It's easy to forget how good of a ballplayer Manny Machado is.
Only two years ago did Manny finish ninth in the American League voting, slashing .283/.314/.432 to go with 14 home runs, a league leading 51 doubles and a Platinum Gold Glove. At the time, this 21-year-old appeared to be perhaps the second-best young'n in all of baseball behind Mike Trout, but those eye-gouging, heart-wrenching knee injuries seemed to temper expectations from the masses.
The first one was like watching Darth Vader tell Luke Skywalker he was his offspring. A roaring "NOOOOOOOOO!" with hours of cowering in a dark room could only be remedied with his resurgence the next spring. Then, on August 11 of 2014, a strange swing again ended Machado's season prematurely, right as the Orioles were destined for a second postseason berth in three years. Personally, watching him fall to the dirt that night ended with a multitude of expletives, thoughts of tears, some more F-bombs and questioning the purpose of life's existence.
Now, with hopes of long-term health just that, a hope, Machado is back as a starting Oriole, patrolling third base and batting a pivotal second-hole in the lineup. Manny struggled heavily out of the gate, but it appears "Hakuna Machado" has broken out of the funk, leaving Baltimore with no worries for this upcoming year.
For Machado, the first 11 games of 2015 were essentially anti-Adam Jones' blazing start (and Jones is still hitting the cover off the ball). From April 6-18, Machado was, as nice as one can put it, bad. He had only 5 hits in 44 at-bats (a .132 average), with one two-bagger, one home run, five walks and a strikeout rate of 20.5%. A lot of ground balls, not enough line drives and a lot of uncomfortable at-bats were naturally frustrating, but you just knew he would turn a corner eventually.
He's corner turnin' alright.
In his last nine games, Machado's collected 13 hits in his last 33 at-bats (a .394 average), and compared to his first 11 games this month, the line drive% has risen from 10.0% to 26.1%. He's added three doubles, three home runs, eight RBI's and four walks.
Some real evidence of his hot-streak was showcased in the 5th inning of yesterday's ghost town game at Camden Yards, facing White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija. The Shark isn't just an above-average pitcher, which really makes Baltimore's team-effort throttling of Samardzija more impressive, but Machado's swings in yesterday's game were really, truly awesome.
Here, Samardzija is trying to throw Machado a get-me-over 2-0 curveball, and Machado, with his team up 7-2, should be seeing a fastball in this situation. However, Samardzija is trying to pitch backwards to the Baby-Faced Assassin, but Machado is seeing the ball so well that he's able to keep his hands back and do what really good big-league hitters can.
When a hitter is really locked in, he's able to do something like hit a curveball in a fastball count and smash a home run to to the deepest part of the ballpark.
As well as yesterday's homer, Machado's first AB ended after one pitch, a double he sent to left-center field on a well-placed 94 MPH fastball, but the most inspiring hit from the O's 8-2 win was a 3-1 fastball that he took to right-center field for a single. According to Fangraphs' spray charts, it Machado's first hit of the season in that part of the ballpark. The Manny Machado we oogled over in 2013 was one of the best in the business at taking the ball to right field, specifically in the center-right gap. That's the most indicative sign of Machado's current hot-streak, and hopefully a sign of things to come.
Yeah, Machado's defense has been as confusing as Gary Thorne's pronouncing of "Samaja", but c'mon, there's no doubt Manny's still has the best hot-corner glove in the American League. And yes, a recent error against the Red Sox compounded into a three-run inning, costing the O's a chance at a Joe Angel "win column" celebration, but it's plays like this that remind you that he's the best at what he does.
How many guys make that play, and make it look THAT easy?
Like I said, it's easy to forget how good of a player Machado is because the surrounding hype calmed significantly after the knee injuries. I've told my dad, my brothers, my friends, even my mom who is starting to take to the Orioles a little more each day but still kind of doesn't care, that this will be the year that Machado reaches that 20-25 home run plateau. The gap-to-gap prowess is Manny's signature move, and it will be a facet of his game that will be crucial wherever he is in the lineup, but with four homers in first 71 AB's, it appears Manny's well on his way,
Despite the slow start, Manny's got it all going at the plate, while his defense is a non-concern. This is going to be the year the 22-year-old reminds the baseball world that he's a baller, and this past week has been his welcome back celebration.
♪Hakuna Machado... what a wonderful phrase...
...It means no worries, for the rest of these 142 games...♪