Manny Machado Finds Double-A To Be Quite The Jump
After a promising start to the season in which he hit the first pitch he saw for a home run, Orioles shortstop Manny Machado
has not been the offensive force many expected at Double-A Bowie.
"Offensively, he is in what we in baseball would call a slump," Bowie manager Gary Kendall said.
Over Machado's last 10 games he has hit .205 (9-for-44) with a homer and two doubles. Consecutive 1-for-4 games on June 9-10 dropped his average to .234 before a much-needed off day following a six-game road trip.
Machado's performance falls below expectations for one of the preeminent prospects in the game. The Orioles selected the Miami native with the third overall pick in 2010 and paid his a $5.2 million bonus because of his five-tool skill set.
In his pro debut in 2011, Machado demonstrated his advanced baseball aptitude by batting .276/.376/.483 in 38 games for low Class A Delmarva and held his own after a promotion to high Class A Frederick. He vaulted up prospect lists and entered the 2012 season as the No. 11 prospect in the game.
But through June 13 this season Machado was batting .242/.335/.368 with three home runs in 251 plate appearances. Among qualified BaySox, his .703 OPS ranks sixth on the team.
Machado's season has been a maturation process full of adjustments at the Double-A level, which many believe is the most challenging level for prospects.
"Double-A is the first time that a lot of kids fail for the first time, and I think Manny falls into that category," Bowie hitting coach Denny Hocking said. "This is the first year Manny has had to deal with a little adversity and failure. You get to a level where you have to make major adjustments, and that is where Manny is at right now."
With the help of Hocking and minor league hitting instructor Terry Crowley, formerly the Orioles' long-time hitting coach in Baltimore, Machado has made a series of mechanical refinements. At the outset of the season, his hands rested above his head in his batting stance. Machado would then load his hands aggressively and point the bat at the pitcher with a bat wrap, a trait he also showed in high school. Back then his quick hands enabled him to catch up to prep pitchers with lesser velocity.
Last season, Machado reduced the wrap for a part of the season but that adjustment didn't stick, so he went back to the wrap at the start of the 2012 season. The Bowie coaching staff recognized this setup was not optimal for success against advanced pitching with higher velocities, deeper repertories and more precious command.
"From where his hands were from the start (of the season), it is hard to get to pitches inside," Kendall said.
The coaches sought to quiet Machado's setup by altering his lower half as well as his hands.
"He is now more grounded now and has a better base to himself like a pyramid," Hocking said. "He has his hands lower, he has his hands just off of his shoulders and his bat is more parallel—and those are three pretty big changes."
After altering his setup and balance at the plate, Machado's swing path has also been a focal point for refinement.
"His swing is a little long and it has a little loop that he needs to correct," Hocking said.
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Machado has some of the quickest hands in the minors and the Orioles believe these adjustments should increase his already-impressive bat speed. Hocking said that his pupil's bat speed produces a louder sound on contact that is reminiscent of an elite list of players he was teammates with in the major leagues—Dave Winfield, Larry Walker and Matt Holliday. The coaching staff credits Machado's work ethic, endurance, and willingness to alter what comes naturally for him at the plate.
"The hard part about making adjustments is when you start to really struggle it becomes a mental mindset of, 'Do I continue doing this because it is going to help me in the long run or do I shut it down and go back to the old stuff?'," Hocking said. "That is why Manny has struggled of late because he is committed to making these changes over the long haul, and he understands that he is going to take a few steps back to make these adjustments."
Adjusting To Inside Heat
The condensed Eastern League schedule has allowed pitchers to exploit Machado's weaknesses. Teams in the 12-team EL spent the first two months of the season playing the same five opponents from within their division. Those teams have developed scouting reports on Machado and altered their pitch sequencing.
"Teams are pitching him backwards and he is seeing a lot of first- and second-pitch breaking balls and then he is 0-2," Kendall said.
Hocking is encouraging Machado to be more aggressive early in his at-bats because he is getting behind in the count. Kendall said Machado excels at driving the ball that is pitched middle-away, so teams have not given him fastballs that allow him to extend his hands.
"Guys who have gotten Manny out this year have pounded him with velocity inside, which is why he is trying to shorten his swing," Hocking said.
Defensively, Machado is seen as a player with tremendous potential due to his above-average range and double-plus arm. For young shortstops, defensive miscues are part of the acclimation process, and Machado leads all EL shortstops with 15 errors through his first 59 games.
"There are times when the errors are caused by focus and when he does something mental to create a physical error," Kendall said. "He just needs to play every pitch and be more consistent."
Hocking said many of Machado's throwing errors have occurred because he tends to drop his arm slot, causing his throws to sail to the home plate side of first base. Machado has also worked on limiting bad hops and shortening the distance where he fields ground balls.
"Early on in the year, he would sit back and use his arm strength to make plays, but now he understands he has to gain ground and get through ground balls," Hocking said. "Every day he is working on the finer points that are going to help him be our shortstop of the future."
Despite his many struggles this season, the most important number when evaluating Machado may be 19—his age. Context is the key to any evaluation, so while Machado's early performance appears light for a celebrated top prospect, the EL has been the lowest run-scoring league in the minors this season, where the average hitter has batted just .257/.327/.381. That means Machado's .702 OPS falls just seven points shy of the EL average, which is even more impressive when one realizes the average league position player is 24.6 years old.
According to the Baseball America player database, Machado is one of just 17 players to have played shortstop at age 19-or-younger at the Double-A level. The database spans the careers of all professional players who have played since 2006, so it contains major and minor league statistics for all active players during the past seven seasons.
Historically speaking, most teenage Double-A shortstops have struggled to post a league-average OPS. In fact, just seven others in the database have gotten to within 20 points of the league average (minimum 200 plate appearances). This list includes Gary Sheffield in 1988, Jose Reyes in 2002 and Jurickson Profar (so far) this season—though Wilson Betemit put up an exemplary .908 OPS in the 2001 Southern League, falling one plate appearance shy of the cutoff.
Young players at high levels have historically struggled to control the strike zone, but Machado has taken a free pass in 11 percent of his plate appearances this season, an above-average rate. He has struck out at the league average rate of 18 percent, demonstrating his natural feel for contact and a discerning eye.
"I refuse to use his youth as a crutch for him," Hocking said, "and the good part about Manny is that he doesn't either. He works as hard as anybody because he understands what is expected of him."