Sean Manaea Was Pretty Good Before That No-Hitter

Many people had probably heard of Sean Manaea before Saturday. He was a consensus top-100 prospect before the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He was involved in a trade-deadline deal for Ben Zobrist as the Royals went on to win the World Series back in 2015. That sort of stuff is going to make him well known among those who follow baseball closely; however, even relatively committed fans might not have been paying attention to Manaea’s last two seasons in Oakland. A lot more people are likely to have heard of Manaea now that he’s pitched a no-hitter, the first one by an American League pitcher in nearly three seasons.

Manaea has made good on his pedigree — and Oakland’s decision to trade for him — with two successful seasons. He’s one of just 40 pitchers with at least 300 innings and an above average ERA and FIP across 2016 and 2017. The only pitchers as young or younger than Manaea on that list are and Zach Davies, Michael Fulmer, Carlos Martinez, and Robbie Ray. Manaea isn’t yet anybody’s version of an ace, but his 4.3 WAR from 2016 to 2017 represents the most of any Athletics pitcher. The A’s have averaged 90 losses over the past two seasons, and a roughly average pitcher on a bad team isn’t going to garner a lot off attention. There have been some signs, though — even before the no-hitter against the Red Sox this past weekend — that Manaea had taken a step forward this season.

Over at the Athletic, an apparently prescient Eno Sarris, wrote about Manaea right before he went out and dominated the Red Sox. Sarris noted that Manaea had exhibited much better command of his slider and changeup so far this season and posited that the work on those pitches greatly improved his confidence. Manaea seemed to agree.

“You can have that confidence in yourself that you can throw it wherever you want, it relaxes you,” he said. “Now that I have that confidence, I’m thinking that I’m going to throw pitches, I am going to throw something nasty. Not worrying, not hoping.”

The confidence showed against the very first batter Manaea faced, one of the only negative outcomes all day for Manaea. Here’s his 3-2 pitch to Mookie Betts.

Last season, when Manaea got in a 3-2 count against a righty, he threw his fastball three times as often as his change. He’s only thrown eight pitches in that same situation this season, but it’s been a 50/50 split between the fastball and change thus far. He only threw three 3-2 pitches on Saturday because he was throwing a lot of strikes, but none of the pitches he threw in full counts were fastballs. He wasn’t able to freeze Mookie Betts, he was able to to induce a swing on a change out of the strike zone against Jackie Bradley Jr.

So Manaea was pitching with confidence and using all of his pitches and locating those pitches. That got him to 10 strikeouts along with a couple walks. That left 17 outs to record in the field of play. Sometimes, pitchers catch a few lucky breaks to get that no-hitter. Here’s what Statcast had to say about these plays from the Gamefeed at Baseball Savant.

Balls in Play in Sean Manaea’s No-Hitter
Batter Inning Result EV (MPH) LA (Deg.) Dist (ft.) Pitch Vel (MPH) HP%
Andrew Benintendi 1 Forceout 61 -16 7 91.4 7
Eduardo Núñez 2 Groundout 99.8 4 105 81.3 57
Sandy Leon 2 Pop Out 66.5 49 188 84.6 14
Mookie Betts 3 Groundout 91.2 -20 7 91.3 16
Andrew Benintendi 4 Groundout 91.8 -3 23 91.6 29
Eduardo Núñez 5 Lineout 100.4 15 295 90.8 59
Rafael Devers 5 Flyout 86.7 39 292 80.2 1
Sandy Leon 5 Field Error 68.5 42 211 84.1 37
Tzu-Wei Lin 6 Lineout 94.3 21 339 77.8 24
Mookie Betts 6 Groundout 98.7 -11 7 82.5 29
Andrew Benintendi 6 Batter Interference 55.6 -60 3 91.2 22
Hanley Ramirez 7 Pop Out 75.7 58 170 83.6 2
J.D. Martinez 7 Groundout 85.4 -6 16 79.6 19
Eduardo Núñez 7 Pop Out UNK UNK UNK 78.9 UNK
Sandy Leon 8 Pop Out UNK UNK UNK 82.2 UNK
Blake Swihart 9 Groundout 91.3 -18 7 89.6 17
Mookie Betts 9 Flyout 97.8 27 359 88.4 50
Hanley Ramirez 9 Forceout 106.1 1 62 81.5 50
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

