San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado can’t be stopped these days.
During this past weekend’s series against the Miami Marlins, in which San Diego won three out of four games, Machado dominated, going 7-for-13 with two home runs, a .625 on-base percentage and a 1.625 OPS. Machado currently leads the National League in runs scored, hits, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases and wins above replacement.1
Machado already ranks among the best infielders of his generation, but at age 29, he is tracking for a once-in-a-career season — the kind that defines a Hall of Fame candidacy for a player whose resume is still a work in progress. However, as important as Machado’s performance has been to him individually, it has been even more vital for his team. It cannot be overstated how indispensable Machado has been to the Padres so far in 2022: He is currently on a historic pace for single-handedly carrying a playoff contender.
Machado’s history with the Padres is already fascinating. Out of many possible free-agent suitors in the 2018-19 offseason, San Diego won over Machado with what was (at the time) a record-setting contract and the chance to lead baseball’s youngest team, with the sport’s best collection of up-and-coming talent. But that formula didn’t pay immediate dividends in 2019, as Machado had his worst WAR (2.38) in a season since 2014, and the Padres improved by only four games (from 66 wins to 70) despite adding such a coveted talent to their infield.
It wasn’t until the following season — the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign — that San Diego’s Machado-led vision finally came to fruition. The third baseman played at a career-best pace of 7.76 WAR per 162 games in the short schedule, with a 150 weighted runs created plus at the plate and strong defense (+13 runs above average per 162 games),2 as the Padres secured the franchise’s first playoff bid since 2006 and even won a series before falling to the eventual-champion Dodgers in the second round.
But that came as part of a major ensemble effort. Teammate Fernando Tatís Jr. was arguably baseball’s biggest breakout star of 2020, following up on a promising but injury-marred rookie season in 2019 to blossom into an MVP candidate with even more WAR (8.19 per 162) than Machado. In addition to Machado and Tatís, the Padres had five other players — outfielders Trent Grisham (6.35) and Wil Myers (5.16), second baseman Jake Cronenworth (4.36) and pitchers Dinelson Lamet (6.84) and Zach Davies (4.44) — play at a rate of at least 4 WAR per 162 team games, as San Diego ranked second in total WAR from position players, eighth from pitchers and second in WAR overall.
After their big 2020 breakout, the Padres looked like a team to reckon with for years to come. Building around their young core, they added pitchers Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove and Mark Melancon (among others) to load up for a repeat playoff bid. Things seemed good for most of the first half of 2021, too, with San Diego sitting 13 games above .500 at the All-Star break and around an 87 percent chance of making the postseason in our forecast model. But that’s about when everything fell apart on the Padres’ season: Thanks in part to a devastating series of injuries that sidelined Tatís and, at times, what felt like every pitcher on the roster — no team lost more days to the injured list than San Diego last season — the Padres went 26-43 in the second half (the fifth-worst record in the NL over that period) and their playoff hopes vanished.
It wasn’t Machado’s fault. Though his WAR-per-162 pace (4.62) was down from 2020, it was still his second-best season since 2016, as he continued to hit (122 wRC+) and play defense (+5 fielding runs per 162) at an above-average rate. And in fact, as San Diego’s season was imploding around him, he was one of the few Padre hitters to maintain an OPS better than average during the second half of the schedule.
But while San Diego’s downfall couldn’t be blamed on Machado, he also couldn’t do very much to prevent it. That’s just baseball for you: Although Machado had a good season, he still was responsible for just 13.1 percent of the team’s total WAR. Everything else was on the rest of the roster. This is why most of the time no individual player can reverse a team’s collapse, regardless of how talented he is.
All of that seemed pertinent again for the 2022 Padres after they received the news in March that Tatís would need surgery on his wrist, potentially keeping him out for three months. While the Padres weren’t exactly entering the season strapped for talent — they have MLB’s 10th-highest payroll — their playoff potential was far from certain, even under MLB’s new expanded postseason format.
A month later, the Padres’ outlook is much rosier. San Diego has opened the season with a 19-11 record, good for a better winning percentage this year (.633) than it had last year (.488) or even in the 2020 campaign (.617). Our forecast model now gives the Padres a 75 percent chance to make the playoffs, despite the fact that Tatís has not played a single game all year — he’s not even cleared to swing a bat yet — and is just one of numerous big-name players on the team’s injured list.
How is this possible? Well, with apologies to some of the other Padres off to hot starts (yes, Eric Hosmer is also hitting well), Machado has basically put the team on his back and carried it to this point. As mentioned above, he currently leads baseball in value produced, playing at an absurd full-season pace of 15.17 WAR per 162 team games with a 217 wRC+ and +14 fielding runs above average per 162. But that only tells part of the story.
Machado also has been personally responsible for 34.2 percent of San Diego’s total WAR, which is a ridiculously high number for a player on a good team. A few players this season have a higher individual share of team WAR than Machado, headlined by Ke’Bryan Hayes of the Pittsburgh Pirates at 55.6 percent. But the Pirates have collectively compiled almost as much negative WAR (-3.7) as positive (5.7) this season, so Hayes’s excellence isn’t exactly helping Pittsburgh rise above his teammates’ incompetence.
Meanwhile, building a successful team with one player producing more than a third of the value is unheard of. If Machado somehow maintained his share over a whole season while leading San Diego to the postseason, he would shatter the divisional-era record — set by Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1981 (31.7 percent) — for the highest share of team WAR produced by an individual player on a playoff team.
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Beyond Machado, there are a few names from 2022 on the list — the stars-and-scrubs White Sox are their own very strange case study — so it’s clear that outlier performances in this regard will likely fall by the wayside as the season goes on. For the Padres and their star third baseman, there are a couple ways that can happen: Either Machado will slow down and will be unable to keep propelling San Diego into playoff position all by himself, or with more and more teammates eventually returning from injury (including Tatís), the group around Machado will pick up its pace and require fewer individual heroics to lead the way.
Clearly, the Padres would prefer the latter scenario to be in their future — and it’s not an unrealistic expectation, given how little some of their other important players (Darvish, Grisham, Lamet, Myers, catcher Austin Nola, etc.) have contributed to start the year. San Diego’s plan was never to ask so much of Machado, even with Tatís expected to miss much of the season’s first half. So it could very well be that Machado’s stellar early play ends up being exactly what the Padres needed to stay afloat in the playoff race until reinforcements arrive later in the season.
If not, though, Machado will just have to keep carrying the Padres’ playoff hopes on his shoulders — and potentially make history in the process.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.