Manny Machado is in some good company regarding the start of his career. But where will he go from here? Marc Normandin takes a look.
Manny Machado is something of a baseball rarity. From 1901 through 2012, the 112 seasons cataloged by the ineffable Baseball Reference, just 35 19-year-old players accrued at least 200 plate appearances in the major leagues. Machado is the latest of those (along with the district-next-door's Bryce Harper), thanks to 202 plate appearances as the Orioles' third baseman, and his .262/.294/.445 line earned him the 12th-highest OPS+ among these 35.
In a vacuum, that's not an impressive showing -- the batting average is a bit low, the on-base percentage more so, and while there's some pop there, it's not enough to off-set the damage of the first two slashes. Machado didn't play in a vacuum, though, as his youth puts him in an infinitesimally exclusive group -- those 35 players are the only ones out of over 16,000 to ever pick up a bat in a major league game to play as much as Machado did at the tender age of 19. For the mathematically inclined out there, Machado is in the top 99.998 percentile of all players in history because of this. No wonder Stephen King, baseball fan, has an affinity for those particular digits.
Color the baseball world impressed due to the rarity of what Machado has already accomplished, but what truly matters for the youth is what he does going forward. He's no longer a 19-year-old in his rookie campaign in the majors, as in 2013, he'll be in his age-20 season*, looking to prove that he can stick at the hot corner while waiting for the comparatively old man James Jerry Hardy to lose his grasp on Machado's natural position of shortstop.
*Just in case you forgot how aging, or counting to 20, works.
Just what should the world expect from Machado next season? One way to play this guessing game is through projections, but we're sadly at an early part of the off-season: because of this, our selection for toys is limited. Bill James releases his projections early on, though, and for Machado, that means a mix of joy and disappointment.
James' system has Machado bumping his walk rate from 4.5 percent to eight percent -- much closer to his minor-league production -- while simultaneously tearing a small chunk out of his strikeout rate. That's the positive portion, while the negative is Machado's overall line dipping to .256/.315/.419. The extra times on base are nice and all, but where Machado wowed was with homers. Historically, he hasn't hit many, but we're also talking about what a 17- and 18-year-old kid did in the low minors. You would expect more power as he gets older and gains experience, not less. Of course, we're talking about a projection system -- this isn't the gospel according to baseball, and there's a very good chance Machado over a full season sets a career-high for homers as a professional simply by playing every day and being a year older and presumably wiser.
In Machado's case, projections would seem to be inherently unreliable given so few players have been in his situation. Sure, these are refined systems built with testing and care, but even the very best don't get everyone right (as a certain infamous Matt Wieters projection might suggest). Instead, let's look at the very best -- and worst -- that 20-year-old baseball players in their second season in the majors have had to offer throughout history.
This group is larger than the last, but still miniscule: just 74 players ever have picked up 200 plate appearances as a 20-year-old in their second season. You might recognize a few of the top names on the list:
Mike Trout would be a fine place for Machado to land on the 20-year-old board, but let's be realistic; Machado is talented, but Trout is considered a generational talent for a reason. Expecting that kind of follow-up campaign from Machado is asking for disappointment. Abstractly speaking, Ty Cobb would be nice, but maybe you want Machado to be a little less racist, a little more socially progressive, and less concerned with the heat-alleviating chemistry of cold oatmeal beverages. Looking at the spread of years here should give you an idea of how the game has changed -- players don't debut this young very often anymore, not since baseball left its personal stone age.
There are exceptions in this top 10, though, both of whom are Mariners. Alex Rodriguez was drafted in 1993 as a 17-year-old, and played 17 games in the majors the next season. Seattle stuck him in the minors once more for 1995, though, limiting his major-league time, but let him loose at age-20, where he led the American League in batting average and total bases while finishing second in the Most Valuable Player race. A year before that, heading into the 1995 season, Rodriguez was rated the top prospect in the minors by Baseball America. Machado ranked No. 11 on the same list heading into 2012, and while he would certainly rate higher heading into his own age-20 campaign, he's no longer eligible thanks to the time spent in the bigs.
Then there's Ken Griffey Jr., who made it to the majors to stay just a little quicker than Rodriguez did back in 1989. Griffey was drafted in 1987, but signed immediately, making it to the majors less than two years later after just 129 games on the farm. Machado's 219 games is quick, but it's not Griffey quick. Again, while Machado is special, he's probably not Griffey, and again, this is not an insult.
On the more positive side for Machado, nearly every 20-year-old to finish their second season with a below-average bat had the courtesy to do so before 1980. There are exceptions -- Andruw Jones, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Alan Trammell -- but those guys turned out well enough. All of the very worst, save Jose Oquendo's 1984, came before 1972. Part of that is the inherent rarity of 20-year-old players with some experience behind them already, but part of it is also a natural bias in the sample: only the best-of-the-best are going to even get the opportunity to push their way into the majors at such a young age, and for the most part, recent history has those players showing exactly why it is their precocious selves have been allowed into an exclusive club.
So, where is Machado going to end up? As with most things in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. That's where Justin Upton, Adrian Beltre, and a few dozen others of the 74 ended up, rather than at the extremes that are mostly dominated by players from ages gone by. If Machado can pull off the average-or-better thing for a full year, though, in just his second taste of the bigs, that's impressive in its own right. After all, he's just a kid, not even old enough to drink the spiked Kool Aid his most-loyal devotees are drinking. Still, there's a reason those scouts, fans, and analysts are pouring one out for Machado, and it's because, like so few before him, this particular kid is special for what he's already done and what he has yet to do.