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Orioles shortstop Manny Machado is tagged out Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien while attempting to steal second base in the top of the fourth inning Saturday at Oakland Coliseum.
Orioles shortstop Manny Machado is tagged out Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien while attempting to steal second base in the top of the fourth inning Saturday at Oakland Coliseum. (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Manny Machado can't win, and Manny Machado can't lose.

In a season that's looking like it's over before the Orioles even got a chance to give it their best shot, their free-agent-to-be superstar has been one of the best players in the game but can't seem to satisfy a fan base that he's spoiled for his entire career and is growing agitated by a season that appears to be dead in early May.

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He also has nothing left but his own performance, whether it's under these losing circumstances or for a contender if a trade materializes, to determine the contract that this offseason could be among the richest in baseball history.

That dynamic hasn't bothered him any, at least outwardly, but it makes assessing Machado's season so far quite complicated. By comparison to a team that is otherwise the league's least successful collection of hitters, he is utterly blameless. But far more frequently than he or anyone on the team would publicly admit, he's had the same challenges as anyone else in orange.

Machado is operating outside all that chatter — the trade speculation, his pending free agency, his impulsive play at shortstop that manager Buck Showalter says includes "errors of aggression" — and hitting his way through it all.

"I don't think he's listening much at all," Showalter said. "That kind of stuff actually kind of drives him. He likes to do stuff that people perceive as, 'Jeez, How do you do that?' I think people make too much of it. Guys don't pay that much attention to it. The things that they can control, they don't pay much attention to [what they can't]. Like when someone's throwing at him, he knows he's going to get in the box and be able to control it. That's not a driving factor for him."

No matter which of the two calculations for wins above replacement (WAR) is used — FanGraphs or Baseball Reference — Machado has been among the game's best players this season. By fWAR, he ranks sixth with a 1.9, fifth most in the game. In bWAR, he's 10th among position players at 1.8. No Orioles position player is even close to that.

Almost all of that is fueled by his offense. He's batting .346/.430/.623 with nine doubles and nine home runs. Look no further than his .273 average with two strikes—well above his career rate of .210—to illustrate the development in his approach at the plate and how he's fighting for every at-bat.

Showalter believes his move to shortstop is part of that.

"I think you continue to see maturity," Showalter said. "As a hitter, we sometimes forget how young he is. He's a guy that hit .260 in Double-A when we brought him up. He's evolved as a hitter, and I think he really, really enjoys playing shortstop. I think it's really brought the whole mindset for him — and actually, because it's so involved playing shortstop, I don't think he has [time to think] as much about his hitting because he's so involved at shortstop, he has to separate the games completely. He's done a good job of that."

But defense as a means for better offensive production has never been Machado's M.O. When he's been at his best, with two career top-five finishes in Most Valuable Player voting, it's been bolstered by his defense. That was at third base, not shortstop, and there are both anecdotal and empirical references that suggest he's nowhere near the heights he reached at third base at his new position.

He rates 25th out of 26 qualifying shortstops with -3 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs. With a .773 conversion rate on balls in his zone, he rates a more respectable 14th, but he still specializes in the spectacular. With 24 plays made out of his zone, he rates seventh. His elite arm and ability to harness its strength from any body position allow him to make plays some other shortstops can't.

But he hasn't mastered the routine there, and has made five errors in the process. He made one Friday on a throw to first base, and could have been charged with a second when an awkward flip to second base forced Jace Peterson to try to barehand the ball, as the throw was too far from his glove side. Peterson couldn't and got the error instead.

After that game, Showalter said he's "not going to throw anybody under the bus." Sunday, he said Machado is getting comfortable at the position "little by little."

"He's solid there," Showalter said. "Some of the errors that he's made are errors of aggression — trying to throw at somebody on a relay where we probably didn't have a play. Some plays that normally, whether it's your catcher not quite catching a hot and they charge him with the error or a throw somewhere else like the one at second base, they're always errors of just aggression, trying to make something happen. Sometimes, the way we're going, when something's not there it's forcing the issue."

And there's the rub. Machado has always been aggressive, and in the past he's simply eliminated those aspects. He stole 20 bases in 2015, but early in 2016, he came in for criticism after he ran into outs in front of sluggers such as Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo. So he simply stopped running. It's been reintroduced into his game a bit since, but he was caught stealing Saturday right before Mark Trumbo smoked a double to the left-center-field wall. That would have been the team's best chance to score all night.

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Whether it's something like that or a play in the field, Showalter doesn't seem like he's ready to publicly engage Machado on a change in his approach. A reproach of the only player on the team not hovering at or below replacement-level through 34 games is low on the priority list.

"A mistake that people make with Manny, or a guy like Manny, is you take away the imagination and make them robotic," Showalter said. "You need to let him, and I want our guys to think if you see something or you feel something, go for it. If you're always walking around saying, 'Gosh, I wish I'd done this or wish I'd done that' — you've got to trust yourself. If he sees something, I want him to have this freedom to go for it. There's a lot of things you want to take back after the fact, but no one talks about it after the fact. You see him go after a ball and think, 'Gosh, how's he going to make a throw at that angle?' But he's got a feel for it. He's made some plays at shortstop already that I don't know that anybody makes."

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