Manny Machado is more than a month into the first extended stint at shortstop in his blossoming major league career, relearning the position that was all he'd known before he reached the big leagues.
Perhaps it's the taxing responsibilities manager Buck Showalter describes as a shortstop's pitch-to-pitch decisions that have taken the shine off his childhood position, or maybe just a pang of longing for third base, the spot where in 2014 he was named the league's best fielder, but he's not ready to reveal which one he likes better.
"They're both a position that I love," Machado said. "One I grew up playing, the other one is what I've created myself as the player I am in the big leagues — a savage player. They're both two good positions I've been able to go out there every day and do what I can to be the best at whatever position I could be."
Wherever he's been, his best has been quite good enough for the Orioles this season.
With his bat, Machado has been on pace to at least match last year's breakout campaign, batting .307/.377/.600 with 15 home runs and 21 doubles in 56 games. He was rated as one of the game's best fielders at third base when shortstop J.J. Hardy fractured his foot on a foul ball on May 1.
The first version of the Orioles' lineup for the first post-Hardy game featured Ryan Flaherty at shortstop and Machado still at third. But Machado met with Showalter, made what Showalter called an offer to do what's best for the Orioles, and has played shortstop in all but one game — part of a doubleheader — since.
Showalter was recently asked whether Machado had become as good at shortstop in that span as he was as a third baseman.
"There seems to be a lot of good defensive shortstops, so maybe it's not the separation that it is at third base," Showalter said. "How's that for a safe answer? He's good. He's been good. What's he made? Six errors on the year. Probably four of them have been throwing. You just have to make a lot of throws on a dead run and hope the first baseman picks them."
By traditional stats, Machado's six errors at shortstop put him 11th in the league, though he's played fewer games there than most. Advanced statistics are harder to judge in such small samples, but indicate Machado has been an asset at both positions.
Ultimate Zone Rating uses a variety of factors, including batted ball type and the average fielder's range at a position, to measure how many runs a certain batted ball would cause, then assigns the value of that ball to the fielder based on whether a play was made. It's recommended to use them over multiseason spans to get a full picture, and Machado was one of the six best fielders in all of baseball for the last three seasons by that measure at third base.
Because it's a counting stat, UZR/150 equalizes those who have different amounts of chances at the position. By that measure, Machado has an 11 UZR/150 at third base this season, according to FanGraphs. At shortstop, his UZR/150 is 7.3, which is still plenty positive but ranks 14th at the position.
Machado said he hasn't had time to step away and give much thought to his place at either position.
"I look at it as I've got to go out there, make plays, make outs and I've got to do what I've got to do to survive out there," Machado said.
Simply by the eye test, it looks like Machado has the physical skills for the position, but is still in the process of adjusting. Showalter said that on top of being a physical challenge to cover more ground, other aspects of the job make Machado's life more difficult at short than third.
"It's a grind," Showalter said. "It's different. … It's more mental, emotional in every pitch. And he's been good at it, OK? I think he's [doing] a little different type of, you know, deep breath after a game's over. He's talked to [third base coach] Bobby [Dickerson] some about it, about the difference. You're into every pitch, you've got so many decisions to make. Man on first, who's covering the bag on a breaking ball, fastball — there's so many things happening there.
"He likes it. He enjoys it. But I'm not going to say he's looking forward to going back to third. I don't think he really thinks about it a lot. It's what the team needs me to do."
Machado has taken that mantra about the positional change. He's still among the major league leaders in wins above replacement (3.1 per Baseball Reference, 3.3 per FanGraphs). And as long as he's helping contribute to a first-place club, he doesn't care where he sets up in the infield.
"I've been doing it my entire life," Machado said. "Nothing has changed. It's just trying to do what I've got to do to win games. At the end of the day, that's all that matters."