SAN DIEGO — Being Manny Machado means you don’t have to always give 100%.
He’s so skilled he can sometimes play at a high level without being fully engaged. He’s got so much of what the Dominican players call flow that other times it just looks like he’s not fully engaged. It’s who he is and probably a big part of why he is so productive. He just plays. He also plays virtually every game, and he believes conservation is a part of why he can do so.
But being Manny Machado in 2020, playing for new manager Jayce Tingler and first base coach Wayne Kirby, means you’d better look like you’re giving 100% at least a good percentage of the game. And whether it’s 80% or 90% or whatever% running to first base, you know you need to give more than you have been on a daily basis.
“It’s something I’ve worked on,” Machado said in March. “I’m always going to lack at it, but you can get better at it. At this point, it’s something you can control. I’m going to put a lot of emphasis into it this year. It’s going to translate to other parts of the game as well.”
Machado started 156 games last season, more than any Padres player except first baseman Eric Hosmer. Machado’s 661 plate appearances ranked in the top 30 in baseball. He was second on the team with 32 home runs.
No small contribution. Just not what the Padres paid for.
And it wasn’t what they will demand going forward from their $281.1 million man, which will include running a little harder to first base on a regular basis.
“What we’re looking for is productive,” Tingler said. “There is a certain standard we have to do.”
Especially with just 60 games in a season, it would seem the need to conserve energy is far less.
Asked Saturday about the difference between a 162-game season and 60-game season, Machado offered a response that was typically Manny in its equivocalness.
“It’s just go out there and play baseball, don’t try to think of it as anything different,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s the same game. Obviously, with the shorter season you want to start off as hot as possible. That being said you don’t want to put pressure on anybody. You just try to go out there and have fun.”
While he has played more games (793) than any major leaguer except Hosmer (795) and had more plate appearances (3,469) than anyone over the past five seasons, Machado wasn’t interested in offering specific insight Saturday into the relative difference of playing in a 2020 campaign shortened by the spread of COVID-19.
“Playing 60 games, I’m going do everything possible,” he said. “Hopefully our whole team stays healthy. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Here’s the significant part about Machado:
During spring training, he looked and acted and sounded like a superstar who has been humbled, which isn’t easy for the swaggiest of dudes from the 305.
“We grew up with that swag,” Machado said last year. “People always wanted to beat Miami kids. They always knew we were better than anybody else. When we came into their town, they wanted to beat us. We always had the chip on our shoulder that we knew we were better than them. We had more swag than them, we were more talented.”
He knows playing at last year’s level isn’t enough to be what he believes he still is.
There simply was no denying that in 2019 he wasn’t what he was before that. His .256 batting average was the lowest of his career, and his .796 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) was his second-lowest since 2014.
Padres general manager A.J. Preller referred to the team adding a top-10 player when Machado was signed in February 2019. That stood up, because his 24.4 WAR (wins above replacement) ranked fourth, his .856 OPS ranked 21st and his 142 home runs eighth over the previous four seasons.
Machado owned his failures last season in an interview near the end of the season and even more so when he spoke in separate end-of-year meetings with Preller and executive chairman Ron Fowler.
“It’s the truth,” Machado said. “It’s reality. I fell toward the end of the season. I didn’t continue what I did midway through it. Sometimes you just have to own up to it, realize the truth and get better. You learn from those mistakes. You learn from those flaws. The only way you get up is being honest with yourself.”
Machado agrees it wasn’t acceptable. And it would seem the only thing worse than making a mistake is not working to fix it.
So he set about doing so this offseason, adhering to a “clean” diet prepared by a private chef. A leaner, more defined physique testifies to his workouts. His personal trainer even joined him at the Peoria Sports Complex for the start of spring training.
He said he continued his healthy regimen during the three-month shutdown.
“There were times it was Groundhog Day — the same thing every day,” he said. “But the best thing we have as athletes, as professional baseball players, is we like routines. It was trying to find a routine that works for you. … You wake up, drink coffee, relax, chill for bit, get a workout in, and eat clean through the day.
He is leery of making excuses but acknowledged the difficulty of regularly having workouts interrupted by calls from his agent, discussions with teams and the strain of the unknown during free agency.
“Just imagine squatting 350 pounds and you get a phone call from your agent and a team wants to talk,” he said in March. “Or you’re running sprints and get a phone call from your agent. This is your life; it’s life-changing. … I was ready. It wasn’t that I wasn’t ready. It’s just you’re not 100 percent into your training in order to come here. You’ve got to mentally train as well. … If you’re not mentally there, you can physically be there, but it creeps up on you over the long haul.”
So what drives a 27-year-old guaranteed to have made more than $330 million (down almost $19 million due to the 102 games lost from this season) in his career by the time he’s 35?
“Being the best player I can possibly be, being the best player that can play this game and hopefully one day look back and say I did everything I can to be one of the best players in the game,” Machado said. “At the end of the day, it’s about being a Hall of Famer, winning championships.”
Just 66 players since 1900 had a higher WAR in their first eight seasons than Machado’s 36.7. Of those, 53 are in the Hall of Fame, two haven’t been elected primarily due to suspicion about PED use and six are active.
But Machado knows he isn’t going to the Hall of Fame finishing with more performances like 2019.
“Oh, 100 percent no,” he said. “But not everyone is perfect. There are a lot of Hall of Famers that have had down seasons. It’s normal. This game is too hard the best thing you can do is learn from those down years, make those improvements.”
The Padres are counting on it.
“We’re very pleased with the way he conducted himself since the season was over,” Fowler said on the first day of spring training. “He realizes he didn’t have the year either he or we wanted. I think he recommitted himself to making sure 2020 is a better year for him and for the Padres.”
San Diego is Machado’s part-time home now. He will be a renter no more. He has a new home close to Petco Park.
His affinity for San Diego is apparent in what he says about winning a championship here. After going to the playoffs three times with the Orioles, Machado was on the cusp of earning a ring with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2018 World Series when they lost in five games to the Boston Red Sox.
“When you’re here in the long haul, here a whole season, it is completely different,” he said. “You feel a little out of it when you come halfway. You don’t really know all the guys, you didn’t grind with them through spring training, you didn’t grind with them through the first half of the season. Is it a great experience? It’s the best experience ever. That is never going to be taken away. But when you can do it in your hometown and the team you’ve been grinding with and you know the sweat and tears that everyone put on the field, it’s a little more emotional and a little better feeling.”
His desire to win was something talked about among players and staff last season. The precipitous dip in his production coincided with the Padres dropping from contention last season.
“We want to win,” Machado said. “I definitely want to win. I want a ring. There is nothing better than going out and celebrating with your teammates. When you don’t celebrate come September and you’re not popping champagne, it sucks.”
To that end, he says that champagne will taste the same come this postseason.
“The team that is standing at the end is the team standing at the end,” he said. “You’re the best team. You’re better than all the other 29 teams.”
His first steps will be taken toward first base.
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“Just going out there, it’s about what you wear across the jersey,” he said. “You’re representing your organization, you’re representing your teammates. How are we going to look out there as a team? If I can do that being the top guy, a lot of people will follow.”