Alek Manoah enters Thursday’s bye with a 1.81 ERA and 2.52 xERA, so it’s hard to characterize his sophomore season as anything more than a smash hit.
Despite overall production, Manoah’s surprisingly found his strikeouts plummeted, going from a pitcher who produces significantly more strikeouts than average, to a guy whose K/9 is decidedly unimpressive.
While it must be a little disconcerting for the Blue Jays to see their star’s K/9 (7.88) approach Jordan Lyles’ mark (7.84), this graph exaggerates the extent of the problem.
Because Manoah has been so efficient at generating outs, he faces fewer batters per inning, which means he has fewer opportunities to rack up strikeouts. A graph of his gross strikeout percentage more accurately shows the extent of this change:
Those numbers help reinforce the fact that the 24-year stuff hasn’t slowed down in an overall sense. The velocity on each of his four pitches is within 0.3 mph of where he was last year, and there hasn’t been a seismic shift in motion or spin on any of them.
The most dramatic drop against league averages has come in his slider, which has seen his horizontal movement go from 72 percent above average to 50 percent. The break on that launch is the exact same 15.5 inches it was in 2021, with a speed just 0.1 mph slower.
That change likely has to do with the trend of sweeping horizontal sliders across the major leagues. If that made the pitch suddenly ineffective (which it wouldn’t be considering 50 percent above average is still great), that would show up against righties.
It seems safe to conclude that Manoah’s material is essentially the same as last year, which makes his inability to strike out lefties confusing:
This may seem like unnecessary nitpicking because if the right-hander is effective, it doesn’t really matter how he finds his success. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, he hasn’t been effective against left-handed hitters this season, allowing them to hit .295/.355/.411 against him. The lack of strikeouts is having a tangible impact.
If we take a look at Manoah’s effectiveness without left-handed bats shot by shot, we get a clearer picture of where hits have been missed.
At a minimum, we can throw away the change. It’s an inconsistent offer in that he’s conceded hard contact, but it’s not at the heart of Manoah’s strikeout woes.
When it comes to Manoah’s fastballs, elevation seems to play a significant factor. Below are heatmaps of where the big righty got his shots against southpaws in warmers in 2021:
Here’s where he’s thrown his fastballs to lefties in 2022:
It may seem counterintuitive to lump his two fastballs together, but here’s where Manoah’s blows came in the sinkers last season:
The tone was a sinking in name only. In reality, it is the movement of the side of the offering arm running away from southpaws, not any kind of downward action, that can get them into trouble.
There may be some level of intentionality here in Manoah raising less, but hitting the bottom of the zone with fastballs isn’t a widely practiced strategy in 2022. With lefties hitting .329 in Manoah’s warmers this season, it seems more like a matter of I send.
Something similar could be said for Manoah’s slider. There was a very specific point last year where the right-hander’s break shot generated a huge percentage of his bunts against lefties.
Instead of meeting opposing hitters with a true back foot slider, Manoah had them continually throw a pitch that appeared to be in the inside corner but was thrown just below the zone…
…or outside the plate inside.
It’s not an easy pitch to make by any stretch of the imagination, but Manoah seemed to have that location nailed as a rookie. In 2022 it has proven to be elusive. Instead of finding that magic spot in the corner, he’s had more live pitches, either a few inches higher or too deep to be competitive.
Because Manoah’s slider has such extreme gauntlet sideways movement with a standard swamp drop, it will always be much more effective against righties he runs from than lefties who see him get into them. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t find the sweet spot again when he doesn’t have the pack advantage.
The two biggest issues with Manoah in 2022, his strikeouts and struggles against lefties, are interrelated, but the level of concern for them should remain modest. As long as the righty’s sweeping slider is your best pitch, and your changeup remains difficult to control and susceptible to hard contact, you’ll always see significantly more success when you have the peloton advantage.
That’s fine considering Manoah has held all 357 right-handed hitters he’s faced in his MLB career to a .145/.213/.238 line. If he continues to go even close to that pace, his status as a top-of-the-rotation starter will remain unblemished.
While the platoon handicap built into his horizontally oriented repertoire was pronounced in 2022, answers can be found in what he accomplished in his rookie year. All he has to do is establish competition against lefties, and he can guard against any future regression against right-handed hitters, and become truly matchup-proof.
He surpassed that bar in 2021 and can do it again with slightly better control. If his change becomes a reliable weapon, he could absolutely outclass him.