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Manny Machado is still adjusting to being feared

Manny Machado is so good that it looks like pitchers are afraid to pitch to him. However, the Orioles third baseman hasn’t quite adjusted to that yet.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For the past few seasons, it has become routine to scan the “League Leaders” page and notice Manny Machado’s presence up at the top with the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and others who have fundamentally made the game of baseball look so easy.

However, a scouring of Fangraphs leaves Machado nowhere to be found, a revelation to due with the Orioles best player’s frustratingly strange start to 2017.

Obviously, the popular metric has been the correlation between Machado’s current .234 BABIP, one of the top 20 worst in baseball, and his 93.6 MPH average exit velocity, a figure that places him in the top ten among all big leaguers. The issue inherently becomes how a player like Machado has made hitting the baseball very hard a commonplace, yet his numbers have yet to translate into expected realism.

Surprisingly enough, Machado is actually walking more in the first month and a half than he ever has. His current 11.4 walk percentage would stand as a career-high, while his chase rate has dipped under 30 percent for the first time ever. Straying away from bad swings while taking his fair share of free bases, theoretically, Manny’s number’s wouldn’t appear as they are.

Though pitchers have certainly recognized Manny’s potency at the plate, evidence shows he’s yet to fully embrace just how dangerous he is.

As Manny is now in his fifth full season, pitchers have slowly but surely worked out of the strike zone with more pace as he’s matured. Conversely, Machado has continued to be aggressive at the plate. At a current 44 percent zone percentage, Machado is likely to see that figure hit a career-low by season’s end, though as the graph shows, his inability to make contact has steepened.

Manny Machado Plate Discipline

Plate Discipline O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% Contact%
Plate Discipline O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% Contact%
Career 30.30% 68.10% 87.90% 80.50%
2017 28.10% 67.5%% 81.20% 73.60%

It isn’t tough to understand that when speaking on the subject of Machado, his ability to make contact is so crucial because he tends to be very efficient when he does put the ball in play. So far to start 2017 however, not only has he made less contact overall, but his output inside the strike zone has turtled. The lessening of contact in the strike zone, as well as the worrying swing and miss rates have contributed to this current plague.

A hitter like Machado that is capable of covering the entirety of the strike zone requires opposing pitchers to use all of their pitches with a bit more necessity, and as Machado is seeing, the sentiment reigns true.

One of Baseball Savant’s newest toys is the introduction of the pitch count usage visual, with each inner-circle inflating with more frequency. As we can see above, a season ago, pitchers were more likely to come after Machado early in the count with fastballs, using the off-speed and breaking stuff in an attempt to put him away wth two strikes. Machado hasn’t seen the same approach from pitchers as he did a season ago so far this spring.

Because Manny is so dangerous, pitchers have tried to hit him with the kitchen sink, and to their credit, they’ve flooded his counter-approach with Manny asking himself “what the hell is coming next?”

For Manny, the biggest count hasn’t been 0-0, but 1-0, where he’s seen his opponent slider usage increase from 17.2 percent, all the way up to 27 percent. Even in 2-0 counts, Machado has seen pitchers use the slider nearly 10 percent more often than in 2016. The pitch Machado has had the biggest issue with so far this season? You guessed it.

Whiffing at 23.6 percent of sliders he’s seen, Machado has made a habit of easing pitchers back into at-bats by swinging at pitcher’s pitches, instead of trusting his eyes and spitting on a pitch he has no business offering at.

By turning 1-0 and 2-0 counts into 1-1 and 2-1 counts, Machado is seeing the after-effects of tipping his hand. After a pitcher sees a big swing and miss in a less-than favorable count, it opens the door for more of the same.

Even in 3-2 counts, Machado has seen the same sort of rise in slider usage compared to last season. In full counts to this point, Manny has swung at nearly 90 percent of sliders he’s seen, with his bat missing the baseball one-third of the time. Machado is to a point in his career where a garden-variety fastball is unlikely to come his way, and to his detriment, he’s yet to adjust.

Rather than aim for contact, Machado has become bloodthirsty to play hero ball.

Two nights ago with the Orioles on the brink of another much-needed comeback, Machado gets a flat 94 MPH fastball in his happy zone. Wanting to put the Orioles up 7-5, Manny swings like its his last ever on Earth. Instead, he fouls the fastball backwards, and the rest has proved to be another notch on C.B. Bucknor’s belt.

Manny has made a rather dubious habit of these big swings, and in his case, less is always more.

Much more controlled and balanced, Machado does to Matt Boyd what the Orioles wish he would have against Justin Wilson.

This isn’t a swing where he nearly falls on his tuccus or breaks his back, but he tracks the ball through the zone and hits a double 112.9 MPH. Hitting big league pitching is hard enough, which makes this muscled-up hitch in his swing nothing more than a pitfall. Combine the hulking and ill-timed swings, some of his BABIP woes can be explained, especially as his fly ball and ground ball rates have increased. Manny has had a lot of those “Man, he just missed” swings, which doesn’t do the baseball much justice.

As Paul Rudd once said in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, the less you do, the more you do, and right now, Manny is trying to cement his superstar status with swings that would make Giancarlo Stanton tip his cap. That just isn’t his game, because it doesn’t need to be.

Given all the weirdness that’s surrounded Manny in what hasn’t even been two months of baseball, it’s understandable he so badly wants to prove his lofty worth. At the center of a lot of negative, unwarranted attention, Machado has to be wanting to fight back back by letting his bat do the counter-punching.

Even so, with the Orioles starting rotation a frightening source of discontent, and with bullpen unable to get big outs, Machado’s current slightly-above replacement player pace is going to have to come to an end very much sooner than later. Not only because he’s more than capable of what he’s produced, but because he truly is one of baseball’s elitist of talents.

And the Orioles are desperate for such a thing.