Manny Machado entered the 2022 season ready to go. After the disappointing way the San Diego Padres finished 2021, they needed to come out hot this April. The Friars have done just that as they're off to a 9-5 start with a plus-18 run differential despite being without Fernando Tatis Jr. And it's Machado who has led the charge.
In each of his first three seasons in San Diego, Machado has started slowly. In April of 2019 -- his first full month with the franchise -- he posted an OPS of .738 with 25 strikeouts in 91 at-bats. In 2020, during the COVID-shortened season's first month of July, his OPS was .771 and he struck out 10 times in 31 at-bats. And last season he slumped to a .706 OPS with 21 strikeouts in 100 April at-bats. It's become something of a pattern. Machado starts slowly before heating up along with the weather.
Something has changed.
Through the first 14 games of 2022, the Padres' unofficial captain is hitting .358, with an on-base percentage of .433, while slugging .623. He has three home runs, five doubles and 10 RBIs early on, while his 1.056 OPS ranks in the top 10 in the National League. He's also second in the NL in hits (19) while leading the senior circuit in runs scored (12) and bWAR (1.5). Machado isn't just getting it done with the bat, he's second in the NL in defensive bWAR (0.5) as well.
So what is different for Machado this season? Well, he's murdering the ball. His hard-hit percentage is currently in the 96th percentile. When he's getting his pitches, he's attacking them.
This is nothing new, Machado has been one of baseball's best players since his breakout season for the Orioles in 2015. Since that time, no one in baseball has played in more games (1,020). Over that span he's third in home runs (221), fifth in RBI (632), second in total bases (2,006), fifth in bWAR (37.1) and third in defensive runs saved at third base (65). The guy just delivers every season consistently and doesn't take days off.
It's not just the stuff Machado does between the lines though, it's also the way he leads. On Tuesday night, Padres starter Joe Musgrove surrendered a solo home run to Tommy Pham in the top of the first inning. According to Musgrove, as he walked to the dugout he told Machado to "get that one back" for him. Machado nodded his head as he went by, then stepped to the plate in the bottom half of the inning and launched a two-run home run into the left field seats to give the Padres a 2-1 lead. As he got back to the dugout, Machado went over to Musgrove and said, "I got you, dog."
That kind of attitude is invaluable to a team, especially one that fell apart at the seams last season. The Padres badly need that kind of leadership.
If Machado follows a similar pattern of heating up as the season enters the summer months, this could be the year he finally breaks through to win an MVP award. He's a five-time All-Star, was named All-MLB first team in 2019, has two Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger, but he has yet to earn the sport's highest honor. He's finished in the top five in voting three times -- including a third-place finish in 2020 -- but has never won.
The Padres are likely to get Tatis back sometime in late June or early July. If Machado can keep them in striking distance in the incredibly tough National League West, he'll have done a tremendous job. There's no reason to believe they can't sustain their play, thanks to a loaded starting rotation, a good bullpen, excellent defense and enough bats to win games.
With Tatis sidelined, San Diego is Machado's team to lead offensively, and he's done that so far. He's living up to the massive contract he signed in 2019 and this could be the year he's recognized for not only his performance this season, but the incredible numbers he's put up over the last decade.