Manny Machado and a young hitter's development

After some second-half struggles, Manny Machado needs to make a few adjustments at the plate next season. - Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At times this season, Manny Machado looked almost superhuman. But prior to his injury, the third baseman's second-half struggles at the plate revealed even he has some adjustments to make against major league pitching.

Prior to his season-ending knee injury, Manny Machado had been one of the best and most valuable players in baseball this season. As has been well documented, his elite defense at third base reminds more than a few Orioles fans of Brooks Robinson, with Machado ranking in the top five among all major leaguers in UZR, UZR/150, and defensive runs saved in 2013. The 21-year-old’s defensive prowess is a large reason why he is 10th in the majors in WAR at 6.1 and ahead of far older and more established stars like Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Joe Mauer.

His skills with the bat aren’t too shabby either, as Machado leads the American League in doubles, and his 187 hits still represent the third-highest total in the majors. Yet lost amid this avalanche of two-baggers are the growing pains that Machado suffered through at the plate as the season wore on.

Though he dazzled in the opening months of 2013, Machado took his fair share of offensive lumps in the season’s second half. After posting a .310/.337/.470 line with a 119 wRC+ prior to the All-Star Break, the precocious Oriole hit .240/.277/.370 in 254 at-bats before the knee injury. His second-half wRC+ (73) was well below league-average during this span, while his BABIP dropped from an admittedly unsustainable .361 to a meager .260 after the Midsummer Classic. Though he looked poised to make a run at Earl Webb’s 80-year-old record for most doubles in a single season, Machado only hit a double once in every 20.8 at-bats in the second half after belting a double in every 10.6 at-bats in the first half.

None of these facts should concern Orioles fans over their prized third baseman’s long-term prospects. Rather, Machado’s regression in August and September speaks to how unsustainable—and remarkable— his all-around performance was in the season’s initial months. That .361 BABIP was always going to drop back down, and having never hit above .276 at any level in the minor leagues, there was little chance Machado would continue at such a tremendous rate in his first full major league season.

Nevertheless, Machado has some legitimate adjustments to make at the plate moving forward, many of which typify the normal development path for young hitters at the major league level. The 21-year-old’s .313 on-base percentage wasn’t terrible, but the rareness with which he walked or even saw multiple pitches in a given at-bat began to stand out in September. Machado’s 4.1% walk rate was the ninth-lowest in the majors, while his 3.53 pitches seen per plate appearance ranked as the 11th-lowest mark in baseball, two factors that were central to his second-half struggles, especially as his BABIP dipped back toward league average.

The key for Machado moving forward won’t just be to simply walk more, but rather to pair his aggressiveness at the plate with a more measured, patient approach. Machado’s aggression—his ability to jump on a pitcher’s mistake and drive it—is one of his greatest assets. Balancing this ability with a smarter approach that will allow Machado to better identify which pitches he should take and which ones he should attack is simply the next step in his player development, and an adjustment that is common among young hitters. Fellow AL East youngsters Wil Myers and Will Middlebrooks have encountered similar growing pains in 2013 and had to fine-tune their respective approaches as a result.

Ultimately, such adjustments are part of the normal process hitters must go through to become more consistent performers. The fact Baltimore has trusted Machado to make these modifications at the major league level at such a young age speaks volumes to both his maturity and extraordinary physical ability.

Machado’s dip in offensive performance in the second half has done nothing to dim his future potential, or even his present value. He remains an incredible talent at the age of 21, someone whose all-around game and bat-to-ball skills at the plate are simply remarkable for a player who is so young. His value to the Orioles, moreover, will only increase if/when they move him to shortstop.

That Baltimore believed Machado could take his lumps, but still find a way to succeed in the majors despite less than a season’s worth of experience in Double-A is telling. His performance in the majors since his call-up last August has been even more telling.

. . .

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

Alex Skillin is a Staff Writer for Beyond the Box Score and also a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.


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