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Original Issue

Third Wheels

The Orioles' Manny Machado is a natural at the hot corner. But is it his arm? His feet? His head?

At 6'3", 185 pounds, third baseman Manny Machado is not small—if he were, he would likely still be a shortstop—but in the field he is quick, loose and rangy. He can play deeper than most third basemen because of his speed and rifle arm. He sometimes seems to be in motion before the pitch has even been hit, as if he and the ball had made plans to meet up. And he turned 23 on July 6. "Every once in a while," says Orioles manager Buck Showalter, "I'll mention an actor or a singer or someone, and he'll give me this look, and I go, Right, he has no idea who Frank Sinatra is."

Opinions vary on what makes Machado a great defensive third baseman. Showalter cites his timing and speed. Third base coach Bobby Dickerson first says it's Machado's hand-eye coordination, then decides it's footwork.

"His accuracy is what amazes me," says centerfielder Adam Jones.

"His ability to throw on the run," says shortstop J.J. Hardy.

"At all different angles," says Jones.

"Yeah, all angles," nods Hardy. "That's what's crazy."

"It's all about vision," Machado himself says.

His offense—.300/.367/.531 with 20 home runs—can feel like an afterthought because Machado has been the AL's best defensive third baseman since debuting in 2012. He has led all third basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating and is second only to Colorado's Nolan Arenado (page 34) in Defensive Runs Saved. All the more impressive, Machado came up as a shortstop and arrived in the majors at age 20, after weeks of practice at third base but only two minor league games at the position. So how long did it take him to get comfortable there? "It's still tough," says Machado. "There are plays that are difficult."

At least he's healthy: His 2013 season was cut short by a ruptured ligament in his left knee, and last August he tore the same ligament but in his right knee, requiring another operation. How does it feel to be back at full strength? "I still don't feel like myself," he says.

Oh. Well then. As Machado comes into his own, the next few years promise to be a lot of fun for the Orioles. "He's the type of guy," says Showalter, "when you're trying to decide whether you're going to the game, you know he's probably gonna do something at third base, even on a routine play, that as a fan and a student of the game you're gonna go, Wow. That was worth going to see. And I have a great seat."