Baltimore Orioles star third baseman Manny Machado is known as a lot of things to a lot of people who follow Major League Baseball. Three-time All-Star. Two-time Gold Glove Award winner and 2013 Platinum Glove winner. Defensive maestro and regular MVP candidate. And, he's one of the many luminaries in the next wave of young superstars.
He's even got a nickname or two: "Baby-Faced Assassin" is, oddly, one of them for this 6-foot-3 hot corner stallion. More importantly, Machado might just be the key to the Baltimore Orioles' resurgence in the second half of Major League Baseball's 2017 season.
Machado debuted as a starter in August 2012 and has been indispensable ever since, a cornerstone of the Orioles' infield as they returned to winning after their 14-year absence from the postseason, from 1998 to 2011. Yet Machado says he doesn't try to make sparks or carve out a specific role for himself in the organization. He simply focuses, he says, on playing a very complete game of baseball.
"The game is changing, I think," he tells Rolling Stone. "Pitchers are throwing harder, but good teams try to combat that with different ways of getting on base. I just try to enjoy the game, play with a smile on my face, and be the best I can be."
One of the things that makes Machado smile most is getting baserunners out and making big plays.
"Defense is number one. Hitting is hard, and even when you work to improve, you can still struggle. Defense for me is where I really love to put work in most. Defense is, in my mind, what wins games."
Last season, Machado was a Top 10 player in Defensive Wins Above Replacement, a metric that identifies players with the biggest fielding impact. In 2013 he led the entire American League in Defensive WAR, as well as outs made, doubles, at-bats, and plate appearances.
For as much as Machado might prefer the glove over the bat, the right-hander's plate prowess is nothing to dismiss. He was selected to represent Baltimore and the American League in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in 2015 and 2016, while also registering over 180 hits and a slugging percentage in the .500s both seasons, along with 35-plus home runs. Though Machado's 2017 batting numbers have dipped slightly, he enters Friday's game as one of Baltimore's home run leaders, tied with 2017 All-Star second base teammate Jonathan Schoop with 18.
Machado also has versatility as a player. During the 2015 season Machado led the O's far and away in stolen bases, logging 20, even though he's stolen only four bases so far this year.
"Not stealing as much, I think its just completely random. I try to hit with power and do the right things. If I need to steal bases I can steal bases."
Looking back at the beginning of the season, and the predictions by baseball's prognosticators, 2017 has defied expectations. So, too, has the American League East division.
Just before Opening Day 2017, conventional wisdom described the American League East division as a likely battle between the O's and last year's first place Boston Red Sox, while the New York Yankees were all but written until 2018. But the AL East is a competitive division as any.
After a stint in late spring that saw the Yankees climb to first place, the Red Sox surged just before the All-Star Break, thanks to a solid pitching rotation led by left-hander Chris Sale. Even though Red Sox are right now back on top, Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge threatens to break more records and help the Yankees win more games, while the Tampa Bay Rays have also staged a mid-season comeback to tie New York at second place. This all comes after Baltimore started red hot, winning seven of their first 10 games and 14 of their first 20 in April, only to go 20 straight games in June giving up five runs or more to opponents.
During that stretch, the O's lost 16 of June's 28 games, which included a four-game losing streak June 8th to June 11th, in which Machado was sidelined from a strained wrist. Be that as it may, Machado says that he thinks his team's chemistry can smooth over the difficult spots that arise in a 162-game season.
"I think the group of guys that we have, we've been together for the last couple years now," Machado explains. "And, we've created a sort of bond." Machado mentions that the combination of younger players, like himself and Schoop, as well as vets like DH Mark Trumbo and first baseman Chris Davis, all of whom strengthen that bond.
"The way that the game is played today, you're going to battle everyday," he says. "But I look at the guys we have in the clubhouse and that gives me energy."
Machado also points to the leadership of manager Buck Showalter. The three-time American League Manager of the Year, Machado says, cultivates a respectful, hardworking culture and what Machado calls "a right way to play," while also letting the O's personalities be who they are.
"Buck is a guy that is very precise," Machado says. "But once you get to know him and he knows you he lets you settle in to your style."
Despite the notoriety he's gained in six seasons, Machado says he tries to take direction and influence from management and the club's more seasoned players. "I'm still young, and it's hard to be a leader at this point. So I just go out there to work my best with my teammates and try to take care of business."
Whether that business on any given day is grabbing the most difficult infield balls or running bases, Machado also feels that there's no place like home.
So far in 2017, the Orioles are one of the better teams when playing at home. June 14th starts a 10-game home stretch in Baltimore, in which the Orioles host the Chicago Cubs, followed by American League rivals, the Texas Rangers and then the Houston Astros.
"Playing at home is always better. You get to sleep in your own bed, drive your own car, and see your own fans," Machado says. "Just going to the field every day and knowing the guys on your team have your back, [plus] the home crowd – it gives you what you need to get through games, come back and win, and play your best baseball."