Stop me if you’ve heard this tale before: the Detroit Tigers select a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher out of high school with their first pick in the MLB draft. Same old story, right? While the move may be predictable on the surface, the Tigers used the No. 9 overall pick in 2016 to select one of the top right-handed arms in the entire draft. There is a whole lot to like about Matt Manning, an 18-year-old pitcher out of Sheldon High School (CA).
Manning is quite the athletic specimen. His father, Rich, is 6’11 and played in the NBA for two seasons. Matt, 6’6, was a two-sport athlete in high school. He planned to play both basketball and baseball at Loyola Marymount before the Tigers drafted him. Already a star basketball player on his school’s team, he didn’t start pitching till his junior year. His raw athleticism and an upper 90s fastball took over, and scouts quickly took notice.
Manning’s tall frame and three-quarter arm slot delivery allows him to throw with a downward plane, making it easy for him to work down in the strike zone. He also throws across his body in his release and adds in a leg kick that works to deceive hitters from picking up his pitches. Scouts praise his fluid motion. They mostly agree that as Manning matures, his body will fill out to help ease the few flaws in his mechanics, improving his command and durability.
The Tigers are also impressed with Manning’s coachability and maturity. Prior to the draft, the Tigers brought him to Detroit for a workout at Comerica Park that was designed to test both his physical and mental makeup. Tigers pitching coordinator A.J. Sager said later that they were highly impressed with what they saw.
With these things, you get them on a big stage in front of a whole lot of eyes and see what they can do. For an 18-year-old kid, he handled that atmosphere really well. First, you see the size and the talent. But second, you see how he handled that atmosphere. He basically got off the plane, drove straight to the ballpark and pitched. He was basically set up for failure. But we saw the arm strength, the big size, the clean delivery, all things you can dream on
Those tools to dream on are quite clear. Manning’s fastball grades as plus — sometimes double plus, or 70 grade — sitting at 93-95 miles per hour and touching 98 at times. As he develops, he could even gain a bit more velocity. He adds a spike curveball that sits in the upper 70s with sharp 11-5 movement. It is currently an average pitch with a chance to become plus with work. Some scouts, like ESPN’s Keith Law, think he should try a more traditional curveball grip, though. Manning also mixes in a below average changeup that could be developed into an average offering, giving him a solid three-pitch arsenal to work with as a starter.
Unlike many hard-throwing pitchers the Tigers have drafted in the past, Manning shows good control of his pitches. While his command is currently subpar, scouts seem confident it will come with time and development.
Manning’s biggest weakness is youth and inexperience. He has only been seriously pitching for a couple years. Unsurprisingly, he only has two real pitches to speak of. Most high schoolers with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball just need that one pitch to be successful at that level, and Manning was no different. To reach the majors, he will have to develop his secondary pitches to keep major league hitters off his fastball. ESPN’s Keith Law points this out in his top 100 prospect rankings, where he listed Manning 82nd overall.
He has a breaking ball that works against bad hitters, but it’s a spike curveball that he probably won’t command and isn’t that sharp; he’d be better off with a true curve or a slider, and he had no real changeup to speak of in high school...the Tigers have a lot of work to do, from figuring out his breaking ball to teaching him a changeup to helping him learn to pitch instead of just blowing guys away with velocity.
Manning himself recognizes the need to develop his off-speed pitches, as evidenced by his comments to MiLB.com.
My biggest problem was I couldn't overpower guys with my fastball like I used to in high school. They're too good for that at the professional level. You need to get them off the fastball, so they can't put a barrel on it even when it's coming. That's something I needed to learn this summer.
This is something that will take time to develop. The Tigers have a project on their hands with Manning, but this is the type of raw talent prospect most coaches dream of working to develop. With his willingness to learn and work hard, he has a good chance as any to reach his full potential.
Jacob’s scouting report
Projected team: West Michigan Whitecaps
While his professional career is limited to 2016, Manning showed lots of potential in that span. Playing for the Tigers affiliate in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, he allowed a 3.93 ERA in 29 1⁄3 innings. He struck out 46 and walked just seven hitters in 10 outings. The Tigers will likely push him to Single-A West Michigan, where previous first round picks (like right-hander Beau Burrows) have started in the past. Manning hopes for more, however, and has set a goal of pitching for High-A Lakeland by the end of the year.
He is still only 18, so the majors are a long way away at the moment. But most scouts see him as a No. 2 or 3 starter with potential for more if everything comes together. Manning’s raw athleticism and demeanor on the mount give him a solid floor as a back-end starter or reliever as well.