Weird but true: Manny Machado plays baseball

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There’s a piece over at The Athletic today about Manny Machado. It’s by Dan Connolly, who has covered Machado for his entire career. As such, he’s in better position than almost anyone to talk about the article’s subject. And, as far as it goes, it’s a good article.

The subject of the article, however, speaks to something which has irked me quite a bit this offseason: it’s almost completely about Machado’s character, his hustle, his attitude and all of that.

You know the general contours of it by now: for all of his good points, Machado’s drive, hustle and attitude are an open question. He didn’t hustle on some plays in the World Series and answered questions about it rather poorly. He tried to step on Jesus Aquilar’s foot and made a dirty slide. Several years ago he threw a bat in Josh Donaldson‘s general direction after the two of them beefed in a game. He’s not exactly Al Kaline in the deportment department. We know this, and Connolly goes through all of that stuff in good, mostly fair detail in the article.

Is it fair to bring that stuff up with Machado? Absolutely. Teams are considering paying him $250 million or even $300 million bucks and making him the centerpiece of their team for as much as the next decade. Maybe you only look at an arm when you sign a reliever and maybe you only look at a glove when you sign a backup infielder, but for a big time free agent like Machado, the whole package is on the table.

My issue, though, is the extent to which the focus in the media, from front offices and in the affected fan bases has been on Machado’s attitude and how little it has been on Machado as a baseball player. Indeed, I have never heard so much talk about a free agent as talented, as young and with as great a demonstrated track record as Manny Machado that has focused so thoroughly on things that have nothing to do with his actual merits as a baseball player.

This is both in terms of volume of coverage — so, so many articles on the “hustle” stuff, so few on the “MVP-level talent” stuff — and in how the admittedly negative things about him have been so overblown. Look even at Connolly’s article: he frames it with an anonymous survey of Machado’s former teammates with the Orioles, asking them if they’d give him a $300 million deal if they were a GM:

Most of Machado’s now former teammates emphatically said yes, they’d give him that kind of money because he’s young and a great talent and, frankly, players want to see other players reach financial heights. It’s good for business.

But one teammate stopped, sighed and said, “That’s a really tough question.”

He then broke it down for me.

That led to a discussion of Machado’s shortcomings. It framed everything that came after. But . . . that very same player did say, in the end, that he would give Machado a $300 million contract. Rather than frame it all as “one guy hesitated for a minute, thereby justifying all of the reasons people have cited for teams to be careful with Machado,” shouldn’t the upshot of it be “literally everyone who knows Machado well agrees he should get the money, his shortcomings notwithstanding?”

There was nothing else in the article — again, from a reporter who knows Machado better than probably anyone — that sends up serious red flags. We obviously can’t know anyone from the outside that well, but he’s portrayed as a stable family man and a good teammate. He, like a lot of Latino players, is said not to have a close relationship with the media, but to the extent he has interacted with them he has been polite and complementary to them. He has dogged it a couple of times in some high profile settings, but it’s mostly noticeable because it’s an anomaly. His teammates and those who have watched him most closely credit him for hustle and for hard work in coming back from injuries and in playing all the time, as much as he possibly can.

I am not saying it’s illegitimate to talk about his shortcomings — many of which have been magnified by his own post-gaffe comments, which have not helped his cause — but I find it so odd that so much of the talk about him this offseason has focused on those things and so little of it has focused on the fact that Machado is supremely talented, has produced big numbers, is very young, plays an important defensive position at the moment and, assuming he spends most of his next contract at third base, will likely play an only somewhat less important defensive position supremely well for the foreseeable future. It’s a question of balance, and that balance has been way, way off with respect to Machado compared to other big time free agents in the past.

Why is that balance off? Hard to say, but I have a couple of ideas.

I think some of it is due to unfortunate stereotypes that have been applied to Latino players in the past. The deportment, hustle and attitude of Latin players has always been under a far more powerful microscope than that of other players and when they have slipped up in this department it has always been held against them far more than it has been held against others. Latin players are “lazy,” whereas white players “take a play off” or “conserve their energy.” Latin players have “attitude problems” or are “dirty,” whereas white players are “gritty” or “play hard.” I’m not saying any one person is consciously applying those tropes to Machado this offseason — most people know better by now — but it sure is easy to autopilot to that stuff, even unconsciously, and I suspect some of that is going on here.

Less charitably, I think it’s probably worth noting that we’re now in year two or three of front offices being far, far stingier in the free agent market and that it is in their best interests — and in the interests of the many media members and fans who carry front office water — to depress that market however possible. Machado, along with Bryce Harper, are the first two very young, top-of-the-market guys to hit free agency since front offices got cheap and it’s not surprising in this environment to see stuff that works against a free agent, rather than for a free agent, be emphasized. It’s why we’ve heard a lot more about Harper’s defense in the past month than we did in the previous six years. Why might Hal Steinbrenner, for example, eagerly lap up the “Machado’s hustle is a concern” talk? Because it’s in the Yankees’ best interests for Machado to look less valuable he might otherwise be.

Whatever is going on here, it has created a very, very weird conversation about Manny Machado. A guy who, oddly enough, and despite most of the press coverage about him, plays a little baseball from time to time. He’s pretty good at it too. I might even go so far as to say that he’ll help his next team win a few games.