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6 things to know about Machado's defense

Free agent had an eventful transition to shortstop in 2018
November 16, 2018

Which team will land Manny Machado? And how big of a contract will be needed to get that done? These are questions that will be answered within the next few months, as one of the Hot Stove's two biggest free agents -- along with Bryce Harper -- looks for his

Which team will land Manny Machado? And how big of a contract will be needed to get that done? These are questions that will be answered within the next few months, as one of the Hot Stove's two biggest free agents -- along with Bryce Harper -- looks for his next destination.
But there are a couple of other pressing question regarding Machado that might not be resolved on the day the four-time All-Star tries on his new jersey at an introductory news conference.
First, is Machado a shortstop moving forward? And if so, is he a capable one?
• The latest Machado free-agent rumors
Not satisfied with being a two-time Gold Glove Award winner at third base, where he was widely recognized as one of the game's best defenders, Machado took a chance moving back to his natural position in 2018. He had started just 49 games there since his big league debut in 2012, and the transition did not go smoothly. Advanced metrics weren't kind to Machado's performance at short, although his numbers improved considerably after his mid-July trade to the Dodgers.
Now, with Machado poised to land one of the largest contracts in baseball history, here is a look at six things you need to know about his defense, and his future at short.
1. He was excellent at the hot corner
Machado was a shortstop when the Orioles drafted him third overall in 2010, and he played the position almost exclusively during his brief time in the Minors. But with slick-fielding veteran J.J. Hardy installed at short in Baltimore, the club had Machado shift to third. To say he took to the role would be an understatement.
In 2013, Machado's first full MLB season, he won a Gold Glove and posted a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) of +35 -- the highest single-season mark at that position on record (since 2003). Single-season defensive metrics certainly should be taken with a grain of salt, but even from 2014-17, Machado's +39 DRS at third base ranked third in MLB behind only Nolan Arenado and Adrian Beltre. His +23.2 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) also ranked third, behind Beltre and Anthony Rendon.

2. His move to short was a tale of two teams
As mentioned, there is danger in putting too much stock in small-sample defensive data. With that said, Machado's numbers as a shortstop in Baltimore stood out like a sore thumb. His -18 DRS there was lower than the full-season number for any shortstop other than Boston's Xander Bogaerts (-19), and his -7.2 UZR ranked last.
But that didn't stop the contending Dodgers from trading a five-prospect package for Machado and having him make 49 of his 65 starts for the club at shortstop, plus all 16 in the postseason. For what it's worth, Machado's defense at short appeared to rebound significantly in L.A., as he was +5 according to DRS and +0.8 according to UZR.
3. Positioning could be a big factor
Ken Rosenthal reported in The Athletic last month that former Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette and some of his fellow front office officials in Baltimore believed that some O's players, including Machado, "benefited from joining teams with managers and coaches who were more receptive to analytics." While that's difficult to prove, it's certainly true that the Dodgers are well known for their aggressive use of information.
The most dramatic difference likely would show up in Machado's positioning on a pitch-by-pitch basis, something that could be dictated by factors including the batter, pitcher, baserunners, count and game situation. But even Machado's overall positioning could provide some clues. For example, with the Dodgers, his average starting spot against left-handed batters was a foot shallower and three degrees (roughly a few feet) closer to second base than it had been with the Orioles, according to Statcast™ data. That might have made it easier for Machado to reach certain batted balls, thereby improving his range score.
4. His arm is a cannon
Statcast™'s positioning data shows that Machado plays one of the deepest shortstops in the game, and that might be because his right arm provides him with a little extra breathing room. There were 38 shortstops who made at least 75 "max-effort" throws in 2018, and Machado's average velocity of 88.3 mph put him on top easily.
Highest average SS arm strength, 2018

  1. Machado: 88.3 mph
  2. Carlos Correa: 87.8 mph
  3. Javier Baez: 87.2 mph
  4. Willy Adames: 86.7 mph
  5. Jean Segura: 86.5 mph

5. He's not a sprinter
Much has been made of Machado's hustle, or lack thereof. But it's also true that speed is not one of the tools that makes him a star in the first place. Statcast™'s sprint speed metric, which measures players' top speed on "competitive" plays, was 26.3 feet per second this year. That put him below the MLB average of 27 ft/sec, and ranked 49th out of 52 qualifying shortstops
But while speed certainly can be an asset defensively, it isn't necessary for a shortstop in the same way it would be for a center fielder. The Giants' Brandon Crawford ranked last among shortstops in sprint speed (25.9 ft/sec) but once again was solid with the glove (+6 DRS). The Angels' Andrelton Simmons won his second straight Gold Glove while ranking 40th among shortstops with a barely above average 27.2 ft/sec sprint speed.
6. He's still young
Machado turned 26 in July, making 2018 his age-25 season. His youth is a big part of his appeal as a free agent, and it also should increase optimism about his chances as a shortstop, which is a distinctly young position. Of the 36 players who spent at least 50 games there in 2018, not one was older than 31, while all but six were 28 or younger. At 25, Machado was right at the median age of the group.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.