We find four plays here that featured a predicted hit percentage at or above 50% based on launch angle and exit velocity. None of those batted balls required great defensive plays, with the balls either going right at fielders or hanging up in the air long enough to be caught easily. Based on the hit percentages above, the odds of Manaea throwing a no-hitter were about 1 in 300. That might not seem like great odds, but doing the same exercise over Manaea’s other very good starts this season produces a 1-in-55,000 shot for his April 15 start against the Mariners when he gave up just two hits over seven innings and a 1-in-1,000 shot for his eight-inning three-hit gem against the Rangers earlier this month. Even when compared to good outings, Manaea’s no-hitter was a special performance full of mostly weak contact.

If there was some controversy over whether Manaea should have thrown a no-hitter, it was a result of two of the weaker batted balls in the game. In the fifth inning, Sandy Leon hit a pop fly to shallow left-center. Marcus Semien slowed down a bit as he was getting close to the ball and this happened:

Is that an error if it happens in the second inning instead of the fifth inning? That’s hard to say. Semien certainly didn’t play the ball well and still managed to get a glove on it, but his route made the play slightly difficult — perhaps difficult enough that it could have been ruled a hit — but easy enough that an error seems fair.

Somewhat more controversial was another weakly hit ball, this one from Andrew Benintendi. The hit is not as important as his run to first base.

Benintendi was ruled out for leaving the baseline in the sixth inning, and the no-hitter was preserved. Manaea finished off the final three innings with few issues and completed just the third no-hitter in the last three years after Edinson Volquez‘s last year and Jake Arrieta’s during the 2016 season. Notable about Manaea’s no-hitter is that he did it against the Red Sox. While the Red Sox’ current record is quite good, the Volquez no-hitter last year came against the playoff-bound Diamondbacks; in 2015, meanwhile, the Cubs, Dodgers, and Pirates were all no-hit on their way to the playoffs. More impressive for Manaea is that the Red Sox are an American League team. Hisashi Iwakuma was the last pitcher to throw a no-hitter against an American League team, a feat which he performed on August 12, 2015, just a couple weeks after Manaea was traded to the A’s.

No-hitters were a lot more common from 2012 to -15, with 20 occurring during those four seasons. Despite those numbers, just five of the 20 no-hitters came against American League teams using the designated hitter. Of the 54 no-hitters since the 1994 strike, this was just the 22nd against an AL team using the designated hitter. It was also only the 16th no-hitter against an American League team using the designated hitter since 1973 where the pitcher reached double-digit strikeouts. Nolan Ryan alone accounts for five of those no-hitters, and the last pitcher to do it was six years ago, when Felix Hernandez struck out 12 Rays en route to his perfect game on August 15, 2012, against the Rays.

It’s possible we are witnessing the early stages of Sean Manaea’s breakout season. Even with some good performances, his strikeout rate is close to average, but his walk rate is fantastic at 4.6%. If he can keep the ball in the ballpark, he’s well on his way to a four-win campaign. That 1.23 ERA is probably going to creep closer to his 3.51 FIP as his .135 BABIP and 100% left-on-base rate regress, but if the gains he’s made in his offspeed pitches are real and he keeps pitching with confidence, he might be one of the best 20 or 30 pitchers in baseball this year.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

I’m not sure how the Benintendi ruling is that controversial. The baseline rule is you can’t deviate by more than 3 feet, the chalk line is 3 feet away which he clearly stepped over.

5 years ago
Reply to  HamelinROY

The chalk line has nothing to do with it, his lane is a straight line from him to the base at the moment the fielder fields the ball..

But even then he pretty clearly goes 3+ feet out of his lane so… Out.