CHICAGO — — When the Orioles promoted Manny Machado last August to play third base, they felt the 20-year-old's impact immediately. His defense solidified one of the club's weaknesses, and the stability he provided at the position was instrumental in the Orioles' first playoff appearance since 1997.
But this year, in Machado's first full season in the major leagues, the 2010 first-round pick has taken his game to another level, his name spoken in the same breath as past baseball wunderkinds Ty Cobb, Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle. He already is mentioned along with some of the greatest homegrown Orioles — Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell, Cal Ripken Jr. and Brooks Robinson.
And today, Machado celebrates his 21st birthday.
For most people his age, success is finding a summer internship. Instead, Machado quickly has become one of the top players in the game, joining baseball's youth movement that also includes Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.
Machado, who could be named an American League All-Star when the teams are announced at 6:30 tonight, ranks second in the major leagues with 118 hits. And his 38 doubles put him on pace to break Earl Webb's 82-year-old single-season record.
His play at third base evokes images of the best defensive player at the position not only in Baltimore, but in history — 16-time Gold Glove Award winner Robinson.
“Somebody at 20 years old, they usually can't compete at this level,” hitting coach Jim Presley said. “You look at it in awe of what he's able to do at 20 years old. I mean, 20-year-olds just don't do that. He's playing like he's 27, 28 years old, like he's had a few years in the big leagues, by just everything he does.”
When manager Buck Showalter put Machado in the No. 2 spot in the batting order this spring, it could have been considered a leap of faith. After all, Machado hit in the bottom third of the order last season when he was recalled from Double-A Bowie on Aug. 9.
Now he has become one of the main catalysts in a dangerous Orioles batting order. There's no doubt he belongs.
“I don't want to say I'm surprised,” Machado said of his success. “But it's been fun. It's been exciting and being a part of this team makes it that much easier. Having guys in here who root for you and knowing they have your back no matter what, it definitely makes it better for you to just go out there and play.
“And having a manager like Buck, he just lets us play our game. He trusts us, and to have him there, giving us the support we need and the trust he gives us, it just makes the transition easier. The game is already hard enough as it is, and to just be able to go out there and play the game, we know everything falls into place.”
The part of Machado's game that most impresses Presley is his consistency. Most young players excel for stretches but struggle as pitchers make adjustments when facing them. This season, Machado has persevered. He's tied for the major league lead with 34 multi-hit games.
“The only other player at his age I've seen who I can compare with him is Ken Griffey Jr., and I saw him at age 19 in the big leagues, and he was doing the same thing that this kid is doing,” said Presley, who played with Griffey in 1989 with the Seattle Mariners. “I would say, at this point, this kid is ahead of what I saw Ken Griffey Jr. do. … Griffey was a little bit more athletic. But this kid here, with what he's done offensively and playing third base like he does, that's the only other guy I've seen at a young age do what he does, besides Trout.”
When he watches Machado hit and use the entire field — pulling a ball down the left-field line in one at-bat and sitting on a breaking ball on the outside corner and taking it the opposite way in his next at-bat — Presley said he has to remind himself of Machado's age.
“He's been taught that since he's been 12 years old,” Presley said. “He's been doing this for a long time and has the right approach and played for a long time. So when he showed up here, he knew how to do it. That's the other impressive thing. The approach to hitting, he does it as good as anybody, and I've seen Miguel Cabrera, and he does it at a young age as well as anybody.”
Machado said since he was 13 years old, everything in his life focused on baseball and preparing for an opportunity to play in the major leagues. That's when he began training with former professional baseball player Frank Valdez in Miami.