Zach Wilt: Manny Machado will be just fine

There were a lot of bold predictions made about Manny Machado entering the 2017 season. I went big, proclaiming that this year Machado would be crowned the American League’s Most Valuable Player. It just seemed like the natural next step for one of the game’s premier young talents.

Machado finished fifth in AL MVP voting last season, and finished fourth in 2015. He continues to amaze us all with his seemingly daily highlight-reel defensive plays and has added a bit of pop to his bat over the last couple seasons, belting career-high 37 home runs in 2016. Machado was valued at 6.5 fWAR in 2016, leading the club with nearly four wins more than the next closest Oriole.

Last night in Toronto, Machado went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout. His batting average fell to .179 on the season and he has just two hits in his last 17 at-bats. That MVP prediction isn’t looking great so far, but I’m not about to back away from it. For starters, there’s still a ton of baseball to be played. We’re just 4.9 percent through the 2017 season. A lot can happen between now and game 162. I’m sure the Blue Jays and their 1-8 record would agree.

Besides the tiny sample size, some glancing at Machado’s data reveals plenty of reasons to hold off on worrying. For starters, Machado’s walk percentage in 2017 has absolutely skyrocketed. Entering last night’s contest, Machado had posted a 13.8 BB%, twice as high as what we saw from him a season ago. That 13.8 walk percentage earned him a .310 on base percentage.

Machado has also managed to cut down on his strikeouts, slimming his strikeout percentage to a career-low 13.8 coming into the Toronto series. This overall improvement in plate discipline is made evident when examining the PITCHf/x data for Machado’s swinging percentages inside and outside of the strike zone. Through the first seven games of the season, Machado had swung at just 21.3 percent of pitches that he’s seen outside of the strike zone. If he’s able to keep up that pace, he’d slash about 10 percent off his total of 32.0 percent from 2016. That’s a pretty drastic increase in discipline.

Based on the overall zone percentage for Machado this season, or the percentage of total pitches Machado has seen inside the strike zone in 2017, I’m assuming I wasn’t the only person with MVP predictions for the Orioles third baseman. Last year, 45.9 percent of pitches that Machado saw were in zone for strikes, 48.2 the year prior. In 2017, pitchers are giving him even less to hit, only 39.5 percent of the total pitches he sees are in the strike zone. Only 17 players in the big leagues have seen a lower percentage of pitches in the strike zone so far.

Pitchers fear this guy, but the good news for Machado - and for Orioles fans for that matter - is that when he gets his pitch, he rarely misses. Machado makes contact with 90.3 percent of the pitches he swings at inside the strike zone. On all pitches he swings at, inside and outside of the zone, Machado has made contact 76.6 percent of the time. That’s right around his contact percentage from a season ago.

You have to think that Machado will begin to see more strikes and with that will come more hits. He’s got a proven track record in that department. If nothing else, Machado’s crazy low .200 batting average on balls in play entering last night’s game is reason enough not to get too worried. Your typical league average BABIP is around .300. Last year it was much lower than it’s been in previous seasons at .286, but even that is .086 points higher than what we’ve seen from Machado so far.

The more established this guy gets and the bigger threat he becomes for the Orioles’ opponents, the less likely he’ll see strikes. Still, Machado has proven that when he gets that pitch, he does plenty of damage to it and he’s shown the discipline that his club needs, regardless. No reason to panic yet, Orioles fans - there’s plenty of baseball to be played and I still see Machado as a serious MVP contender in 2017.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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