If the playoffs started now, the Baltimore Orioles would be in -- they hold a one-game lead over the Rangers (who lost Thursday afternoon to the Yankees) as they go into their game tonight against the Royals. That lead is obviously precarious, with the Yankees and Indians trying to hang in there, and made even more precarious by the doubts that Chris Davis and Manny Machado can repeat their monster first halves.
Let's start with Machado. His defense is so superlative that it's easy to overlook his offense, but he hit .310 with 39 doubles in the first half. For most of the season, he's been on pace to break Earl Webb's record of 67 doubles, but that pace has dropped to 62 as he's struggled at the plate in recent weeks. In fact, his offensive output has actually been sliding since June. Through May 31, he was hitting .331/.363/.515; since then he's hit .271/.293/.397 with 41 strikeouts and five walks in 47 games.
As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information reports, "Machado's approach has completely fallen apart since June 1 -- he's striking out more often, walking less, swinging through pitches more often and chasing more pitches out of the strike zone." Justin reports that Machado has especially struggled with two strikes; through May, he was hitting .267 with two strikes, but since then he's hitting .170 with a chase percentage that's increased from 33 percent to 47 percent thanks largely to a heavy dosage of sliders that he can't lay off. In other words, typical struggles you expect to see from a kid who just turned 21 and isn't named Mike Trout.
Machado has also struggled against good fastballs since June 1; on pitches clocked at 93-plus mph, he's hit .093 with a .230 OPS, worst in baseball. The sample size is small -- just 163 pitches -- but all the indicators are down compared to the first two months, with a swing-and-miss percentage up from 15 percent to 23 percent and line drive rate down from 24 percent to 9 percent. He's just not hitting the good heat. Machado hasn't missed a game, so while it sounds a little bit like a young hitter struggling to adjust, it also looks like a guy who could use a day off.
As for Davis, Joe Sheehan pointed out last week
Through the end of May, Davis was running the lowest strikeout rate (23%) and best K/UIBB (2.3) of his career. Some of the improvement in his walk rate might have reasonably been credited to the power he was showing -- there is some relationship between power and walks drawn, but by and large, he looked like a more mature version of his established self. For statheads, it was an easy story to sell. We love to make the point that being patient at the plate isn't just about drawing walks, but about getting better pitches to hit and producing better results on those pitches.
What's happened since the end of May has put the lie to that. For while Davis has continued to hit for power, with 18 homers and a .678 slugging, he has gone back to being an even worse version of his old self. Davis posted a 60/7 K/UIBB in those two months, striking out in 36 percent of his plate appearances.
Joe wrote that a week ago. The numbers now read .261/.320/.636 since June 1 with 69 strikeouts and eight unintentional walks. That's still a huge offensive force, as long as the balls keep leaving the park, but it's a big drop from the MVP candidate hitting .356/.442/.749 through May and closer to Raul Ibanez than Miguel Cabrera. Like Machado, Davis has started to expand the strike zone; he chased 28 percent of pitches out of the zone the first two months, but that has increased to 35 percent since. As a result, his batting average and on-base percentage have decreased.
The net effect is that Machado and Davis are now using up a lot more outs to create runs. Through May, the Orioles averaged 5.1 runs per game; since June 1, they've averaged 4.5 runs per game.
If Machado is a young player the league has figured out (for now) and Davis is, as Joe wrote, a "35-homer guy having a year," then we shouldn't necessarily expect them to reverse course back to what they did in April and May. Which means the Orioles, if they want to hold on to the wild card or catch the Red Sox and Rays, need some other players to step up.