After seeing two straight seasons end with knee surgery, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado returned with an explosive offensive season in 2015.
His 134 wRC+ was 31 percent higher than his previous career number (103 wRC+ from 2012-2014), and his .216 ISO was significantly higher than the power he had previously demonstrated (.155 ISO from 2012-2014). Machado hit 35 home runs and stole 20 bases, each number larger than his pre-2015 career totals.
Machado also featured career-low ground-ball and strikeout rates while producing new high hard-hit and walk rates (the latter rate is more than double his 4.6 percent rate from 2012-2014). His offense dramatically improved in every area. Combined with his trademark third base defense, the 23 year old is one of the most valuable young players in baseball.
Machado's improved pitch recognition and patience at the plate are responsible for the improvement.
Machado noticeably dropped his chase percentage by 10.4 percentage points, year-over-year. In addition, his outside contact rate increased by 6.5 percentage points, and he swung less in the zone while making more contact there as well.
As a result, his whiff rate dropped by 4.1 percentage points and was one of the thirty lowest such rates in baseball. Beyond just better recognizing pitches in/out of the zone, Machado was significantly better at laying off secondary offerings.
Machado did swing a bit less at fastballs (per Brooks Baseball, 44.0 percent in 2015 versus 48.3 percent in 2014), but it was a decrease far outpaced by his drop in swings against breaking and off-speed pitches.
In 2014, he swung at 50.0 percent of breaking balls and 56.4 percent of offspeed pitches. Those rates dropped precipitously to 37.9 percent against breaking balls and 46.2 percent against offspeed pitches in 2015 (12.1 percentage point and 10.2 percentage point drops, respectively).
Looking at his zone profile, it also appears that Machado was targeting pitches in and pitches high more than in past years.
Machado was willing to accept more whiffs above the zone in order to generate more fly balls and hard contact in the zone. The idea that avoiding low pitches would decrease weak, ground-ball contact is pretty intuitive, but it is quite another thing to identify those pitches in real time, which Machado managed to do.
The result of this better contact has been the increase in walks, drop in strikeouts, and a large jump in power.
Machado's 2015 power was more concentrated in the zone than in prior seasons and was particularly high up in the zone. In total he featured isolated power above .240 in seven out of nine sections of the strike zone.
The Orioles third baseman is certainly one of the best batters in the majors. It appears that the best option opposing pitchers might have is peppering sinkers down-and-away in the strike zone. That's the one area of the zone where Machado is liable to swing, whiff, and not hit for power.
That's probably a safe conclusion to draw about a large majority of hitters, and it is basically how the Astros built their pitching staff this season, but the penalty for attempting other strategies seems to be disproportionately higher against Machado than other hitters.
In 2015, Manny Machado fulfilled his prospect potential and emerged as one of the top position players in all aspects of the game. By adding an All-Star caliber bat to what was already one of the best gloves at any position, he produced 6.8 fWAR in 2015 and was the second-most valuable third baseman (behind MVP Josh Donaldson).
It appears that Machado developed significantly improved pitch recognition and plate discipline in 2015, focusing on high and in fastballs. He sacrificed contact on those pitches in return for a large power boost, especially up in the zone. However, by laying off pitches outside and low, his strikeout and walk rates still improved to be the best figures of his career.
The season was so strong, in fact, that Steamer currently projects Machado to be among 2016's five most-valuable hitters. If he maintains his 2015 development, he should be among the best players in baseball in any age bracket.
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Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.