So how good is Manny Machado at third base?
I decided to ask a 19-time All-Star and two-time Most Valuable Player who moved from shortstop to third base in the minors, and from the hot corner to shortstop and back again in the majors.
“He’s carving out how to play third base,” said Cal Ripken Jr., “and he’s playing it unbelievably well.”
If that’s how baseball’s Iron Man feels, that’s good enough for me.
“It’s fun to watch him over at third base because it’s a new position for him and new situations and he’s got enough time in now,” Ripken said earlier this week during our phone conversation. “I was watching him the other day on some shifts, looking how deep he was playing at third, all the way back, standing on the grass. That tells me that he’s judging the field, judging the runner, judging his strong arm. And he’s advanced enough to play as deep as he can, provided he has the angle. You can’t play the same depth as the shortstop because of balls that are in between. Spacing is necessary. And depth perspective, too.
“You just look at him and you can almost read his mind. He’s getting more reps and he’s actually able to try things, testing himself. That’s why he made the a la Brooks Robinson, catch-and-throw play while going over to the stands in foul territory. He actually didn’t catch it clean and had to reach down for it during the whole process, and he was still able to pick up the ball and show off his arm strength and throw accurately to get the runner out.
“It’s just little things, like when he catches the ball in his fingertips at full speed and is able to transfer it into his entire hand and fire it across the diamond. It’s pretty amazing to me. He’s learning about himself. It’s like you can look inside his head and he’s processing everything. It’s cool to watch.”
Ripken went through a similar transition on the left side of the infield.
“The first time I moved from shortstop to third base was in the minor leagues and it was so different,” he said. “In those days, the fields weren’t as consistent. The depth was different and you really can’t back up much. There were a lot of in-between topspins and I had to figure out how to read them and make plays. It was pretty challenging. There’s a different spin on the ball at third base than at shortstop. Shortstop is more where you can square up a ball. The angles are pretty true. Sometimes, the angles at third are affected by the slice or the hook of the ball, or the top spin.
“I’m watching him sort of process when to catch the ball and when to goalie up. He makes all the plays. He makes the high-speed plays, too, and he’s almost as good reaching down with his bare hand.
“The games I do see, I find myself peeking at him - where he’s playing, what he’s doing. And understanding your talent with a really good bunter, how to take the bunt away from him. Tease him. Lay it down and I can still get you. It seems like things like that are going through his head. It’s exciting. It’s all new to him.”
And now for the magic question: Should Machado stay at third base or eventually move back to shortstop.
“It depends on the makeup of the club,” Ripken said. “If J.J.(Hardy) continues to play the way he is, why mess with the left side of the infield? I’m curious, though. I want to see him apply his overall skill set, his aptitude for playing baseball from the shortstop position. But I wouldn’t change anything right now. They have the best left side infield, arguably, around. That’s the sort of defense that turns ground balls into double plays. And Manny’s range to his left and his aggressiveness certainly allows J.J. to play a little bit more up the middle, and that’s a big advantage.
“We get caught up in Manny’s skill set, but J.J. Hardy is a Gold Glove -caliber shortstop. He’s brought a tremendous amount of stability to the whole defense. There’s no reason to change that.
“I also don’t think it’s going to hurt (Machado) to play two or three years at third base. In many ways, it might help his perspective going back to shortstop again. When I made my change in the minors, I didn’t have any thoughts about going back to shortstop. Then, when I did, I had a better understanding of how third base affects shortstop, and it helped me going back.”