Alek Manoah was the 11th overall pick in the 2019 draft out of West Virginia University. The Blue Jays selected him with visions that he could one day be a middle- to front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. An imposing presence at 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, they hoped he would become a power pitcher and workhorse.
He initially went to short-season Class-A Vancouver and threw just 17 innings in six starts there. Then in 2020, when COVID-19 hit, he was one of the players the Jays brought up to the alternate site to work out and develop as minor league seasons were cancelled.
Amazingly, Manoah started the 2021 season at Triple-A. It was an aggressive placement, considering how little experience he had, but he clearly showed progress and capability while working out at the alternate site. He proved he was worthy of the organization’s confidence, going 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA in three dominant starts. Manoah was quickly promoted to the majors, where he has gone 17-3 with a 2.59 ERA over parts of the past two seasons.
This season, 11 of his 12 starts have been quality starts (at least six innings pitched while allowing three earned runs or fewer). In the one start that didn’t qualify, Manoah tossed five innings and allowed two runs. He has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season, currently sporting an 8-1 record with a 1.67 ERA.
Things just don’t happen this way. Certainly, the Jays thought Manoah could be very good when they drafted him, but he has exceeded their expectations. The club could have never expected such a rapid progression to the majors, especially with the way the pandemic stifled development for so many young players. Big-bodied pitchers tend to take time getting their mechanics coordinated with so many moving parts. That wasn’t an issue for Manoah, who has been in complete control of pitches from his very first start at Yankee Stadium in 2021.
He has shown the ability to make good hitters look bad. He is among the best in the game at inducing soft contact from hitters. Manoah’s four-seam fastball and slider are his two main put-away pitches, followed closely by his sinker and changeup. He pounds the strike zone and works ahead in the count. He throws 65 per cent of his first pitches for strikes, which is almost five per cent better than average.
Manoah is fearless on the mound and pitches with aggression. I’m particularly impressed by his ability to get angry, yet never lose his cool or overthrow. He finds a way to channel that energy. It is a trait that typically takes years of experience to acquire.
Charlie Montoyo seems to trust Manoah the most among his starters. It is uncommon for a manager to give a second-year pitcher so much latitude to stay in games in middle-to-late innings when they are in trouble. But, because he is so efficient and aggressive, there have been times that Montoyo has allowed Manoah to get out of his own jams. That is special and different.
A strong case can be made that Manoah is the early leader in the Cy Young Award race. He leads in bWAR, ERA, Wins, and is in the top 10 in just about every other pitching category. The one area that can hurt him in the voting is that he is not a strikeout pitcher. He has struck out 68 batters in his 75 innings pitched, which is 10 fewer than Astros ace Justin Verlander and 37 fewer strikeouts than Shane McClanahan of the Rays. Verlander, McClanahan and Yankees starter Nestor Cortes are the other candidates for the Cy Young Award so far.
I would like to see Manoah learn how to go for more strikeouts because there are situations in games where the swing and miss is much better than soft contact. With a runner on third base with less than two outs, I would want him to go for whiffs to leave the runners on base. That is the next step in his development.
End of the road for Ryu?
Hyun Jin Ryu’s time with the Blue Jays is coming to an abrupt end. It seems like the only thing he will be counted upon to do for the next year and a half is collect paycheques. Whether he gets full-blown Tommy John surgery or a lesser procedure, the likelihood is that the clock will run out on his time to help the Blue Jays.
Ryu has endured multiple surgeries and many stints on the injured list during his career. When he’s healthy he has proven to be effective, but he already needed to be managed and protected before this latest injury.
When the Jays signed Ryu to the four-year $80 million deal in late 2019, he was coming off a season in which he went 14-5 with a 2.32 ERA with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I’m always interested in how aggressively a team pursues their own free agent. The Dodgers, who knew Ryu the best, didn’t pursue him at this level of a deal.
Ryu was excellent for Toronto (5-2, 2.69 ERA) in the shortened 2020 season. He pitched to the level the Jays had hoped when signing him. He did the same for the first half of 2021, but his performance declined significantly (5.50 ERA) in the second half. It’s likely his arm health started to deteriorate in 2021 and continued into 2022. Now he is done for the year and likely most, if not all, of next season.
I keep hearing people trying to justify the signing for what it meant at the time. The argument is it marked the Jays transitioning from a competitive team to a playoff contender. I don’t dispute that it made that statement, but the Jays didn’t sign Ryu to make a statement. They signed him to pitch to the level of a $20 million pitcher and only got him at that level for a year and a half of the four-year deal. That qualifies as a major disappointment and a mistake.
Every long-term deal for a pitcher is risky, and sometimes you have to take risks to win. But in hindsight, signing a 33-year-old pitcher with a history of arm problems who had made 30 starts in a season just once in his career was an aggressive decision for a team that had always been risk averse due to age. The Jays properly passed on long-term deals for Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista but then gave one to a pitcher who was a high injury risk.
I understand the logic at the time, but the signing has been a failure and I believe the Jays’ brass would agree. They will not likely go down that road again anytime soon with an aging, injury-prone pitcher. Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro are smart and will learn from their mistakes.
Marmol gambles on Mikolas
Speaking of which, St Louis Cardinals rookie manager Oliver Marmol may live to regret the decision he made on Tuesday, letting oft-injured aging starter Miles Mikolas (33 years old) throw 129 pitches in pursuit of a no-hitter. Mikolas (5-4, 2.62 ERA) lost his no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth inning in a 9-1 win over the Pirates.
Marmol is a young manager, but he is old enough to remember the sad story of New York Mets starter Johan Santana. On June 1, 2012, Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history while tossing 134 pitches. He had recently returned from shoulder surgery, yet manager Terry Collins allowed the veteran lefty to go for history. He got the no-hitter, but in his next 10 starts he had an ERA over 8.00. Santana then had another serious shoulder surgery, effectively ending his career.
Mikolas made a total of nine starts in the two prior seasons due to forearm and elbow issues. I hope he rebounds from the overload of 129 pitches and doesn’t face any major issues. Still, it was a significant risk for a rookie manager to take with a fragile yet important arm in his rotation.
Sometimes, we can learn lessons from other people’s mistakes. Sometimes we have to learn them ourselves. We will see if Marmol lives to regret his decision. If I was his general manager, I would tell him to pull the starter the next time because our season is more important than any singular accomplishment.