At 23, Manny Machado has already been through a full-career narrative arc. He was Carlos Correa before Carlos Correa: the top prospect whose call-up was the missing piece for a surprising playoff team. After debuting for Baltimore way back in 2012, he then had his breakout season, followed by his campaign of despair and injury, followed by his emphatic All-Star comeback.
Thanks to all those plot points, Machado, who is six months younger than Cubs second-year phenom Kris Bryant, seems like a character in a story that’s already been told. Yet, despite having two six-win seasons and more than 2,000 big league plate appearances under his belt, he just keeps getting better.
At first, most of Machado’s value came from his glove. In 2013, according to Baseball-Reference, he was worth 6.7 wins, thanks largely to his defense at third base. The various defensive metrics (UZR, total zone, and FRAA) all rated him at 30 runs above average that year, give or take, which is an outlier so big it’s either historically great or a statistical fluke.
Last year, he was still an elite defender — six to 20 runs above average — but his bat way outpaced whatever tiny regression there was in the field. In 2013, Machado hit 51 doubles and 14 home runs, which grew into 30 doubles and 35 home runs in 2015 and 15 doubles and 11 home runs in 163 plate appearances so far in 2016. He has obviously added strength as he’s gotten older, but he’s also become more selective: His walk rate nearly doubled from 2013 to 2016, and his swing rate on balls outside the strike zone went down by roughly four percentage points, while his swing rate on balls in the zone has increased slightly.
Machado entered the league as an average-hitting 20-year-old, was a top-25 hitter in all of baseball as a 22-year-old, and six weeks into his age-23 season he’s one of the five best bats in the big leagues. Oh, and for the first time in his career, he’s doing it while playing shortstop somewhat regularly. By sliding up the defensive spectrum, Machado provides the same offensive production at a more difficult defensive position — not only giving his team more flexibility to go find another infield bat, but also adding five runs of value a year.
It might sound like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but we’re not: An elite defensive third baseman (or an above-average defensive shortstop) with a top-five bat and 20-steal speed is prime Alex Rodriguez. What’s more tantalizing is that Machado might not even be at his ceiling yet. If his first few seasons are any indication, we don’t even know where that ceiling is.
This piece originally appeared in the May 18, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.