For the better part of his career, Jimmy Rollins was criticized by some Philadelphia Phillies fans for not always sprinting to first base. Rollins also won a league MVP, and whether or not he was the best player in the franchise’s 2007-2011 run, he was the face of the run. Charlie Manuel famously benched Rollins in August of 2012 after he didn’t run out a lazy fly ball. Rollins still reached first base when the ball wasn’t caught, but the belief at the time was that had he been sprinting in an anticipation of a potential drop, he could have ended up on second base. Still, Rollins regularly referred to Manuel as the best manager he ever had and when the Phillies fired Manuel in August of 2013, Rollins said he would have a fishing buddy in Florida.
Rollins, an old-school city and an old-school manager co-existed despite his occasional indifference to running balls out. It didn’t hurt that Rollins was a likable personality that was a star during the most successful era in franchise history.
Philadelphia’s ability to handle a superstar shortstop that occasionally only runs with 75 percent effort to first base could soon be tested again.
In last Saturday evening’s Game 2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado found himself on the wrong side of a debate you don’t want to be in at this time of the year. Machado didn’t sprint to first base on a ground ball to shortstop in the top of the fourth inning. Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports, one of the most respected baseball writers in the country, criticized Machado’s seeming indifference to running to first base on the grounder. Jim Palmer, a Baltimore Orioles icon that got to see Machado up-close for six-and-a-half seasons, did the same.
Machado, well, he had a mixed response.
“I’ve been thinking about it and it happens every time, there’s no excuse for it honestly,” Machado told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. “I’ve never given excuses for not running. I’m not hurt, there’s no excuse, but I’ve been the same player.”
If that sounded like a half-answer, it was only the tip of the iceberg on Machado’s honest, yet perplexing answer.
“On 3-0, I’m trying to drive one out. I hit a 100 MPH groundball (actually 76 MPH) right into the shift, right to the shortstop,” Machado continued. “Before I even step out of the box, I look to the shortstop, he has the ball in his hands and I’m like, ‘I’m out.’…I mean, what am I going to do?”
In many senses, Machado’s second answer reminds you of Phillies manager Gabe Kapler admitting that during Game 1 of an August double-header, the team essentially waived the white flag halfway though. Kapler told the collective media, which included Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia: “The fact of the matter is, in the fifth inning when we’re down 11 runs, we started to prepare for the second game.” The Phillies, after allowing the Mets to score 10 in the fifth inning, used Roman Quinn and Scott Kingery to get through the final three innings of a 24-4 loss. The next day, Kapler was criticized for giving up on the game. At the same time, that criticism came after the Phillies rebounded to win Game 2 of the double-header 9-6, with the bullpen asked to pitch the final three-and-a-third innings.
Could the Phillies have come back against the Mets, down 15-4 entering the bottom of the fifth? It’s not impossible. But Baseball Reference says the Mets entered that inning with a 100 percent win expectation. Like the lazy fly ball that Rollins hit and ultimately saw misplayed, crazy things happen in baseball sometimes. There are other times during a 162-game season that you have to see the bigger picture.
With that taken into account, Machado’s less-than-desirable effort running to first base didn’t come in the fourth inning of a random summer game. It came during the fourth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS, with the Dodgers already facing a 1-0 deficit in the series. If Rollins hits a lazy fly ball that is dropped in August of 2012, largely a lost season, and he only gets to first base instead of second, so be it. If Machado hits a ball in the hole at shortstop, the shortstop has trouble getting the ball out of his glove, but he’s still thrown out because he didn’t sprint to first base, that does matter. The Dodgers ultimately won Game 2 of the NLCS, but they trailed 3-0 until the eighth inning. Considering they lost Game 3 of the NLCS Monday evening, the Dodgers would be entering tonight in a nearly insurmountable 3-0 deficit if they hadn’t won Game 2. Is this making too much of one play? Perhaps, but one play can often decide who wins a postseason series.
Not short with thoughts on his controversial lack of hustle in Game 2, Machado continued to Rosenthal.
“Obviously I’m not going to change, I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’ and run down the line and slide to first base and, you know, whatever can happen,” Machado said. “That’s just not my personality, that’s not my cup of tea, that’s not who I am.”
This quote, which has become the headline of many national articles, comes off as responding to a narrative that isn’t there. Machado was criticized for not running hard to first base. No one reasonable is asking him to slide into first base. He’s in the midst of a postseason run and nearing a potential record contract. Sliding into first base wouldn’t make sense for Machado. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense for anyone in any situation to slide into first base because it’s slower than just sprinting through the bag.
Machado, 26, had perhaps the finest offensive season of his career in 2018. In 162 regular season games between the Orioles and Dodgers, he slashed .297/.367/.538 with 37 home runs, 107 RBIs and a 35.6 offensive WAR. With his move to shortstop – where even despite some second-half improvement, he posted -12 defensive runs saved in 2018 – Machado isn’t a perfect free-agent target. But he’s still one the Phillies have seemed to have their eye on for nearly a half a decade. So if you’ve only casually followed Machado’s career to this point and this is the first time you are hearing about his baserunning being put under a magnifying glass, welcome. You may be hearing this debate for the next decade.
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