BALTIMORE — There is a strip of base line dirt, perhaps two feet wide, that sits exposed between the pair of tarps protecting the infield grass during batting practice at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. That dirt is Manny Machado’s pregame sweet spot. As he takes dozens of grounders at third base under the late afternoon sun, some three hours before game time, he lobs the ball back, just so, to the fungo-wielding coach who is hitting to him.
If Machado’s toss is too short, hitting the forward tarp, the ball deadens and bounces three or four times, requiring the coach to stoop to pick it up. Throw it too long and it hits the rear tarp, skips and short-hops the coach’s bare hand. Only when Machado’s long lob has the perfect height and distance and lands on that strip of dirt, a microscopic target from a distance of some 100 feet, does the ball take a single healthy bounce and land gently in the coach’s hand.
One recent afternoon, Machado, the Baltimore Orioles’ third base sensation, hit his target roughly nine out of every 10 times, kicking angrily at the dirt in front of him near third base any time he missed.
“If he has a bad day and I wind up having to stoop over four or five times to pick it up, he actually comes up and apologizes,” said the man with the fungo bat, Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson.
These are the things the Orioles love about Machado, the 20-year-old phenom who rescued their 2012 season following his heavily hyped August call-up, and who is looking to do even more — and lift the Orioles even higher — in 2013.
Sure, the Orioles love all the obvious, flashy things about Machado, too — the Brooksian diving stops at third base, the game-winning home runs, the major league-leading 22 doubles through Sunday. But with no less fervor, the Orioles also love Machado’s subtle charms: His attention to detail, his veteran’s demeanor, his aversion to making headlines, his bunting acumen, his preternatural baseball aptitude.
Marveled Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations,: “This guy was born to play baseball.”
That exhilarating feeling that slowly arose and overtook Baltimore last summer — that the Orioles were back as a proud franchise, with real hope and a real future — has a face now: a baby face, with big ears, a close-cropped haircut and a love-this-game smile. It belongs to Machado, the Miami native who, just three years out of high school, is batting second and playing third for a team (currently third in the American League East) with real playoff aspirations.
Remember that ubiquitous debate of winter — which young player would you rather have, Bryce Harper or Mike Trout? These days, smart folks debate it three ways: Harper, Trout or Machado? Indeed, through the first 100 games of their careers (a milestone Machado passed this weekend), Machado has a higher batting average and on-base-plus-slugging percentage than Harper and more RBI than either Harper or Trout.
Still, it is somehow fitting that despite all Machado’s spectacular defense and gaudy stats — including a 2.9 WAR (or wins above replacement, a catch-all sabermetric stat that measures a player’s overall value to his team) that led all AL position players through Saturday’s games — his signature play to this point as an Oriole was something much more subtle.
Charging a soft roller in the ninth inning of a tie game against Tampa Bay last September, Machado faked a throw to first, then pivoted suddenly toward third base, where pinch runner Rich Thompson, running on contact from second base, had bitten on the fake and overran third. Thompson was quickly tagged out in a rundown for the third out, and in the next half-inning, Machado led off with a single and scored the winning run in a critical victory on the Orioles’ path to the AL wild-card playoff berth.
That type of awareness and execution was something many veterans aren’t capable of. But what made it even more remarkable was the fact Machado, by that time, had been playing third base for only about five weeks. Drafted with the third overall pick in 2010 (two spots after Harper), Machado had been a shortstop his entire life — until last August, when the Orioles, who had already locked up veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy to a long-term deal, decided in the throes of a pennant race that they could no longer abide the leaky defense of Wilson Betemit at third base.
The process of transitioning Machado from shortstop to third base is a story unto itself. The Orioles’ brain trust, Duquette and Manager Buck Showalter, started the process some two months before the call-up, sending director of player development Brian Graham to Class AA Bowie with orders to start having Machado take grounders at third. To keep it out of the media, they would meet in the early afternoon when the stadium was empty, and to keep Machado from getting alarmed, they had a couple of other middle infielders take grounders alongside him under the guise of merely being prepared for emergency duty.
“I called Buck after the second day [of watching Machado work out at third base] and told him, ‘There’s no question in mind he can play third base in the big leagues,’ ” Graham recalled. “The only learning process was figuring out the angles and hops, and knowing how to position yourself.”
From Machado’s perspective, the learning process was much less complicated than that. “Just slide over and play the game,” he said. “I mean, what do you have to do in this game? This game is pretty simple. You gotta get outs. You gotta make runs. Defense? You gotta catch the ball, get the out. . . . Third base is the same thing. You have to catch the ball and make the out.”
Machado played all of two minor league games at third base before the Orioles made their big move, calling him up to the big leagues last Aug. 9. One of the first calls he got was from the Nationals’ Harper, his former teammate on the under-18 Team USA squad in 2009. “Congrats,” Harper told him, according to Machado. “You’ve earned your shot. Now go out there and play your game.”
Machado had a single and a triple in his debut, then a pair of homers in his second game. Starting the day of Machado’s debut, the Orioles went 33-18 down the stretch, the second-best record in baseball over that span, and made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
Because he is from Miami and has a large frame for a natural shortstop, Machado is frequently compared by talent evaluators to Alex Rodriguez — who happens to be a mentor to him, having worked with Machado in Miami in past offseasons. But in Baltimore, the comparisons, with growing frequency, are to another big-framed shortstop who broke into the majors as the Orioles’ third baseman before being moved back to shortstop midway through his rookie year: Cal Ripken Jr.
“He reminds me of how I think Cal would have been if he had played third base his entire career,” said Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher and current Orioles broadcaster who was nearing the end of his playing career when Ripken broke in.
Machado simply shrugs off the comparisons: “I’m Manny. I’m not A-Rod. I’m going to play the game the way Manny plays and be myself.” His defense is already Gold Glove-caliber — some advanced defensive metrics, such as those compiled at Fangraphs.com, rate him as the best defensive third baseman in the game so far this season, by a wide margin — and his bat has come along sooner than expected.
Machado’s long-term positional projection is a bit of a sensitive subject. The company line is that he remains the Orioles’ shortstop of the future, but with Hardy — a first-time Gold Glove winner in 2012 — under contract through 2014, that future is still a ways off in the distance. And besides, some in the organization felt all along that Machado’s larger frame would be a better fit at third.
Asked last week about Machado’s long-term future, Duquette, perhaps fittingly, reaches back to the franchise’s glory days for his answer, quoting the late Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver — the same man who moved Ripken back to shortstop in 1982, altering the course of baseball history:
“ ‘Like Earl said, ‘Sign all them shortstops, and then we’ll worry about where to play them when they get to the big leagues,’ ” Duquette said.
In Baltimore, you don’t go around quoting Earl Weaver or invoking the Iron Man casually. But when it comes to Manny Machado, such nods to the richest parts of the franchise’s history seem entirely justified.