Alek Manoah's struggles by the numbers
TORONTO — Even the detractors, those screaming regression based on the 2022 underlying metrics all winter, couldn’t have seen this coming.
Not to this extent.
Sure, Alek Manoah was always likely to give back some of his 2.24 ERA from a year ago, but regressing to below-replacement-level pitcher was not on anyone’s bingo card.
But 11 starts into his third big-league season, this is where we are.
Manoah holds an ugly 5.53 ERA, fully supported by the advanced numbers, and there are very few glimmers of hope at this point that make you feel good about a return to 2022 levels.
Will it get better? It has to, right? But how?
That’s the question Toronto Blue Jays decision-makers are attempting to work through behind the scenes.
Allowing Manoah to work through the various issues and find a fix at the big-league level is the preference, but each and every turn that results in a non-competitive start and a loss forces the Jays to consider some more dramatic alternatives.
Maybe it’s a 15-day IL stint, eventually. Maybe it’s a brief trip to the minors to work out the kinks away from the pressure.
The hard part for Manoah and pitching coach Pete Walker is it’s not just one issue — it has been a perfect storm of problems causing Manoah’s struggles.
Here’s a look at what’s been happening and the numbers driving his poor performance.
First and foremost, the most noticeable difference between 2022 Manoah and this year’s version is the velocity decrease on his four-seam fastball.
Last year, he averaged 93.9 mph on the offering and that led Statcast to give it a -18 run grade as the ninth-best four-seamer in baseball.
This year, the velo is down a full tick to 92.8 mph and it’s now hovering in the range of the 300th-best fastball amongst MLB arms.
Not what you want.
One mph might not seem like a huge deal, but that drop now has Manoah under the league average heater and it’s clear it’s just not the same pitch.
The rest of the arsenal is down a bit — slider from 81.5 mph to 80.9 and sinker from 93.3 mph to 92.7 — but not as significantly as what was previously his best pitch.
A ramification of the velocity drop is Manoah’s slider just doesn’t have the same bite this year, and he’s lost close to two inches of horizontal movement on the pitch.
With a softer fastball and less nastiness to the slider, it’s been clear since his first start on opening day that batters were looking much more comfortable in the box against Manoah, sitting back and picking and choosing which pitches to sit on.
Never a huge strikeout artist to begin with, Manoah’s swinging-strike rate is going in the wrong direction, dropping from 12.6 per cent in his rookie year to 11.2 per cent last season, all the way down to just 8.6 per cent across his 11 starts this year.
The walks are piling up, and it’s often because Manoah is getting behind early, and the numbers back that up.
Last year, Manoah issued a first-pitch strike 61.7 per cent of the time.
That number has dropped to 54.1 per cent this season.
Falling behind constantly makes a pitcher’s job really difficult at the big-league level. Pretty simple.
Striking out more than you’re walking is an obvious path to success.
Spencer Strider leads baseball with an elite 32.5 per cent K-BB rate. Kevin Gausman is second with a 27.6 per cent mark.
Manoah’s 16.4 per cent mark in 2022 placed him 23rd among qualified starters, as he struck out 22.9 per cent of the batters he faced and walked just 6.5 per cent.
Cover your eyes before we get to this year’s downturn.
A total of 72 starters have qualified, and Manoah’s 3.1 per cent K-BB% is dead last in baseball by a wide margin.
Canadian Cal Quantrill is next at 5.4 per cent as only 11 pitchers are toiling in single digits.
That’s not where you want to be, and it’s a number the Jays put a lot of stock into.
When Manoah isn’t dancing around zone and walking 38 batters across his 53.2 frames — especially against lefty hitters, as that side has given him oodles of trouble — there’s been a lot more hard contact to monitor, too.
The hard-hit rate on his four-seamer is up from 39.7 per cent to 48.8 per cent.
The hard-hit rate on his slider is up from 22.7 per cent to 36.1 per cent.
The hard-hit rate on his sinker is up from 29.5 per cent to 45.6 per cent.
You get the idea.
With his command issues, hitters are essentially able to just wait for a pitch they can drive, and it is usually working.
Finally, combine all this and add in the pitch clock, which has forced Manoah to speed up from his usual pace at times, and you find Manoah starting to tinker with his pitch selection.
It’s kind of grasping at straws because he’s been forced to go away from his four-seam fastball, and he’s replaced it with sinker usage.
That’s fine for a short-term fix, but Manoah’s heater made him what he was, and he needs that pitch to be successful.
After throwing his four-seamer 35.8 per cent of the time as his primary pitch in 2022, he’s now using his heater at a 27.1 per cent clip this year.
That’s been even more apparent in his past couple of starts.
On Friday in Tampa, just 19 of Manoah’s 87 pitches were four-seamers.
Without an easy and obvious solution in sight, expect all the tinkering to continue as the Jays attempt to fix their broken ace.