<
>

Orioles' Manny Machado just got even more valuable

Believe it or not, Manny Machado just became even more valuable.

I know, I know -- it doesn’t seem possible. Last year, the Baltimore Orioles third baseman played his usual Gold Glove defense, clubbed 35 homers and was the AL’s only 20/20 guy. He batted leadoff because the team needed him to, even though he’s got middle of the order written all over him, and finished fourth in the American League MVP voting -- which, from where I sit (a chair in the front row of the Camden Yards press box that affords me the gift of watching Manny be Manny on a daily basis), seemed a little low.

He followed that up with a monster April in which he either led the AL or tied for the lead in hits (33), extra-base hits (17), total bases (64) and was second in average (.344) and OPS (1.061). He made roughly 3 gajillion head-shakingly good plays in the field and, on Monday, was named AL Player of the Month -- which, from where I sit, seemed a little obvious.

If the season ended today, Machado would be the MVP. Plain and simple. The numbers even back it up, as his current 1.9 WAR is tops in the American League.

Just how valuable has Manny Machado been to the Birds? Projected over a full 162-game season, at his current pace, Machado would finish the year with a WAR of 12.8. That’s two full wins more than Mike Trout’s career high and one full win higher than Barry Bonds’ career best. In fact, the last time someone posted a season of 12.8 WAR or higher was 1921, when some guy named Ruth did it.

Pump the brakes? Sure, I get it. The season’s only a month old, you’re thinking. There’s no way that Machado maintains his current pace. And you’re right. The odds of his posting a 12.8 WAR are roughly equivalent to the odds of Leicester City winning the Premier League (oh, wait).

Point is, Machado has become absolutely certifiably 100 percent indispensable to the O’s. And that was before J.J. Hardy broke his foot. Now, with Hardy headed to the DL for six weeks or so, Machado’s value soars even higher. As if that’s even possible.

To understand Machado’s present and future value, all you have to do is look at Hardy’s past value. Last season, Hardy was limited to 114 games because of injury. In those games, the Orioles went 65-49. That’s a winning percentage of .570, or just a smidge below the .574 clip that the Blue Jays posted en route to winning the AL East last year. In the 48 games that Hardy missed, the Birds were just 16-32. That’s .333 ball, or 56 percentage points lower than the Phillies, whose .389 mark was MLB’s worst last year. In other words, playing without Hardy transformed the Orioles from one of baseball’s strongest teams to perhaps its very weakest.

To the casual fan outside of Baltimore, that might come as a surprise. After all, Hardy’s not the flashiest fielder. He doesn’t have the range of a Brandon Crawford. He doesn’t have the pop, at this point in his career, of a Troy Tulowitzki. What Hardy does have, as any avid Bird watcher can attest to, is unbelievable hands, laser focus and a robotically accurate arm that has helped him post a .987 fielding percentage since 2011, best among big league shortstops. He also has 53 defensive runs saved over the past five-plus seasons, more than any SS not named Andrelton Simmons. Most importantly, he has a knack for helping the Orioles win.

Since coming to Charm City in 2011, Hardy’s missed a total of 111 games. Without him, the O's have a 44-67 record, which works out to a .396 winning percentage. With him, they’re 394-320. That’s a .552 clip, which is a shocking disparity -- .156 to be exact. If you believe that 111 games is a sufficient sample size (I do) and apply that .156 difference to the next 30 or so contests (assuming Hardy misses six weeks), that means that Baltimore stands to win four to five fewer games than it otherwise would over the next month and a half, simply because Hardy’s on the shelf. In a middle-heavy AL East division in which the top four teams are currently separated by just three games, that handful of W’s is a huge deal.

So what’s all this got to do with Machado?

Well, before the end of last season, even though Machado is a shortstop by trade who converted to third base because the O’s already had Hardy, he was never the guy who manager Buck Showalter tapped to fill in when Hardy got hurt. Maybe it was because Showalter deemed Machado, who won the 2013 Platinum Glove as the American League’s best defensive player, too valuable at the hot corner. Or maybe it was because the Birds’ bench boss thought Machado, who’s still only 23 years old, wasn’t mature enough to handle the sudden responsibility of captaining the O’s infield. Then again, maybe it was because Baltimore had been able to succeed keeping Machado at third.

In 2014, Baltimore won 96 games and advanced to the ALCS. It did so despite missing Hardy for 21 games, somehow managing to go 13-8 without him. Lights-out pitching probably had something to do with it -- the majority of Hardy’s DNPs came in the second half of the season, when O’s starters caught fire and led the majors with a 2.88 ERA. Their pitching was so good that Showalter probably could have run "Bad News Bears" shortstop Tanner Boyle out there and gotten away with it. Instead, it was Ryan Flaherty who started all 21 of those games.

Taking nothing away from Flaherty, a super-utility man who doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves, there’s no denying that he’s better at second and third base (combined 10 career runs saved) than he is at short (minus-5). Which might help explain why last season, with a rotation that needed all the defensive help it could get (4.53 ERA, 14th in AL), the Orioles were just 2-7 in games when Flaherty was the starting shortstop. It also helps explain why, toward the end of 2015, Showalter started tinkering with Machado at short.

Early returns weren’t overly positive. On Machado's very first chance as a big league shortstop, a routine grounder in the 12th inning of a tied game, he let the ball go right under his glove for a costly E-6. In 21 chances over seven games, he made two errors, for an unsightly .905 fielding percentage that made his glove look more like plutonium than platinum. In his six starts at shortstop, Baltimore posted a 2-4 record.

Despite the bumpy beginning, as the Orioles prepare to live life sans Hardy for the foreseeable future -- they kick off a three-game series with the division rival Yankees on Tuesday -- you get the sense that Showalter’s comfortable using Machado as his primary shortstop.

Before hurting himself on Sunday, Hardy had already missed two games this season. Both times, Machado started in his place with Flaherty getting the nod at third base, and it’s easy to envision that being the default D until Hardy comes back. Sure, Showalter might mix things up here and there. Maybe defensive whiz Paul Janish (on paternity leave from Triple-A Norfolk) gets called up and sees some time at shortstop, as he did last year when Hardy was out. Maybe Flaherty gets the occasional look. Then again, maybe not.

When the lineup for Tuesday’s series opener was originally posted, Flaherty was listed as the shortstop and Machado the third baseman. But then about an hour later, after talking to Machado, Showalter flip-flopped them.

“Good players like the challenge of doing something that the team needs,” the O’s skipper said during his pregame news conference. “They like that responsibility. Some shirk it. Manny doesn't.”

In other words, the Orioles need to replace J.J. Hardy, and Machado wants to be the guy. Demands it, even. Not that Showalter is at the whim of his players. Quite the opposite, in fact: The smart money says he knew exactly what he was doing when he penciled Flaherty into his first draft. And that he got exactly the reaction he wanted from his star player -- who just so happens to be his new shortstop.

You know, because Manny Machado wasn’t doing enough already.