By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Over the past decade of baseball, few injuries have been as devastating in the moment as when Manny Machado was carted off the field in the final week of the 2013 regular season after injuring his left knee while running to first base.
He was just 21 years old. In that season, he led the AL in doubles with a ridiculous 51 two-baggers, made his first All-Star team and was eventually awarded his first Gold Glove. The sky was the limit for the former No. 3 overall pick by the Orioles, and he was just getting started.
Less than a year later, Machado experienced the most unwelcome case of déjà vu. This time, his right knee buckled during a swing, and down he went again. Unlike in 2013, this time Machado was able to limp off under his own power. But once again, he was finished for the year.
Fans began to worry if Machado could ever be the same after such serious injuries to both knees. He appeared primed to take over the American League with his burgeoning offensive prowess and jaw-dropping ability with the glove on the left side of the infield. But could he stay on the field? Would we actually get to see his prodigious talent manifest on a consistent basis? It was a legitimate concern.
The sentiment surrounding Machado’s teammate Fernando Tatis Jr.’s recent inability to stay on the field elicits similar feelings to those felt by fans early in Machado’s career. Two freak knee injuries are obviously different from the lingering shoulder injury and fractured wrist via motorcycle accident that Tatis has experienced, but the result has been the same: We want to watch this generational talent play baseball as much as possible, and these injuries are robbing us – and the player – of that opportunity!
In Machado’s case, any notion that he was injury-prone was completely quashed once he returned from his second knee surgery. In fact, since the start of the 2015 season, no one has played in more regular-season games than Machado, who has appeared in 1,020.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been injured. In 2021, Machado reportedly dealt with a fairly serious shoulder injury suffered while sliding into second base in April. But he never went on the injured list – and hasn’t been on the IL once in the past seven seasons.
Last year, he appeared in 153 games, including 53 starts in a row from July 22 to Sept. 22. Even as the Padres collapsed in the second half, Machado continued to excel. He finished in the 90th percentile or higher in MLB in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and xwOBA. That he could perform to that degree while nursing an injury all season was a pretty good indication that his third-place MVP finish in the shortened 2020 season was more representative of his true talent level than his relatively underwhelming inaugural season in San Diego in 2019.
Machado’s tremendous durability and remarkable consistency have put him on track for Cooperstown. Only 33 players in MLB history have produced more WAR through their age-28 seasons than Machado (45.2), and 26 of those are in the Hall of Fame. The other seven? Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, Mookie Betts and Vada Pinson. Decent company!
As for Tatis, it remains to be seen how durable he will ultimately be through the remainder of what should also be a Hall of Fame career. Parallels aside, what matters now is that Machado is playing, and Tatis is not. GM AJ Preller has made a boatload of moves during his Padres tenure, acquiring Tatis and signing Machado the two biggest among them. And while he has been overshadowed somewhat by Tatis’ emergence, Machado has hardly been a disappointment thus far.
What’s more, with Tatis out for an indefinite period of time, Machado is going to have to play at an MVP-level for the Padres to keep up with their fellow NL West behemoths in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The good news for Friars fans? Machado has done exactly that.
Through games Wednesday, he is hitting .358 / .433 / .623 and leads all of MLB with 1.4 WAR. As has long been the case with his WAR totals, his stellar defense at the hot corner is a huge component.
Machado has long been compared to another generational talent, the player drafted two picks ahead of him in 2010, who signed an enormous free-agent contract the same winter Machado inked his deal with San Diego: Bryce Harper. While Machado has Harper beat in the WAR department, Harper is the one with two MVPs on his mantle. But Machado has come reasonably close, with three top-five finishes to his name.
Whenever Tatis returns, he will undeniably become the face of this Padres team once again. But if Machado can keep his sizzling start going through the summer and help San Diego return to the postseason, the star third baseman might finally add that elusive MVP to his résumé.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in DC but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he does not get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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