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A deeper dive into Orioles star Manny Machado's slow start at plate

Manny Machado is the first to point out there's plenty of baseball to be played this season, that his early-season struggles at the plate will eventually be a memory, that sticking to the routine that brought him success over the past five years will pay off as it always has.

And as the Orioles stumble through their worst stretch of this young season — they entered Saturday's game in Houston losers of five straight and 11 of 14 — the spotlight has been cast on the 24-year-old Machado, because amid the team's streaky batting order, he has usually been one of the steadiest bats.

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That's a testament to the bar Machado set as he has blossomed into one of the game's brightest young stars, But with his team in a tailspin, and Machado suffering through the worst start of his big league career, it's only natural to ask what's going wrong with the All-Star third baseman.

It's not difficult to see Machado is pressing at the plate. To say he's lost would be an exaggeration, but he hasn't been the same hitter he has been in the past.

"But he's playing defense, he's conducting himself [the right way], he's the same person," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He just wants to do better for the team. That's it. There's nothing that complicated about it. Think about how high of a bar he set. I'll keep him."

Machado goes into Saturday's game hitting just .225/.312/.444, his worst batting average through 45 games. The only comparable season is 2014, when Machado hit .229/.280/.330 after opening the season a month late recovering from offseason knee surgery.

"There's nothing really to it," Machado said before Friday's series opener, during which he had his first multi-double game of the season in a 2-0 loss to the Astros. "The hits aren't falling right now. That's why it's hard to play this game, why it's hard to play 162 games, almost 700 at-bats. It's not always how you start, its how you finish.

"But you know, you just have to stick to your routine, stick to your approach, keep doing what I'm doing and not try to change anything just because I'm struggling. It doesn't mean I'm going to start going out there and hitting differently. I'm going to do what I have to do and keep practicing and keep swinging."

A deep dive into the numbers can't explain Machado's struggles. He's walking more than ever, with his walk rate jumping to a career-high 10.9 percent one season after it was 6.9 percent. But he's also striking out more (career-high 19.3 percent over his 17.2 percent in 2016).

Machado is also hitting the ball harder. His average exit velocity is 94.4 mph, which ranked ninth in the majors entering Saturday, and his hard contact rate of 42.1 percent is the highest of his career.

But when Machado first emerged as one of the game's best hitters, he did so in his first full season in 2013 with a record-setting doubles pace where he sprayed the gaps with extra-base hits. As Machado grew into his body and developed more power, the doubles turned into homers, but he still exhibited the ability to spray the ball with authority to all fields.

This year, Machado's pull rate is a career-high 45 percent, a number that has gradually increased with his home run totals. So it's a continuation of Machado's evolution as a hitter, but also an indicator that he's trying to hit the ball out of the park more often, which is evident from some of the from-the-heels swings he has taken this season.

Machado is still on pace for 32 doubles, 36 homers and 89 RBIs this season, but just 10 of his first 40 hits this season were to the right of second base, another indication he has become too pull happy. Also, his fly-ball percentage is a career-high 45 percent, while his line drive percentage is a career-low 12.1 percent, numbers that show he's trying to hit the ball out of the park rather than drive it for extra-base hits.

"I really haven't even looked into it," Machado said of those numbers. "I feel the same. It feels like any other year. Obviously, I'm getting older, I'm getting smarter, I'm getting bigger. That might have something to do with it. I don't know, but overall, just trying to keep doing what I do every day, just stay with the same routine and not do anything differently. That's when you get into bad habits when you try to change things. So I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing. … It's the same thing that's worked for me for the last five years."

Because Machado has never seen his average dip this low at this point in the season, Showalter said it's natural for him to put pressure on himself, and that's compounded by him being a middle-of-the-order batter for a team that's not playing well.

"What he's got to get away from is thinking, 'I've dug myself this much of a hole, I've got to get three hits tonight, four hits tomorrow,'" Showalter said. "But he understands how things work. He's going to seek his level and he's going to figure it out. Sometimes you can coach those guys too much. He's a watcher. He's an evaluator and he talks to people. He's got a lot of people weighing in on it."

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Showalter said he believes Machado's struggles root more from the mental grind of the season than anything mechanical.

"If he wants to talk about it, he will," Showalter said. "But I talk about it more mentally and emotionally, instead of the actual mechanical part of it. He'll figure it out."

Machado has faith he will find his form at the plate, and him doing so can only help an Orioles team that's suddenly floundering.

Machado did hit a pair of doubles Friday, including one into the left-center gap that was reminiscent of how he hit in 2013. With the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a two-run game, Machado jumped on a first-pitch delivery, took it the other way and was just a few feet shy of a grand slam.

"Things are going to turn out. Eventually balls are going to start falling," Machado said. "It's just 40- or 50-some games that we've been playing. We still have a lot of games left, a lot of at-bats, a pennant chase, and that's the only thing I'm worried about, to be honest."

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