On Sunday morning, the San Diego Padres play the defending World Series champion Braves in Atlanta. For at least the first half of 2021, the Padres were a much better team than Atlanta and championship caliber.
|Padres in 2021|
Everything that could go wrong for the Padres, went wrong after the All-Star break.
I remember as a kid, owning a Dodgers record album called, “The Sound of the Dodgers.” Vin Scully, narrating a history of the franchise, said at one point in his distinct sing-song voice, The Dodgers…expected to win in ‘62….lost. (pause) Expected to lose in ‘63…they won.
That’s kind of how I feel about the Padres in ‘22. Expected to win in ‘21, they lost. Expected to lose in ’22…well, I think they’re going to win. Win big. Maybe win it all.
And why do I feel this way? Two words: Manny Machado.
On Fangraphs’ tab to find On-Pace (GP%), we can find Manny Machado’s current season stats prorated for the remaining games in the season if he were to play the same percentage of total Padres games that he has already played this season.
I gasped as I looked Thursday morning at Manny’s pace.
|704 Plate Appearances|
|32 Stolen Bases|
I mean, it’s not like the season just started! We’re not 5% or 10% or 15% through the season. After Wednesday’s game, Machado and the Padres had played 32 games (19.7%) of the season.
Through Wednesday’s games, Machado led the Majors in hits (46), runs (27) and average (.383); 2nd in OBP (.460, just behind Mike Trout’s .462) 2nd in OPS (1.085, just behind Trout’s 1.188) and 2nd in SLG (.625, trailing Trout’s .726).
And his value is so much more than that, if you can believe it. There isn’t a team that shifts more than San Diego, and Machado is asked to do a lot defensively. And while Machado’s best days defensively were probably between 2014-2016, he’s still one of the best at the hot corner.
How good? This year, Manny has 3 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). That’s topped by only two 3B (Ke’Bryan Hayes and the incomparable Nolan Arenado). Since the start of 2019, only two 3B (Arenado and Matt Chapman) have more Defensive Runs Saved than Manny.
And offensively, Machado is doing it without much protection in the lineup. San Diego manager Bob Melvin started the year trying Luke Voit and then Jurickson Profar in the cleanup spot after Machado. More recently, he’s turned to Eric Hosmer. None of them have hit in the No. 4 spot in the order (well, until I began writing this column: On Tuesday and Wednesday, Hosmer had five hits and a homer in the cleanup spot. Even with Hosmer’s recent contributions, San Diego No. 4 batters have combined to bat an MLB-worst .153).
Padres cleanup hitters (No. 4 in lineup) in first 30 games of the season
|.119 (13-109 AB)|
A few weeks ago, I told Padres President of Baseball Operations and general manager A.J. Preller that I thought his signing of Machado — In February of 2019 for a then-historic amount: $300 million over 10 years — would go down as the greatest free-agent signing ever. I didn’t say it to flatter. I said it because I believe it.
This is the fourth year of the deal—and the guy does exactly what he was signed to do. More.
Baltimore: 860 games .487 SLG, .822 OPS, OPS+121
San Diego: 400 games .503 SLG, .857 OPS, OPS+133
L.A. 66 games .487 SLG, .825 OPS, OPS+122
Bob Melvin explains his durability this way: “You look at him from afar, is it lackadaisical? No. It’s just a very easy style of play. There’s not a lot of tension in his game, he works really hard and he shows up to play every day.”
You know who else showed up to play every day? Another infielder who played shortstop and then third base for the Baltimore Orioles — a guy named Cal Ripken, Jr.
You know what? Machado turns 30 years old in a few weeks (July 6). If you look at what Cal did in his 20s, you will see similar — eerily similar — numbers to what Machado has done.
Now, remember, Machado turns 30 on July 6 (it’s a scheduled day-off for the Padres, so hoo-ray for Manny and for stats geeks like me trying to figure this stuff out). He has about 50 games left to catch Cal in some of these categories, and has passed him in others already.
|Cal Ripken, Jr.||By 30th Birthday||Manny Machado|
Cal of course won two MVP awards.
But Cal Ripken Jr. had only one other top-5 MVP finish in his Hall of Fame career (he finished 3rd in 1989).
Manny Machado already has as many top-5 MVP finishes than Ripken did in his entire career. Manny finished 4th in 2015 (at the age of 22). He finished 5th in 2016 (at the age of 23). He finished 3rd in 2020 (at the age of 28). And if he doesn’t win in 2022, he almost certainly will finish with another top-5 MVP season.
Machado is doing it quietly now, in San Diego. This week, on a Sunday morning. He’s worth watching. He’s worth paying attention to. And when this Padres team gets Fernando Tatis, Jr. back in the lineup, look out! Hosmer is having a career year; the other under-performing position players will rise; and the team needs to pitch well, of course. But the key to the Padres wears #13.
Padres at Braves in the spring of ‘73
The Sunday Lead-Off game is in Atlanta this week, and that gave me a reason to call my old friend Kevin Barnes for a chat.
Kevin Barnes is part of the fabric of Atlanta televised sports, working official stats or calling in voicers for radio stations for years and years. He drew a paycheck from the Braves for decades, serving in a variety of roles.
Kevin was a batboy for the Braves in 1973, the year the Braves had a trio of hitters that hit 40 or more home runs (Hank Aaron, Davey Johnson, and Darrell Evans). That was also the year Aaron chased Babe Ruth’s career home run record and was vilified by much of the nation for it.
Barnes was in the clubhouse each day — dressed in the clubhouse — and befriended most of the team. “I grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey; and my dad worked for Coca-Cola and was transferred to Atlanta in August of 1972, right after I graduated high school. Enrolling at Georgia State, I made a cold-call to the Braves, wanting to become their batboy. The switchboard operator put me in touch with the new Clubhouse Manager, and I got the job.”
I asked Barnes about what he remembers about his first game, and he remembers…well, everything. “April 6, 1973, the Braves opened against the Houston Astros. The first person to greet and welcome me was their centerfielder, Dusty Baker. We’re still friends after all these years. Hank Aaron was a class guy all the way — all the way.”
When I asked about any other memories that stand out from that 1973 season, Barnes was ready. “I loved Phil Niekro. He was one of my all-time favorite guys. He taught me the correct way to throw the knuckleball—the way he threw it, with fingertips. Anyway, during that ’73 season, there was a Padres/Braves weekend series. I took the weekend off, because a friend from New Jersey was coming down to stay with me. On Sunday, I’m playing stickball with my friend, listening to the game. And wouldn’t you know it, Phil Niekro threw a no-hitter. I never thought I would see one, and I gave up the opportunity to be working — on the field — for Niekro’s!”
I looked it up. On Sunday, August 5, 1973, before a crowd of 8,748 at Atlanta Stadium (Barnes correctly remembered that the stadium wasn’t called Fulton-County Stadium until a few years later) Phil Niekro threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, who had rookie Dave Winfield pinch-hit in one of the first games Winfield ever appeared in the majors.
Luckily, Barnes would see other no-hitters later in his career. Maybe another Braves pitcher — Kyle Wright — will throw one against the Padres on a Sunday nearly a half-century after Niekro threw his?
How to watch Padres vs Braves on Peacock
Ronald Acuna Jr. and the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves host Manny Machado and the San Diego Padres from Truist Park on MLB Sunday Leadoff live this Sunday, May 15 at 11:30 a.m. ET on Peacock. MLB Sunday Leadoff begins on Peacock at 11 a.m. ET. This spring and summer, Peacock is live-streaming an NBC Sports-produced baseball game for 18 consecutive weeks.