As a 22-year-old major league veteran, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has become adept at tuning out the chatter and charting his own personal course for success. He has learned to keep plugging away through setbacks, to pick his spots in the batter's box and listen to his body amid the rigors of a 162-game season.
For the first time in a while, Machado actually likes what he hears.
While Bryce Harper has received an abundance of national attention for his huge start in Washington, Machado is crafting an equally compelling Beltways revival tale at Camden Yards. He's reminding people what all the fuss was about when he broke in with the Orioles at age 20, made an All-Star team at 21 and was lumped together with Harper and Mike Trout in the Holy Trinity of prospect wunderkinds.
When Machado deposited a first-inning home run into the right-field seats against Philadelphia's Sean O'Sullivan on Thursday, he matched his single-season high for homers with 14 -- with 3½ months to go. He ranks third among MLB third basemen in WAR (3.3) and is sixth overall in OPS at .861.
Machado's numbers are impressive even in a noteworthy year for third-base production: Toronto's Josh Donaldson has injected himself in the early AL MVP conversation, Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is on a pace to surpass 40 homers. Mike Moustakas, Matt Carpenter, Yunel Escobar, Kris Bryant, Yasmany Tomas and Justin Turner are off to big starts for teams in playoff contention, and Nolan Arenado and Maikel Franco are doing nice work for clubs that are headed nowhere. Then there's Seattle's Kyle Seager, the second-best position player on a team that's somewhere in between.
Amid that crowded landscape, Machado takes special gratification in being an All-Star candidate because of what he's endured. Just about a year ago, Machado was issuing a public apology and pledging to do better after an embarrassing bat-throwing incident against the Oakland Athletics. He knew he had made a mistake and chose to hold himself accountable.
Of greater import, Machado was a physical mess. He underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee in October 2013, and had surgery on his right knee in August. The injuries tested his faith and came as a wake-up call after his quick ascent through the minors.
"You have to be grateful for the obstacles that God puts in front of you, because it makes you a stronger person and human being,'' Machado said. "It makes you see things differently and not take life for granted. I enjoy this game. Every moment I'm out there, I enjoy putting on a major league uniform. It takes me back to when I used to dream of being on a big league field."
Some days are better than others for Machado, and doctors have told him he won't return to full strength until next season. In the meantime, he adheres to a daily weightlifting and workout regimen to keep his knees healthy and strengthen the muscles around them. He has unquestionably benefited from a stronger foundation at the plate.
"He's playing with the type of controlled, reckless abandon you like to see,'' Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. "He feels really good about his legs. It's like he's hitting off a tree now instead of hitting off a twig."
Machado has thrived by crushing fastballs, using the whole field and adapting to whatever challenge the Orioles throw his way. Showalter has plugged Machado into the leadoff spot out of necessity after the offseason departure of Nick Markakis to Atlanta through free agency, and Machado has played his share of small ball amid the homers and doubles. He has four bunt singles this year and leads third basemen with 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts.
Machado is also averaging a career-high 3.81 pitches per plate appearance, while offering at a career-low 23 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That's down drastically from 36 percent a year ago.
Superb defense is a given with Machado. After committing nine errors in his first 38 games, Machado has played error-free ball in the 29 games since. He ranks fourth among MLB third basemen in Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved listings at plus-6, and he's made the Web Gem a routine occurrence in Baltimore.
Showalter routinely watches Machado steal base hits from opponents, turns to bench coach John Russell and utters his trademark, "Really?" And he revels in seeing Machado tease left-handed hitters when the Orioles employ a shift. Machado is far enough away from home plate to tempt hitters to bunt, yet close enough to obliterate them if they dare try.
"I love watching him play cat and mouse with these shift guys," Showalter said. "He's like, 'Are you sure you want to do it? You better put a real good one over here.'"
The Orioles aren't quite past the temptation to flinch when Machado contorts himself into an odd position. In an Orioles-Yankees game earlier this year, Mark Teixeira stumbled into third base and made an awkward slide into Machado. But Machado made the tag without incident, and everyone on the Baltimore bench could exhale. He's the only Orioles player to have appeared in each of the team's first 67 games this season.
"Can you nitpick and say his running times are a tenth of a second higher?" an AL scout said. "Sure. Have the knees affected his lateral movement? It's not something you can recognize. He's basically the same player he was before the injuries. He's a plus-baseball player with very good instincts, and that goes a long way."
If baseball justice is served, the newly reconstructed version of Manny Machado will go all the way to the 2015 All-Star Game in Cincinnati. He can take pride in knowing he made it the hard way.