Too often do we forget just how fickle and unforgiving the game of baseball is.
Baseball is hard, man. Hitting a round ball with a round bat is hard. Repeating your delivery and commanding an assortment of pitches is hard. Fielding ground balls and reading fly balls is hard...or maybe that was just me in high school.
In 2018, the Orioles will play 162 games in 185 days. There is no schedule like it. Baseball never cares what name you wear on your back, because it doesn’t have time to care. It simply sweeps away the box score, awaiting the gut-punch of another tomorrow.
The game isn’t designed for success, meaning even Manny Machado can struggle.
For chunks of last season, Machado wasn’t very good, despite managing to sprinkle in moments of superstardom. His 102 wRC+ in 2018 was the same figure he posted during his sophomore season, a year where he came to the plate 710 times as a 20-year-old.
Machado’s first half was bad. Not only was a 92 wRC+ indicative of his struggles, but a .239 BABIP pretty much told the story that the Orioles best player in over a decade wasn’t getting a lot of help. But was he really helping him self?
Machado is Machado, which means he’s going to take his hacks. That’s fine. Though, when you look at a .239 BABIP and you also see rising stocks in both his chase rate and whiff rate, it makes you wonder what kind of pitches he was swinging at. Over the first-half of last year, Machado probably got what he deserved. Over the second-half, a span that saw Machado’s offense inflate to a 114 wRC+, he got out of his own way.
All of that makes you wonder...what changed? Well, the batted ball luck certainly did, as he suddenly saw his BABIP fortune increase to an average of .290. His line drive frequency rose, as did his rate of contact. Good things were happening to a player accustomed to such things.
A superstar player often makes the game look easier than it is, and that’s what Machado has done since he broke into the big leagues as a 19-year-old. But baseball will always be a game of adjustments. Manny had to adapt.
This is Manny in April, a month where he collected a .767 OPS. He was OK, says a 103 wRC+, but it’s early, so most folks would be wise to chalk it up to that. But, in 2016, Machado was a really nice player, posting a 6.9 fWAR and reasonably in the center of the American League MVP race. So, why does his swing looks so different?
Machado basically erased the leg kick from his swing, to where he’s essentially drifting to home plate. Machado was someone that had previously used the leg kick as timing mechanism, but his front side had become much more lackadaisical.
This is Manny in the middle of June, when he was the owner of a .723 OPS. Still drifting, though his head is a bit more still, and the overall movement in his swing is a slightly more compact. There is some semblance of what Machado was.
Here we see Manny in late September. The leg kick is much more pronounced, his hands are in rhythm with his load, and he appears to be the caliber of hitter that rebounded to post a .290/.326/.500 slash over his final 73 games. Towards the end of last year, Manny was swinging in a manner adjacent to his skill set, and his offensive production proved so. He looks so much more comfortable at the plate than he did the months prior.
Now here we are in early March, and after being the talk of the winter, he’s now again the focus for the right reasons. In his first 21 spring plate appearances, Machado has three doubles, two home runs, three walks and 12 runs driven in, good for a mountainous 1.675 OPS.
I mean, does that resemble anything like the Machado we saw at the same time last year? He’s tall in his stance, the balance of his swing is textbook, and the effortlessness is that of a 25-year-old supernova who, given his own sample size, has a reason to believe the Orioles could surprise some folks in 2018. This version of Manny created consistently better contact, because he knew that he could. This is what Manny is supposed to look like.
While there are plenty of reasons to pump the brakes on Machado’s comments, his own evolution isn’t one. Manny is one of the best pure baseball players in today’s era, and like all good players sometimes have to do, he changed for the better. Or in this case, Machado got back to doing what made him such an encapsulating ballplayer.
Baseball is hard. It humbles you in ways no other game could. Where it would seem Machado has been enlightened in more important aspects of his life, so too was he willing to change for the better within the white lines.
And that kids, is baseball.