After two starts and one week of baseball, Sean Manaea has the seventh-worst ERA among qualified pitchers at 7.15. That’s a pretty useless sentence for about five different reasons, but I’m going to rely on it briefly because it’s April and being a baseball writer is very difficult in April. In early April, we’re on the hunt for indicators. Other than health and velocity, it’s hard to find anything that happens in week one that will meaningfully shift your opinion, but we’re all keeping our eyes open for signs of things to come. The data points from April matter, it’s just too early to know if they’re representative of anything.
Typically, if a promising young pitcher like Manaea recorded two starts during which he allowed 10 runs over 11.1 innings, we would either brush it aside as a product of growing pains or consider it as a possible indication that something is wrong. In general, it’s not good to give up a lot of runs, even if we’re all in agreement that pitchers don’t have complete control over how many runs they allow.
But what’s so interesting about Manaea is that, in addition to what appear to be a couple of rough starts in the outcome department, he’s excelling in two of the pitching statistics that become reliable most quickly. Any reasonably astute fan can take a look at Manaea’s strikeout rate (28.6%), walk rate (8.2 %), home-run rate (0.79 HR/9), and BABIP (.259) to determine that his opponents have stacked all their success into just a couple of weird innings. But while those indicators look good enough to chalk this up to sequencing, there are actually two deeper measures that are quite interesting.
The first is Manaea’s ground-ball rate. Manaea has faced 49 batters, inducing 28 batted balls. Of those 28 batted balls, 18 have been hit into the ground (64.3%). Now 28 batted balls isn’t a super large sample, but ground-ball and fly-ball rates are two of the least noisy pitching statistics. You usually have a pretty good idea after about five starts. No one’s betting on Manaea actually maintaining a 65% ground-ball rate, but his early-season performance merits attenion. I’ll be watching to see if this is an indication that his ground-ball rate is going up. Ground balls turn into hits at a higher rate than fly balls, but ground balls don’t leave the ballpark.
The other statistic of note is Manaea’s contact rate. He’s thrown 178 pitches in 2017. Batters have swung 88 times. They’ve missed 34 times (37 if you count foul tips). That’s a contact rate of 62% or 58% depending on which number you prefer. In 2016, his contact rate was 77%, just a tick below league average. Similarly, we don’t want to make too much of his actual numeric contact rate after two starts, but it’s another statistic that settles in relatively quickly. The fact that he’s induced so many swinging strikes this early is an indication that something might be different. He’s certainly not going to get four whiffs per 10 pitches all season, but the fact that he’s done it over the first two starts makes you wonder if he’s done something to improve his approach.
An initial look tells you Manaea has gone to his slider more often so far this season, using it about 18% of the time compared 14% of the time last year, per Brooks Baseball. But the contact rate decrease has occurred against all his pitches and against both lefties and righties. It’s a small sample size, anyway, so I don’t want to parse the data very much, but this simply serves as a sign that it’s not as simple as “slider = unhittable.”
One thing does jump out from his pitching data — namely, Manaea appears to have adopted a new strategy against right-handed hitters. So far this year, he’s been working them away quite aggressively. Here’s his heat map against right-handers from 2016 and 2017, from the pitcher’s viewpoint.
Again, it’s too early to say this represents a fundamental change in Manaea’s game plan. It might just be that the situations in which he’s found himself have called for pitches away — or, alternatively, that he happens to be missing away for some reason — but it’s an indicator. Manaea is getting more ground balls and more whiffs. Those are two really good improvements if they’re durable, even if so far he’s found himself allowing a ton of runs. He’s throwing more sliders and has been working away from right-handers more deliberately so far.
Ryan Pollack made the case this winter that Manaea was poised for a strong season. Jeff Sullivan has pointed out that Kendall Graveman is starting to look quite interesting. We know about Sonny Gray. Jharel Cotton is a Cistulli favorite. We aren’t deep enough into the season to sort everything out, but we might be talking about the A’s as having one of the most interesting rotations before long. I won’t make any declarations that Manaea has turned a corner and is heading for an All-Star appearance, but he’s done enough to grab my attention during the season’s first week. Short of adding 2 mph to his fastball or otherwise shredding his UCL, that’s just about the best he can do.
Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.