Alek Manoah Blew His Way Out Of The Majors
4:43 PM EDT on June 6, 2023
Alex Bregman had the dubious honor of making the first and only out Alek Manoah recorded in his start against the Astros on Monday night. This isn't a blog about Alex Bregman or his deal—it's a blog about how bad Alek Manoah has been, and we will get to that in a moment—but boy, must Bregman feel like a fool! Imagine being the one guy in the lineup who couldn't get in on this first-inning action: Manoah gave up a single, a bunt single he tried blowing across the foul line, and another RBI single to start. He retired Bregman on a flyout, then gave up a single, a walk, a grand slam, a single, and another ... can you guess ... single before being pulled by Jays manager John Schneider, Toronto trailing 6-0 in the top of the first before the lineup turned over. Manoah left the mound to applause from Jays fans. They were cheering at the sight of Schneider walking toward the mound.
The 38-pitch, one-out start raised Manoah's ERA to 6.36, and the only real surprise at this point in Manoah's season is that the number isn't higher. This afternoon, he was sent all the way down to the Florida Complex League. It's been a very weird fall. A year ago, the young pitcher carried himself like an old-school ace. He kept opponents off-balance by "tunneling" his fastballs and slider cleanly off each other so his pitches couldn't be identified out of the hand until it was too late for hitters to adjust. Though he posted relatively low strikeout rates for a Cy Young candidate, just an 8.24 K/9, he managed to induce lots of soft contact and ended the season with a 2.24 ERA. (He finished third in AL Cy Young voting last year, behind Justin Verlander and Dylan Cease.) In a memorable mic'd-up moment, he charmed All-Star Game viewers by being a weirdo on the mound. He was a confident, amped-up character who simply loved to pitch!
Last year's Manoah had so much dog in him he even starred in a lovely Jeff Passan story about the "dying breed" of workhorse starting pitchers who longed to pitch deep into games. Here's what he told Passan last year:
"I'm a big f---ing guy," Manoah, 24, says now. "I'm strong as a horse. I'm built for this stuff. ... I can take some hits, man. If you don't let a pitcher pitch, you're never building him up. You're never letting him struggle. I say this all the time: 'Let me get my ass kicked.' They understand that dog in me. I want to be out there."
This is one explanation for Manoah's 2023 decline, that on every fifth day, he has been demanding that his ass be kicked. Manoah may be the last of a dying breed, but mostly he's looked like he's just dying. He's striking out batters less and walking them way more: His incredible walk rate of 6.52 per nine innings, more than twice as many as he gave up last year, would easily lead MLB, but Manoah isn't even a qualified starter at the moment. He's lasted five innings in just five of his 13 starts and six innings in only two of those. (One short start wasn't Manoah's fault: Schneider forgot his pitching coach had already made a mound visit in one inning and had no choice but to make a pitching change when he made a second visit.)
Eighty percent of baseball fandom is wondering "what happened to this guy!" (derogatory) or "what happened to this guy!" (pleasantly surprised), and the Jays need quickly to figure out what happened to their guy (derogatory) as they tread water in the AL East. He seemed like a good candidate for a phantom IL stint or even just a skipped start, but the Complex League move suggests he needs more than just a quick break. "Everything is on the table," Schneider said after the Astros game, when asked about how the team planned to get Manoah right again. "We’re just trying to help him get back to the caliber of pitcher that he was."
Command and mechanics will probably be the focus of Manoah's time in the FCL. Good Manoah threw an effective, sharp-breaking slider; Bad Manoah can't throw the slider for strikes at all, and when he does throw it in the zone, it's being blasted. Opposing batters hit .190 against the slider in 2022 and are averaging .328 against it this year with a .626 slugging percentage. By run-value, it has been the fourth-worst pitch in all of baseball. His velo on every pitch has also been down going back to spring training, leading me to wonder, has this man been pitch-clocked? Is he a victim of our new and unforgiving efficiency culture? Less time to recover between pitches is certainly something that could send a pitcher's delivery out of whack, and it is a notable change from this season to last season. By Statcast's pitch tempo metric, which measures the time elapsed between the release of two pitches, Manoah was one of the slowest-working starting pitchers in baseball last year and he remains one this year. (The same was true of his teammate Kevin Gausman last year, though, and Gausman has been fine.)
Schneider told press today that the team preferred the Florida Complex League over Triple-A because it offered a "controlled environment" for the team to analyze Manoah's mechanics and delivery. Perhaps in a Dunedin pitching lab, he will find the dog he has lost.