Who is the real Manny Machado?
BALTIMORE -- Manny Machado has a weekend of embarrassingly bad behavior behind him, an apology in the books to everyone he offended and an appeal of his five-game suspension from Major League Baseball still waiting to be resolved. If you didn't know better, you might think he's in a state of baseball limbo.
Shortly before taking the field for the Baltimore Orioles' 3-2 victory over Toronto on Saturday, Machado reiterated that his hypersensitive, bat-flinging routine against Oakland was an aberration and not a true reflection of the person he is and aspires to be.
"That's not me," Machado told ESPN.com. "That's not how I play. Everybody has a bad week at work. It's part of life. It's a life experience I'm going to take and, hopefully, learn from -- just like I've learned to deal with adversity and the long season in the big leagues. It's something we're going to have to get past and just continue."
Although Machado received a torrent of negative publicity for overreacting to a Josh Donaldson tag and intentionally throwing his bat against the Athletics, the Orioles are convinced he'll put the incident behind him because he's sufficiently grounded and has a strong enough support system in place to avoid going off the rails at age 22.
The Orioles are adamant that Machado is a good person at heart. The more relevant question, after 247 games and 1,086 major league plate appearances, is what type of player he's on track to become.
Machado made it look oh-so-easy in the first half of the 2013 season, when he put up big numbers at the plate, dazzled everyone with his defense at third base and joined Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in a holy trinity of prospect splendor. He made the All-Star team, collected his first Gold Glove at age 21 and was on the receiving end of some head-spinning praise from Brooks Robinson, who even kidded him about mixing in an error once in a while at third.
But the overall numbers show a pronounced split between the Manny Machado who wowed everyone upon arrival in Baltimore in August 2012 and the player who has since struggled to maintain his strong early production.
In his first 134 big league games, which spanned 549 at-bats, Machado posted a slash line of .301/.330/.474. Since the start of July 2013 -- a span of 112 games and 463 at-bats -- Machado's slash line has dipped markedly to .238/.279/.359.
From a macro perspective, that variation is to be expected. For every Mike Trout who earns a $144.5 million contract extension with two MVP runner-up finishes by age 22, there's a corresponding Mike Moustakas who needs a refresher course in Triple-A because he looks lost at the plate. Atlanta's Jason Heyward logged an OPS of .849 at age 20 and has yet to come close to that in three and a half years since.
Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones, who arrived with a huge buildup as Seattle's top prospect in 2006, thinks young players routinely fall victim to unreasonable expectations from the media before they're ready. The stakes have been ratcheted up with the advent of social media, which gives fans an outlet to tear players down in a lot less time than it takes to build them up.
Jones received the requisite guidance in professionalism and the proper work ethic from Willie Bloomquist, J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton during his early days in the Seattle organization, and he's determined to pass along those lessons to Machado.
"He's learning this game and the adjustments that need to be made," Jones said. "The talent is there. We've seen all the sparks and everything he can do. How good you want to be comes down to between the ears. The good thing for him is he has me here to put my foot in his ass to make sure he's the best player he can be."
Baltimore hitting coach Jim Presley attributes Machado's 2013 second-half decline to the emotional and mental fatigue of big league travel and the 162-game grind. Then Machado underwent knee surgery in late September, and it put a major crimp in his offseason preparation.
"It's tough for a kid to have a knee injury and then surgery, [to] not work out like he usually does during the winter, not have spring training, not play the first month and then come in here and pick it up just like he did the year before," Presley said. "That's almost impossible to do."
A scout at Camden Yards for the Baltimore-Toronto series concurred with that assessment.
"Look at Joey Votto and Chase Utley and other guys who've had knee problems," the scout said. "That's a big part of generating bat speed. I don't see any fatal flaws in his swing. It's more about repetition and timing."
A few numbers from ESPN Stats & Information shed some light on Machado's dip in production in 2014:
• He's seeing slightly more fastballs and cutters and slightly fewer sliders and changeups, but the soft stuff hasn't been kind to him. Last year he hit .272 with five homers on at-bats ending in a breaking ball. In a much smaller sample size this season, he's hitting .175 (7-for-40) with no homers in such at-bats.
• Machado's batting average on balls in play has dipped to .264 this season from .322 a year ago. He's batting .536 (15-for-28) when he hits a line drive this season, but last year he hit an astronomical .757 on liners.
Based on Machado's more self-assured swings of late, a resurgence might be on the horizon. He went 3-for-4 with two stellar defensive plays Friday night against Toronto and picked up two more hits Saturday, though one came on a gift scoring decision. The people in the Baltimore organization entrusted with Machado's development see a player with the gifts and the commitment to thrive for a long time.
"He has baseball instincts and skill, no doubt about it," Presley said. "Is he going to hit 30 homers? Probably not. Adam Jones can hit the ball 30 rows [in the seats] to all fields. Manny Machado is the kind of hitter who sprays the ball around and hits it in the gap. He's a .300 hitter who will drive in runs and hit doubles."
Even so, Machado's extended travails have reinforced the notion that player development comes in fits and starts.
"This game is tough," Machado said. "It's not something where you're going to go out and get four hits every day. They have a lot of scouting reports about you out there, and we're playing every day, and your body is going to get tired some days. The biggest thing I've learned is how important it is to find a routine every day. Once you find your routine, that will take you a long way."
In the overall scheme of things, heaving bats, issuing apologies and appealing suspensions isn't the best way to maintain continuity. But Machado and the Orioles are anxious to put last week's circus behind them and keep grinding away in the AL East. As long as he'll put in the time and keep his emotions in check, they'll give him all the guidance he needs.
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