Last season around this time, Manny Machado looked like one of the best players in baseball, and Bryce Harper looked lost. A year later, it’s as if Machado and Harper are starring in another reboot of Disney’s "Freaky Friday."
Through the end of May, Harper, the Washington Nationals slugger, is one off the National League lead in homers and is among the top six in RBIs, runs, walks, slugging percentage and OPS. He's looking a whole lot like the guy who in 2015 became the youngest unanimous MVP ever. Meanwhile, just up the road in Baltimore, Machado’s scuffling like he has never scuffled before.
Through the first two months of the season, Machado's .205 batting average ranked 80th out of 86 qualified American League hitters. His .286 on-base percentage was in the bottom 10, and his .691 OPS was just outside the bottom 20. On Tuesday against the Yankees, he struck out four times, just his second golden sombrero ever and his first since the 2014 season. After walking 16 times in April, he drew just six walks in May and struck out 31 times, which is seven more than any other month in his career. All this comes on the heels of a standout 2016 campaign in which he hit .294 with 37 homers and finished inside the top five in the AL MVP voting for the second consecutive season.
All of which raises the "Freaky Friday" question: What in the world is going on?
"Right now, he's pressing," said an American League scout who watches Machado on a regular basis. "He’s trying to do a little bit too much."
It doesn’t help that the O’s offense is underachieving, scoring 4.5 runs per game, and the team is losing, posting a 5-14 record since May 10. Nor does it help that the guys hitting behind him aren’t producing as they have in the past: Chris Davis is on pace for 250-plus K's, and Mark Trumbo is on pace for half as many homers as last season, when he hit 47. It also doesn't help that the guy in front of him has been banged up; Adam Jones just missed four games with hip and shoulder issues. And it doesn't help that Machado himself isn’t accustomed to prolonged slumps out of the gate.
A three-time All-Star and former first-round pick, Machado came out white hot last season when he hit .344 in April and won AL Player of the Month honors. The year before that, he started off cold before going on an absolute tear in late April, during which he raised his average 120 points in three weeks. This year? Not so much.
"He’s never dealt with this before," the scout said. "It can get in your head."
Machado’s struggles are also at the forefront of opposing hurlers’ minds.
"These are the best pitchers in the world," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Tuesday when asked about Machado's slump. "They're going to step on your neck when you're down, because they know that you have done and will do damage again."
In Machado’s case, stepping on his neck means upping the dosage of the pitch that has been giving him fits. A career .253 hitter against sliders, he’s batting just .171 against that pitch this season. In related news, he’s seeing more sliders than ever before: 22 percent, up from 17 percent each of the past two seasons. The only problem is that he’s not really seeing them.
"He’s not picking up the spin on the ball," the scout said of Machado, whose swing-and-miss rate on sliders this season is 46 percent, way up from his 33 percent career mark coming into 2017.
The slider isn’t the only pitch he’s having trouble seeing. After hitting .345 against fastballs last year, Machado is down to .179 this season, the third-worst mark in the majors.
Despite the problems, he still has been able to produce. Machado has 25 RBIs and 10 home runs, one off the team lead in both categories. Perhaps most important for Baltimore, Machado, the former Platinum Glove winner, has been his usual stellar self at third base, something that’s hardly lost on his skipper.
"I'm really impressed with the way he's handling some of his challenges this year," Showalter said of Machado, who was accused of a dirty slide against the Red Sox at Camden Yards in late April and then became the focus of an intense beanball saga that followed him to Fenway in early May.
During that four-game series, Machado homered three times and looked as though he was on the verge of turning the corner. But he has struggled since and has also been dealing with a sore finger that kept him out of the lineup for a recent game against the Tigers. With Boston returning to Charm City on Thursday for a four-game series with major AL East implications, the odds of Machado finding himself on the bench again are roughly equivalent to the odds of broccoli retaining heat -- which are roughly equivalent to the odds of Machado's funk lasting much longer.
"We all know he’s a better hitter than that," the scout said. "He’ll get back to it."
Given Machado's recent success against Boston, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him snap out of it this weekend.
Maybe even on Freaky Friday.