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The Case Against Signing Manny Machado

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When the Cardinals don’t get Machado, here’s why you should be fine with it.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Manny Machado had his third best season by fWAR in 2018 at the age of 26. It was a 6.2 fWAR season, which would be better than most players’ best seasons. He plays a position of need, in so far as the Cardinals have a position of need. He would be a big upgrade over the current starter at 3B, which is a difficult thing to accomplish on a team with a bunch of average or better players. He is also a free agent at the age of 26, which can’t be repeated enough honestly. So why don’t I want him on the Cardinals?

Honestly, I’m kind of mad. Machado’s playoff antics made this take not as unpopular as it otherwise would have been, and now it seems like I’m jumping on the bandwagon. My reasons, mostly, do not have anything to do with him purposefully stepping on a player’s leg while running down the first base line or making a questionable slide. They have something to do with it, but it’s not my primary reason. I didn’t want Machado before the playoffs even began.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate. I don’t want Machado, but only because I want Bryce Harper. If the Cardinals sign Machado, I won’t go stomping my feet, making a big fuss about how I wish we didn’t sign him. I just vastly prefer Harper to Machado. Always have, at least as long as these two options were moderately feasible options to go on the Cards. This article is an attempt to talk to myself on why, because it feels a little irrational.

I’ve had a gut feeling that I will attempt to explain with numbers that he will not age well. This is why I feel irrational about my opinion. Because it’s a gut feeling. By writing this down for a mass audience, I’m exposing myself to look stupid in 5-10 years when he does in fact age perfectly fine, but it’s a $300 million gamble (or more!) in my eyes. It’s not my money, which is why if the Cardinals ultimately do go in that direction, I would have no issues talking myself into the signing with ease.

But Machado, largely, has never been as good of a hitter as his reputation. This year, his bat matches his reputation for the third time in his six (and a half) professional seasons. To be perfectly fair, three have come in the last four years. Up until the back half of this season, he has played his entire career at Camden Yards. Camden Yards is one of the five greatest places to play if you hit home runs. Since his rookie year in 2012, only Yankee Stadium, Great American Ballpark, Miller Park, and of course Coors Field have a greater park factor for home runs if you’re a hitter. The park itself appears to middle of the pack for runs, but if you hit a lot of flyballs, you can see how it might benefit you more than the average player.

Quick primer on the numbers: ESPN Park Factors works similarly to wRC+, except 1.000 not 100. Anything below 1.000 is beneficial to pitchers, anything above it means hitters are benefiting. To put the numbers in more specific terms, from 2012-2018, Camden Yards has a HR park factor of 1.187 runs. Busch Stadium... is the opposite of that. In that same timeframe, Busch Stadium has a HR park factor of .883. That is very low. For 2018, it would have placed between 26th PNC Park and 27th SunTrust Park. So he’d be moving from a top 5 HR stadium to a bottom 5. Go ahead. Be more impressed with Matt Carpenter’s 36 home runs this year.

Now, I’m less illustrating this because I think he will become a worse hitter with the Cards. wRC+ takes into account park factors after all. I’m more trying to emphasize that he’s probably not the hitter you think he is. Would you be surprised to know he has a career .335 OBP? Even in the last four years, when he’s markedly improved as a hitter, his OBP is just .345. A .345 OBP would have ranked 5th on the Cardinals in 2018 among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. (Yes, he would have ranked higher if you gave everyone 600 plate appearances. I’m just making a point that it’s pretty low for an elite hitter)

Looking deeper at his numbers, I’m sort of clarifying why I don’t really want him. He’s very much the type of hitter I hate watching, especially once things start going downhill for him (which theoretically should be well into the future and not anytime soon). He’s not very patient. His non-intentional walk percentage is 7.5% which is pretty low for someone who hits as many homers as him (Only Javier Baez and Trevor Story have lower BB% with 30+ HRs). He doesn’t strike out much (16.4 K%), but he sort of makes up for that with infield fly balls (13.7%), which are outs nearly as much of the time as strikeouts.

Machado, considering his age, is almost shockingly slow. His sprint speed of 26.2 ranks 399th in the MLB, about on par with Luke Voit and Pedro Alvarez. Over his career, he has a negative BsR of -5.9, which over six and a half seasons, means he’s only a little below average. He had knee surgery following the 2013 season and ended his 2014 early because of a knee injury. He ranked 232nd in the league at age 23, but next year fell to 406 presumably to protect his knees and has been around there ever since. So with a lot of infield fly balls and being a slow runner, he’s never going to have a high BABIP. Since his sprint speed fell massively in his age 24 season, his BABIP is .294 and he hasn’t had one higher than .309.

You want to know what I could very easily see happening if Machado comes to St. Louis? Him pulling an Ozuna. Cold April weather keeps home runs in the park that otherwise would go. He responds by being overaggressive and impatient, not taking walks and having a bad plate approach. He’s never quite able to recover enough to return to his previous level.

Defensively, things get trickier. Machado is a career +10.5 UZR/150 fielder so that’s simple right? Well, not exactly. For one thing, he has not quite been the same fielder since when he started his career. For his first three seasons, he was a +14.8, +21.5, and +12.5 fielder, but hasn’t been that since. Since 2015, in 3,878.67 innings (which is a good sample), he is a +5.9 fielder.

There’s also the matter that he wants to play short apparently. I’m not going to take his 2018 numbers at face value, but they aren’t encouraging. You could look at those numbers in one of two ways: either there is something about his defensive talents that really works at third but doesn’t at short or he’s declining defensively. As for the former, that’s not an issue so long as he will play 3B. If he’s not, he’s giving up more value by playing SS because he’s a worse defender at SS than the transition from 3B to SS would indicate. In other words, if he’s a +5.9 3B but a -7 SS (which he probably isn’t), he’s giving up nearly a full win in value. Giving up any value at all would be terrible, because Paul DeJong appears to be a good defensive shortstop.

If you don’t think he’s particularly bad at SS and that should be incorporated into his expectations defensively next season, that moves his expected UZR/150 to +4.8 at 3B, because you have to incorporate the SS numbers. If he’s a +4.8 UZR/150 fielder at 3B, he’s a -0.2 fielder at SS. Though we do not have enough data, that would be worse than DeJong based off what we know. Basically, let’s hope he’s particularly bad at SS and also is willing to never play short. Hmm, money talks, but other teams will surely let him play short if he wants, no?

Then of course, there’s the fact that Manny Machado seems to truly earn his reputation as a dirty player. He got very normally tagged out at third by Josh Donaldson and then threw his helmet at him while falling over. He nearly got hit by a pitch and then just so happened to let his bat fly out of his hands. Not only in the playoffs, he seems sometimes have questionable slides into second. Now, some of these examples are from a few years ago, buuuut when you purposefully try to kick a player’s foot off the bag, risking injury, on the national stage right before you hit free agency, you’re not really going to get the benefit of the doubt.

Manny Macho is a great player, but I just think there are enough questions about him that make it normal to balk at his upcoming salary. His defense is more of question mark than it otherwise would be because of his desire to play short, not to mention his declining numbers from when he started his career. He had a 103 wRC+ season just last year. While they haven’t been a problem lately, knee injuries will probably affect him longer-term.

This is all likely irrelevant anyway. I don’t get the sense that Machado has any desire whatsoever to go to St. Louis. I am about as positive as one can be that the Cardinals will not be signing Machado. (I realize I’m just daring this to happen by saying this). That’s fine. Consider this post a message to the fans who will inevitably be disappointed when he doesn’t sign. I don’t think the Cardinals should choose to sign Machado if they choose to spend that type of money. And that is my case against Manny Machado.