How Alek Manoah Got His Wish

© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball teams are like most entities operating with finite resources: If you want to know what they value, look where those resources get spent. The Toronto Blue Jays clearly value starting pitching. They spent $80 million over four years on Hyun Jin Ryu, two top prospects plus a seven-year, $131 million extension on José Berríos, $110 million over five years on Kevin Gausman, and $36 million over three years on Yusei Kikuchi.

Gausman has been as good as advertised this year, but behind him, the Blue Jays’ most important pitcher hasn’t been one of their big-money acquisitions, but Alek Manoah, a 24-year-old on a pre-arbitration contract. And he’s not even the 6-foot-6 Floridian most people expected to become Toronto’s homegrown frontline starter. In 2017, the Blue Jays spent a first-round pick on Nate Pearson, he of the 102 mph fastball and slider that touched 95. Pearson tickled the top 10 of the global prospect rankings in 2020, while Manoah — despite being a first-rounder himself — worked in relative obscurity.

Pearson’s career has stalled, thanks to an array of setbacks that would be at home in the Book of Job, ranging from a sports hernia to mononucleosis. And into that niche has stepped Manoah, who possesses less eye-popping stuff but the finesse and durability of which frontline starters are made.

Manoah is in the top 15 among qualified starters in innings, ERA, strikeouts, and WAR, but his pitching approach belies his youth. He throws reasonably hard — though an average fastball velocity of 93.9 mph is nothing to write home about in this day and age — but this year his ERA has gone down by eight tenths of a run while his strikeout rate has fallen by five percentage points. That’s because he’s allowing less hard contact than any other qualified starter in the game.

The key to Manoah’s success is the combination of his four-seamer and his sinker, two pitches that resemble each other closely in velocity and flight path until diverging wildly in late break. That combination doesn’t always result in a swing and miss, but it’s exceptionally hard for a hitter to square up, making it the baseball equivalent of putting your palm on your little brother’s forehead and straightening your arm so he can’t hit you back.

“I think the biggest thing I like to do is watch hitters’ approaches, watch their swing path, watch the way they swing, the way they take pitches, and see certain pitches they’re looking for,” Manoah said. “For me that will dictate whether I’m going sinker or four-seam or how I want to set it up.”

Of course, Manoah didn’t invent this strategy; numerous pitchers have used it to great effect, even during the height of the four-seamer-heavy, swing-and-miss tulip fever that gripped baseball at the end of the past decade. In fact, several of those pitchers have worked for Toronto in recent years, specifically Ryu and Berríos, whom Baseball Savant lists as one of the most similar pitchers in the league to Manoah in terms of velocity and movement.

Manoah’s taken the opportunity to learn as much as he can from his older teammates.

“[Ryu’s] pitch design might not be the same, but the way he gets into his legs and his mechanics and his rhythm are very similar to mine,” Manoah said. “For Berríos, it’s really the way he sets up his sinker and his changeup. For me, I wasn’t really much of a changeup guy, but I’ve been able to watch him, and he’s not worried about certain movements — as long as he’s tunneling it off the sinker, he can use them together.” He also mentioned Ray, Gausman, and David Phelps as players he’d picked up lessons from during his time in the majors.

Manoah has had to be a quick learner, because as much as it seems like he just burst onto the scene as a rookie last year, his rise is even more meteoric than you’d think. Despite his physical gifts, he was undrafted out of high school, and in three years at West Virginia, he spent only one as a full-time starter. After being drafted 11th overall in 2019, he spent all of 2020 pitching at Toronto’s alternate site.

“I feel like we had a pretty good simulated season,” he said of the alternate site camp. “Still training, still long tossing, still facing live hitters. There was a sense of motivation because it was that time when people were going to know who was working and who wasn’t. I didn’t have to focus on the results because there were no results. Being able to work on my changeup, my body, my work ethic, and routine without having to worry about results — I think it allowed me to enjoy that process and be ready for spring training.”

So Manoah went into the big league rotation in May of 2021 after just nine minor league appearances ever, at any level, and just two seasons of more than 80 total innings. And he was immediately one of Toronto’s best pitchers, striking out more than a batter an inning and posting a 3.22 ERA in 111 2/3 innings over 20 starts.

“I think every step of my journey has been preparing me for this,” Manoah said.

Now, despite his youth, Manoah is one of the most essential players on a team that’s a near-lock to make the postseason. He made his first All-Star team in July, and his inning while mic’d up made him one of the game’s breakout stars. When a Montreal radio host made insensitive comments about Alejandro Kirk last week, it was Manoah who jumped to defend his catcher. He’s a veteran, in every respect but age.

And now, one of the big questions facing Toronto interim manager John Schneider is how hard to ride Manoah down the stretch. On the one hand, home-field advantage in the first round could be huge for Toronto, but on the other, the young righty is now some 54 innings past his previous career high with two weeks, plus the postseason, left on the calendar. Manoah is currently 16 1/3 innings from 200, a milestone he views as important because reaching it is evidence of a good work ethic, but he’s happy to pitch or sit if asked.

“I literally told them I don’t want to be the one to make that decision,” he said with a chuckle. He’s simply pleased to be pitching so well that the Blue Jays are scheduling their playoff rotation with him in mind.

“Last year, I got moved because we wanted to set up Robbie Ray and our horses,” he said. “I remember telling myself I want to be one of the guys they’re setting up for big games. Now that we’re there, it’s pretty cool.”





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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HarryWBmember
2 months ago

Thanks for this much-deserved piece. Living in Canada, I get to watch Manoah pitch every time out, and it’s a true treat. He’s matured greatly this season, less about the energetic youth with which he burst on the scene last year and more about the methodical approach that was profiled here. He actually reminds me of a young Tom Seaver, learning how to think his way through tough lineups, maintain his energy to go late into games, and using the lower body to generate extra power. Manoah is a special talent

mariodegenzgz
2 months ago
Reply to  HarryWB

He truly stands out in this era because his velocity routinely increases through the game, and he saves his hardest fastballs for when he needs them. Interestingly enough, his arsenal is quite simple at the moment, and there’s a cutter to be added still. He reminds me of Johnny Cueto in some aspects.