for 81 years. The closest anyone’s come to breaking it since World War II was in 2000, when Todd Helton had 59 and Carlos Delgado had 57. For that reason, I’ll take the under on Machado getting 67.

But here’s how he ranks among players 20 or younger for doubles in a season, using Baseball-Reference's invaluable Play Index:
    Player          Year Age Doubles
 1. Alex Rodriguez  1996  20   54
 2. Vada Pinson     1959  20   47
 3. Ted Williams    1939  20   44
 4. Cesar Cedeno    1971  20   40
    Johnny Bench    1968  20   40
 6. Manny Machado   2013  20   38
    Orlando Cepeda  1958  20   38
 8. Mickey Mantle   1952  20   37
    Mel Ott         1929  20   37

Now, that is a good neighborhood. Five Hall of Famers, two great players who burned out early, Machado, and I'm-not-going-there.

A note here: As I said, Machado’s 21. The age convention for baseball players is based on their age on June 30. So in 2013, Machado's lumped in with 20 year olds, even though he's now 21. You might say, “Oh come on, we’re talking six days’ difference.” Fair enough. So how does Machado rank among players 21 or younger? Not as high, of course:
    Player          Year Age Doubles
 1. Alex Rodriguez  1996  20   54
 2. Ryan Zimmerman  2006  21   47
    Albert Pujols   2001  21   47
    Vada Pinson     1959  20   47
 5. Hal Trosky      1934  21   45
 6. Ted Williams    1939  20   44
    Joe DiMaggio    1936  21   44
 8. Ted William     1940  21   43
 9. Ken Griffey Jr. 1991  21   42
10. Alex Rodriguez  1997  21   40
    Cesar Cedeno    1971  20   40
    Johnny Bench    1968  20   40
    Joe Medwick     1933  21   40
    Dick Bartell    1929  21   40
15. Cesar Cedeno    1972  22   39
16. Manny Machado   2013  20   38
    Delmon Young    2007  21   38
    Orlando Cepeda  1958  20   38

But look again at that list. He’s only three doubles out of the top ten. And the peer group includes four more Hall of Famers - DiMaggio, Medwick, and, in time, Griffey and Pujols.

Remember, we're comparing Manny Machado on July 6 to everyone else over a full season. As I said, I'll take the under on 67. But the list of other players who've hit this many doubles at such a young age suggests that we're seeing someone who's likely to remain a top performer for a long time.

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