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Manny Machado Is The Best Defensive Third Baseman of All-Time

No disrespect to old-school greats, but the Orioles young gunner is swiftly becoming "Lord of The Leather" at third base. 

By J.R. Gamble September 19, 2013, 09:11 AM EST

Manny_machado

When Manny Machado’s Hall of Fame career is done, baseball historians will reflect on the Baltimore Orioles third baseman’s impact. They’ll discuss the effects of his effortless, clutch leadership and bicker about his props as a hitter, and ranking as an all-time Oriole. They’ll all agree, however, that defensively he’s the best hot corner-henchman in MLB history.

When reflecting on Machado’s early defining moments, most of them will refer to “The Play,” that is engrained in every baseball fan’s head with a hash tag, #lethal dopeness.

 
It was the bottom of the sixth inning on a July day at Yankees Stadium, and the Orioles were losing a 1-0 pitchers duel. But an inning–ending play for the ages would inspire the O’s to a 2-1 walk-off win. It would also become the moment when the 21-year-old, baby-faced third baseman from Miami leaped into the conversations about the greatest defensive infielders ever.

On the play, Machado attempts to backhand a deep chopper over the third base bag. Using supreme athleticism, he ventures about 20 feet behind the bag into foul territory, goes to his backhand side and knocks the ball down. The guy running, Yankees infielder Luis Cruz isn’t Billy Hamilton, but he’s no Prince Fielder either. Most mortal fielders would be commended for saving a double and having the quickness to lessen the damage.

But, Machado is like a Martian out there and has a next gear like nobody else. The obvious 2013 Gold Glover knocks the ball down and picks it up with his bare-hand. In one calm, fluid motion and fading away from the play like Eli Manning off his back leg, he whips a 115-foot pea to the first baseman.

To Machado, his mind-boggling plays are like expensive whips to billionaires. Everybody else is in awe, but the money man is already looking towards the next high-tech automobile to floss around town. Similarly, Machado’s a human missile seeking the next play that twists a spectator’s cap back.

"It's not just the physical skills (Machado) has, which are incredible,” O’s shortstop JJ Hardy told espn.com. “It's his instincts for the game that are so impressive. Twenty-year olds usually don't make a play like that."

It’s also important to remember that there are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than any other position, so plays of that caliber are rare.

Machado can do it all. It’s not like he is Greg Nettles with a stupendous glove game and a .248 career batting average. He’s batting a solid .289 with 14 dingers and a league-high 51 doubles. Those aren’t Mike Schmidt power numbers, but he’s only improving and is expected to become a 30-homer guy. It’s the glove love, however, that allows him to calmly laugh in the face of the MLB ghosts he’s chasing.

Known as the greatest slugging third baseman of his generation, Schmidt is a Top 100 all-around player and fierce with the leather too, mixing 10 Gold Gloves in with his three NL MVPs (1980, 1981 and 1986).

The greatest defensive third baseman in history—until now—is considered to be Orioles O.G. Brooks Robinson. “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” was Machado before Machado was born. Robinson’s dominance spanned three decades (1950s-1970s) and 23 seasons. His shutdown handle at the hot corner raked in 16 consecutive Gold Gloves, 18 All-Star games and the top fielding percentage at third base 11 times.

Another wicked third baseman, Clete Boyer, played for both the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves in the 1950s and '60s, leading the league in runs prevented for six consecutive years, while revolutionizing the game with his increased range.

That’s the short list of third basemen whose defensive presence was comparable to Machado’s. Of course, I’m totally discounting dudes like Jimmy Collins (credited with revolutionizing third base with his quickness), who played prior to Jackie Robinson’s arrival. The game moves faster now, the players are bigger, but the size of the diamond has remained the same, so I’d say modern-era fielders have it much rougher.

Baseball purists and cats over 45 are giving me the screw face as they read this. To call Machado "the best ever" with the glove after less than two full MLB seasons is bold, but his highlight reel is comparable to any of the greats and he has a game even the sabermetrics freaks can’t discredit.

According to fangraphs.com, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is a widely-used defensive statistic which puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through fielding ability (or lack thereof). With just under a month left in the season, Machado was sporting a 26.8 UZR, the highest number since the stat came out in 2002.

Even more badass is that Machado was originally a shortstop and can play that position like a funky piano. He looks like a young version of his idol, Alex Rodriguez—a tall power-hitting shortstop from the MIA, rocking No. 13. When the Orioles were struggling in early August of 2012, and were out of options at third, they called the 19-year-old Machado up from Double-A.

He played in 51 games and slugged .445 in 191 at-bats as the Orioles went 33-18 from Aug. 9 on and nearly snatched the AL East from the Yankees.

His skipper Buck Showalter calls him, “special,” but even more than that there is a regal presence about him. He’s not a go-hard, because he knows “he’s the man.”

When Machado was drafted with the third pick of the 2010 Draft, he wasn’t as highly touted as outfielders Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, whom the baseball community was calling the undisputed crème of the young-gunner crop. Now, after getting a good whiff of Machado’s action, some MLB minds are re-assessing their projections.

This, According to ESPN.com, is what one NL executive had to say:

"I'd have Machado at No. 1 because he is more graceful, with flowing athletic skills -- poised and athletic easy-action skills are able to make adjustments as required for longevity, like Jeter and early A-Rod, and like Chipper Jones ' graceful swing.”

"Trout and Harper are both physical strength guys who have a linebacker mentality, the exec continued. “The mentality to be overly physical hurts player, and outfielders have more wear and tear physically."

Maybe those other guys just have to try harder than Machado to be as unbelievable. As good as Trout and Harper are, neither ranks among the all-time greats at anything they do yet. Machado skies for line drives like a volleyball player, steams base hits to all fields like a tennis player, puts high-velocity throws in tight spots like a QB and exhibits his athletic superiority with the grace and flair of a ballerina.

Throughout its long history, MLB has had tons of solid third baseman, but just a handful of cats have been considered elite. It’s probably the easiest position for baseball heads to quickly name a Top 5 G.O.A.T. right off the dome. The steroid era had no respect for the glove, but one thing that’s never been lost is the way a great defensive play can steal the moment on the grandest of stages. Robinson, whose glove work in the 1970 World Series against Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” earned him MVP honors, once said it best: 

“It’s a pretty sure thing that the player’s bat is what speaks loudest when it’s contract time, but there are moments when the glove has the last word.”

Manny Machado’s glove has just started talking and it won’t shut up.

Jr_gamble

J.R. Gamble writes for The Shadow League. He's been covering pro sports as a radio host and journalist since 1996. He's written for The Raleigh News & Observer, Newsday and SLAM Magazine. He has co-hosted Sportsrap Radio with A Tribe Called Quest legend Phife Dawg. Follow him @fanalyst1 & find him on Facebook.

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