Alek Manoah Is Here To Tell You That Pitching Is Fun

© Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

When Alek Manoah takes the mound against the Boston Red Sox this afternoon, he’ll do so with an early-career track record befitting one of baseball’s best young pitchers. Since making his major league debut last May, the 24-year-old Toronto Blue Jays right-hander has allowed just 89 hits, with 145 strikeouts, in 129-and-two-thirds innings. Moreover, he augments a 12-2 won-lost record — as a team, Toronto has won all but four of his 23 career starts — with a 3.05 ERA and a 3.78 FIP.

And you probably don’t want to crowd the plate against the 6-foot-6, 260-pound hurler. Manoah, whom the Blue Jays drafted 11th overall in 2019 out of West Virginia University, led all AL pitchers last year with 16 HBPs. A gentle giant off the field, he takes no prisoners between the white lines.

Manoah talked about his repertoire — primarily his slider and his two-seamer — when the Blue Jays visited Fenway Park last week.


David Laurila: What do you know about your pitches that you didn’t when you first signed?

Alek Manoah: “I always knew the sinker was pretty good, just based off the hitters’ feedback. But now, understanding the numbers a little bit, it’s how drastically different it is from my four-seam. That and how it plays with my changeup. I think that would be the biggest thing.”

Laurila: When did you really start learning how the pitch works?

Manoah: “I would say last year, when I was focusing on throwing it front hip, and understanding where to release it so that it could come back where I needed it to. And then being able to use it on the other side of the plate, as well. I think that’s where I’ve taken the most focus, trying to locate it on both sides, and then understanding, ‘All right, it’s going to run this way, it’s going to sink this way, if I throw it here.’”

Laurila: Do you know the metrics on your two-seamer?

Manoah: “I don’t know them completely, but I know it’s got some good run to it. I think the vertical break is around six or eight, so it’s kind of like a changeup movement. I don’t know exactly how much horizontal it has. It might be 15 to 18, or something like that. It moves pretty well.”

Laurila: How much of a role has tech played in its development?

Manoah: “I don’t really use the TrackMan a whole ton. It’s just a lot of video, a lot of visualizing, and again, a lot of understanding where I need it to start. A lot of it is feedback from hitters, like getting guys to stand in and see, ‘OK, that started good and finished over the plate, so maybe start it a little bit more in.’ Things like that.”

Laurila: Have you made any adjustments to the grip, how the seams are oriented, or anything of that nature?

Manoah: “No, just the release point. If I’m trying to throw it over here, just trying to hold onto it a little bit more. But I don’t want to hold on to it too much, because then it won’t come back. Besides that, no; there hasn’t been any scientific, specific reasoning. I’m a very visual person. If I can see the movement, and I can see the hitter’s reaction, I can kind of train my body to keep doing that motion.”

Laurila: What about your slider?

Manoah: “I don’t know any of numbers on my slider. But it’s not traditional. A lot of credit goes to The Pitching Ninja. I looked at a lot of video when I was kind of creating the pitch, in 2019. I’ve just been able to… there are different variants of it with my thumb. I’m able to deviate different patterns with it. Once again, it’s just seeing the feedback from the hitters, and seeing the movement on it.

“I have gotten on the Edgertronic camera with it, seeing the slo-mo release point. Our analytical guys… they know the numbers. They’ll be like, ‘OK, that’s the one,’ or ‘This isn’t the one.’ But I don’t know the numbers so much myself.”

Laurila: You vary the shape with your thumb placement…

Manoah: “Yes. So, like if I’m holding it here, I want it a little bit bigger. If I hold it a little tighter. I want it… the less space for it to come out. You get what I’m saying? Off the seam… it’s kind of like a cutter, a four-seam cutter, a little bit. This space right here, when I release it, it doesn’t pop out. And if I move the thumb down a little bit, you see it naturally want to pop out. So, being able to put it in an area where pops out a little bit, but not too much, gives me the bigger one.”

Laurila: Chris Sale comes to mind…

Manoah: “Yeah, but I think he manipulates it too. That’s kind of where I learned it a little bit. He’ll manipulate the thumb. If he wants the tighter one, a bigger one, if he wants it in the zone, he’ll deviate that thumb and that release point. If it slips out more, it will be the bigger one.”

Laurila: I’m guessing you’ve probably studied Adam Ottavino, given how he changes the shape on his slider.

Manoah: “I haven’t watched him a whole ton, just because he comes a little more side-to-side. I’ve looked at a lot of Dellin Betances, his cutter. He’s a big guy, high three-quarters slot. Sale kind of comes a little three-fourths, as well. So, I’ve kind of mixed Betances and him into a Manoah slider.”

Laurila: Basically, a Manoah slider has two movement profiles.

Manoah: “There are a few different variations. There is ball-to-strike. There is strike-to-strike. There is strike-to-ball. If I’m trying to play it off my sinker, I’ll probably throw more side-to-side. If I play it off the four-seam, I’ll probably go a little more depth. I’m trying to cut corners on the box.”

Laurila: Trent Thornton told me that he’s throwing a sweepy slider that he learned from [Blue Jays pitching strategist] David Howell. Do you have that much sweep on your bigger one?

Manoah: “I think the sweepy one they’re teaching is mine. They know the pitch grip. You should ask them for it.”

Laurila: Is it your best pitch?

Manoah: “No. I think numbers-wise it probably is — whiff percentage — but I don’t think it would be nearly as good if I didn’t have my heater. I think the heater is the most important — I throw the two-seamer and a four-seamer with ride — but grade-wise… yeah, I think the slider is probably a better grade.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Manoah: “No one ever asks me why I like to throw inside a lot.”

Laurila: And the answer would be…?

Manoah: “It just opens up the plate a ton. Guys that can establish the inside part of the plate make hitters a little uncomfortable. Pitches in on the hands. And it’s tough, because we play a game where everybody is trying to feed their family out there. If you come inside and miss, you could hurt somebody. That’s something I’m strive not to do: hit guys. But if I’m able to locate that sinker in there, it opens up the rest of the plate for the slider and the four-seam up. And vice versa with the lefties; it makes the changeup better.”

Laurila: One last thing: is pitching fun?

Manoah: “It’s f-ing amazing. Do you enjoy watching?”

Laurila: Absolutely. I love watching. And while I haven’t pitched since high school, I’ll actually daydream about being out there on the mound.

Manoah: “I love watching it, too. And I love doing it. There is nothing like standing out there in front of 50,000 and throwing a ‘shutty.’ Pitching is fun.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

What a great interview!