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Machado off to slow second-half start driving the fastball

After an MVP trek through his first three months, the Orioles third baseman’s offense has skidded off the road since the start of July. For Machado, one of baseball’s best fastball hitters, the heater currently has his bat stopped in park.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

For whatever reason, right-handed swings just aren’t as pretty as lefties. Organically majestic, lefty swings always seem to pair forceful beginnings with graceful endings, yet one slice of baseball’s overall beauty. Of course, there are a few exceptions to one of baseball’s natural laws.

Even at 36, Albert Pujols’s ability to hit the inside of the baseball is still quite the feat given he’s had nearly his entire back leg reconstructed. As painful as it is to watch him run to first base, he can still extend through a baseball as good as anyone and look better than most doing it. There’s also Miguel Cabrera; though lacking what would be typified as a “pretty” swing, he is still the most mechanically sound hitter in today’s game, and to most, that is indeed pretty.

Yet another deviation from the standard is Manny Machado, who exemplifies the old baseball scripture of “short to it, long through it”.

Oh, hey good lookin’...

One would hope to believe that an infatuating swing such as Machado’s would produce at a level parallel to its appearance, and for most of this season, it has. Through June, Machado’s .335/.391/.611 slash and 18 home runs catalyzed a 163 wRC+ and .275 ISO, fueling realistic MVP chatter. In July, however, Machado was humbled. Having rolled through the first three months of 2016 with a “if you ain’t first you’re last” attitude, more recently Machado’s looked afraid to go fast.

In what is now a fairly heavy slump, Machado’s past month consisted of a .204/.288/.337 slash line, while his 65 wRC+ was second-lowest among all major league third basemen. Machado’s blossoming power had been frozen, as his .133 ISO in July was half-of, and then some, his ISO in the first three months (.275). As hard as it is to hit a round ball with a round bat, there are times of expected misses, but a 25-game sample size of cold rolled struggles doesn’t seem right for a player as gifted as Machado.

Traditionally one of baseball’s most notorious fastball hitters, Machado has certainly seen a shift in terms of fastball placement over the course of the past month. Granted, the August sample size of three games isn’t enough to prove the notion true, but Machado may be seeing more fastballs because he couldn’t handle the fastball in July.

Machado is as good as any right-handed hitter in baseball at keeping his hands tight to his body and squaring his hips to the baseball on the inner half of the plate. It’s one of the things that has led to such a tremendous offensive outburst. However, where Machado was being challenged over the heart of the plate in the first-half of the year, he’s been consciously pitched further and further inside with the fastball. Such an attacking blueprint has withered away at Machado’s power on the inside corner.

Pitches on which Machado provided ample exit velocity earlier in the year are now being both beaten into the ground or popped up, and in July, Machado saw a tremendous downturn in pull power, despite being intently pitched around his belt. Machado’s hard-hit percentage never squandered in July, hovering at 34.6 percent, but a soft-contact rate of 28.4 percent was a seasonal high in any given month this year. An unusual compounding of soft contact, ground balls and baseballs being hit toward center field isn’t typical to Machado’s game.

As much as Machado has struggled with the fastball, you don’t post a -4.0 wRAA by limiting your issues to only one pitch. You kind of have to stink against everything.

Aligning with his early fastball successes was initial mashing of any hanging breaking ball or off-speed pitch towards his side of the plate. The ability to adjust mid-pitch, as you have to with nearly all secondary offerings, is a testament to Machado’s ability to recognize, be patient, and finish with his incredibly forcible hands exploding through the zone. Though the overall approach of pitchers to Manny with the slow stuff hasn’t changed, he isn’t taking advantage of mistakes.

And to credit the other side, Machado hasn’t had a lot of pitches to do damage with as of late. He’s been pitched tough. One of the downsides of being such a good player is that pitchers tend to notice you more, and in turn add a little extra in terms of executing a pitch. Whether that’s being more cautious to avoid the middle of the plate, purposefully missing down, or throwing the inside fastball just a tad farther in, it can be frustrating to see so much in-season success be stunted by not having anything to hit.

Machado owned baseball’s seventh-lowest zone rate in July at 36.3 percent, and though Manny is certainly willing to take his walks, his swing rate stayed relatively on plane with his previous monthly numbers. So of course, he swung at more bad pitches (34.2 percent O-Swing rate). That sort of differing approach from a hitter who isn’t known to delve away from the strike zone will likely make him susceptible to things he hadn’t been before. Prior to July, Machado slugged .843 with a .427 ISO against the fastball, though since then, Machado has hit .259 with with a matching ISO against the four-seamer. In, out, up, down and with everything, Machado’s been pitched to for about a month now, and in a season of 162 games, there’ll be stretches of such mediocrity.

Even from the best.

Nick is a weekly writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as Camden Chat, SB Nation’s Baltimore Orioles blog. If you so choose, you can follow his Orioles musings on Twitter at @Swissere.