After being traded to a contender this season, impending free agent Manny Machado had a prized national stage upon which to showcase his talents and increase his value. And even if his performance was flat, his infectious smile could have won fans over. Unfortunately for many, including Manny, his prima donna attitude and unsportsmanlike tendencies have shined brightest.
What has been most interesting, however, is digging in deep and studying his defense. Observing him throughout the regular season did not prove very impressive, but the playoffs provide a chance to see what progress he may have achieved over a full season at shortstop.
After two full playoff series, Machado’s defense offers little reason to smile. He is athletic with a great arm, but missing fundamentals render his glove more a force divider than multiplier. So if I am the Cubs, I sign him in a heartbeat for third base (character flaws understood) and, just as reflexively, pass on him as my everyday starting shortstop.
In other words, I don’t think Machado is a championship-caliber shortstop on defense. Yes, I know this flies in the face of the Dodgers potentially winning a World Series this year, but Machado was of course not their Plan A. That was Gold Glove-finalist Corey Seager, who anchored the middle infield until his season-ending elbow injury.
You can’t blame the Dodgers for trying with Machado. They were uniquely positioned to minimize the potential negative impact of his glove at short. They finished first in the NL in both pitching and hitting, which does help overcome a defensive blemish or two in the field.
More pointedly, the Dodgers’ pitching style results in fewer chances by their shortstops than any NL team the last three years. I won’t claim to understand completely why, but Dodgers shortstops were dead last in chances in 2016. They ranked 10th out of 15 teams last season and 11th this year. Which is why Machado saw a marked drop in his chances per nine innings, from 6.1 to 3.5, after the Orioles traded him to the Dodgers.
This is significant for the Cubs, as they featured the second-highest number of chances at shortstop (4.4) in the NL in 2018. This means roughly one extra chance per game and perhaps as many as 150 more chances over a full season. Even marginally less effective play at short in that sample would give away more outs, make fewer plays, and add to starters’ pitch counts. It’s a lot to overcome at the second-most-important defensive position on the field.
But as usual with defensive metrics, no stats tell the whole story. One really must watch the play. What you see with Machado is an athletic defender with a great arm who does his best work on plays most similar to third base: Going to his right and bare-handing balls. But on routine balls straight at him, to his left, on tags, and with unusual charging plays, his shaky fundamentals tends to really show.
The first fundamental flaw that jumps out is how he fields all simple ground balls with one hand. Standard technique is to position your throwing hand above the glove. This forces you to catch balls further out front, more in your line of sight, and reduces ball-transfer time on bang-bang plays. And since bad hops are a bigger issue at short than third, with the lip of the infield grass coming into play more regularly into play, that top hand can help coral balls that jump against the heel of the glove.
This technique error has hurt Machado twice in the playoffs so far. The above images show it allowed the Braves’ speedy Ronald Acuña to reach to start the 6th inning in Game 1 of the NLDS. Fortunately, Acuña was erased on a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play during the next at-bat.
Machado wasn’t so lucky in the 5th inning of Game 4 of that same series. With runners on first and second, Machado’s one-handed technique contributed to him muffing a tailor-made, inning-ending double play. This loaded the bases and chased Rich Hill from a one-run game. It also created at least two more outs for the relievers to handle in a series that was largely a war of bullpen attrition.
His most consequential mistake, though, came on a tag play in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Brewers. Though not ruled an error, that missed tag proved key to allowing a run to score in what proved a one-run loss. Unfamiliar with shortstop, Machado also regularly appears unsure whether to move in on balls and shorten hops. This leads to more than a few balls on which he awkwardly backs up with only his great arm to bail him out.
This arose in NLCS Game 3 against the Brewers. In the 2nd inning with two outs, Orlando Arcia hit a sharp one-hopper directly at Machado. Instead of charging slightly catch it on the short hop, Machado backpedaled into the outfield and couldn’t handle it. No error was called, but instead of Walker Buehler starting the next inning with the pitcher’s spot up, he threw an extra four pitches to finish off the inning.
Such was the case in the NLCS Game 4 when Christian Yelich hit a high infield chopper to the shortstop side of the mound. The ball was past the pitcher’s mound, descending toward its second bounce, but Machado had gotten just one step in from the outfield grass. He closed this distance quickly and scooped the ball after its third bounce, but Yelich easily beat this throw by nearly a step.
A more routine three-hopper in Game 2 against the Braves revealed his inexperience judging baserunners. Despite being a three-hopper, Machado again gave ground into the outfield. He then chose to restart his momentum toward second base to make a high-arcing underhanded toss to second that just barely got the force.
These are the kinds of rookie mistakes and near-mistakes you must expect with Machado at short. His miscues might not appear in a box score, but they’re the very sort of issues that are always magnified in the playoffs. Javier Baez incidentally also suffers from some flawed shortstop technique, but with Machado just multiply these by two.
All that said, one can’t ignore Machado’s bat. He’s very good against power arms and a force against all other pitchers. But he won’t homer or even reach base every game, and when he doesn’t, his consistent deficiencies on defense can really shrink a team’s margin for error. Not really something to smile about.