BALTIMORE -- Much of the past few days in baseball land has been spent debating whether Mike Trout or Bryce Harper -- who’s so hot that his body temperature is now measured on the Kelvin scale -- is the best player in the game. But if we’re having The Conversation, Manny Machado must be a part of it.
As was the case with Harper, over the first few years of Machado's career, we didn’t get to see the full Manny because he was either a little too young, a little too injured or both. Much like Harper, a more mature Machado finally showed last season what he’s capable of doing. He played in all 162 games (the only major leaguer to do so), slashed .286/.359/.502 and played his usual brand of have-to-see-it-to-believe-it third base. He was the American League’s only 20/20 guy and was fourth in the MVP balloting.
You can’t help but think that if a) the Orioles had won more games and/or b) he’d hit where he belongs in the lineup (third), rather than where the Orioles needed him (leadoff), and finished with 100-plus RBIs instead of 86, Machado would have finished even higher.
This year, Machado is picking up right where he left off. In Wednesday night’s extra-inning affair against the Blue Jays (which the bombs-bursting O’s won 4-3 on, of all things, a walk-off passed ball), all Machado did was reach base four times in five plate appearances. Ho-hum. Just another day at the office. His RBI double in the first inning -- a laser to left-center -- extended his hitting streak to 13 games and made him the only player in the majors with at least one hit in every one of his team’s contests this season. His .407 average leads the American League, as does his 1.263 OPS.
Just how good has Machado been? So good that on Wednesday, with two outs and a runner on second in the eighth inning of a 3-3 tie, the Blue Jays decided they would rather pitch to Adam Jones -- whose LinkedIn page shows five All-Star appearances and a Silver Slugger award -- than Machado, whom they intentionally walked.
Two innings later, in the bottom of the 10th, Toronto did it again. With two outs, two runners on and the game still tied -- and with the Camden Yards faithful chanting “Man-ny, Man-ny” -- the Jays issued Machado another free pass. Technically, this one wasn’t intentional, but given the mound visit that immediately preceded it and given how far outside Jays catcher Josh Thole set up on one of the pitches (he was practically in the first-base dugout), it might as well have been.
Just how good has Machado been? So good that after Wednesday’s game, not even one-tenth of the way through the season, there was a glossy, white folder with “MVP” printed on the cover sitting in front of Machado’s locker. OK, so maybe that had less to do with how Machado is playing and more to do with the fact that his agent is Dan Lozano of MVP Sports Group. (Full disclosure: The words “Sports Group” were printed on the cover too.)
Still, it was hard to ignore the serendipitous symbolism of the moment. After all, at this early stage in the season, Machado is the clear front-runner for American League MVP, which is why he needs to be in The Conversation.
But The Conversation is bigger than offensive numbers. To truly have The Conversation the way it should be had, defense must be considered. And let’s be honest: Whenever and wherever the Trout/Harper debate rages on, defense always seems to be an afterthought. It's an addendum thrown in at the end of the discussion just to make it seem more thorough, to make it seem like folks actually care about fielding.
Harper’s arm is far better. Trout plays the more important position. Blah, blah, blah.
The truth is that when it comes to defense, Machado buries both Harper and Trout -- as well as pretty much every other player in baseball.
From 2012 through 2015, Mike Trout accounted for five defensive runs saved. Not per year but altogether: five. In mathematical circles, that’s what’s commonly referred to as “not a lot.” That explains why Trout ranks 252nd in DRS over that four-year period.
From 2012 through 2015, Bryce Harper ranked 46th in the majors, with 27 defensive runs saved. Again, that's the grand total. In mathematical circles, that’s what’s commonly referred to as “more than Mike Trout, but still not a whole heckuva lot.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)
Then there’s Manny. From 2012 through 2015, Machado was credited with 60 defensive runs saved. Six-zero. That’s the sixth most in baseball, and that’s despite his playing 59 fewer games than Harper and 161 fewer games than Trout.
I’ll pause for a moment while you mutter to yourself something along the lines of, “Wow, I had no clue that the defensive disparity between Machado and those other two guys was so large.” (Again, I’m paraphrasing.) That’s just the stats talking.
As for the eye test, well, you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that watching Manny Machado play third base on a regular basis is like … well … it’s almost impossible to describe. That’s how good he is.
Remember: My job is to cover both the Orioles and the Nationals, so I get to watch Bryce Harper play a whole of right field. I’m not saying Harper isn't a good defender -- last season’s Gold Glove finalist nod was legit if for no other reason than the guy’s arm is a certifiable cannon that regularly paralyzes runners into station-to-station baseball.
What I am saying is that when you look at what Manny Machado has become offensively and combine it with what he has always been defensively, there’s no way you can exclude him from The Conversation.
He might not be the best player in baseball, but at a minimum, he’s a Conversation piece.