In February, Bless You Boys named Matt Manning the Detroit Tigers’ top prospect. We weren’t alone, as the 19-year-old Manning was a unanimous choice among nearly every prospect ranking publication. The Tigers selected him with the ninth overall pick in 2016, their highest selection since Jacob Turner was selected in the 2009 draft, also ninth. After a fairly eye-opening stint by Manning in rookie ball last summer, they have to be pleased with that decision.
Manning’s fundamental soundness, electric fastball, and overall athleticism has already won him a lot of praise from the industry. It’s particularly impressive in that, just two years ago, Manning had tossed only a handful of innings of baseball in his life. He also draws high marks for his thoughtful, down-to-earth demeanor. So we found him when he spoke to Bless You Boys recently about his development as a pitcher, his first season as a professional baseball player, and his mentality as he prepares for his sophomore campaign.
Bless You Boys: Matt, I’d imagine this past year has been something of a whirlwind for you. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it, how was your first experience of playing pro ball?
Matt Manning: It was exciting, and just a really good time. I enjoyed the competition and the change in atmosphere a lot. It was fun playing with a lot of new guys and going out and competing with them.
BYB: Did your father’s experience as a professional athlete prepare you for the change in lifestyle, the travel and workload?
Manning: Yeah exactly. Especially with the travel and the lifestyle, in understanding the work ethic required. The sports aren’t the same but the business is, so yeah he definitely helped me a lot.
BYB: You didn’t really start pitching until you were already halfway through high school. What initially got you interested in pitching?
Manning: I pitched a little my sophomore year, just maybe 10 innings. But then I got a pitching coach, Randy Waite who runs Vast Athletics, in Rocklin, CA, and he just kind of took me in, introduced me to tournament ball, showed me the ropes, and I enjoyed the whole experience. And then I grew a little bit. Just kind of realized, I should take this as far as I could go.
BYB: For your age and height, you’ve got really good balance and coordination in your delivery. Do you think basketball helped a lot in that regard?
Manning: Yeah I think so. Being a taller guy, people expect you to be a little clumsy and unbalanced, but I think the coordination from basketball helped me quite a bit.
BYB: Have you found some guys at Lakeland to play basketball with? And, are you schooling them?
Manning: Really we just shoot around a little. There’s a court right near the complex so we do get out and shoot around a little bit.
BYB: What did you and pitching coach, Nick Avila, work on when you started with GCL Tigers West last season?
Manning: Nothing too particular. Mainly, because it was my first experience, it was about just getting used to going out, doing the work and competing every day. We were on five day rest for the rotation, so it was really just about getting used to the routine and lifestyle of a professional baseball player.
BYB: In your first short season your strikeout to walk ratio was outstanding. You got hit a few times, but overall you seemed really comfortable. How did you feel about the competition level there?
Manning: Yeah the competition level was good. Just learning to compete with whoever I’m throwing too, whichever team I’m on or facing. I had fun, and just really enjoyed the experience. I’m just kind of figuring it out as I go.
BYB: When your season ended, did the Tigers give you any specific recommendations for offseason conditioning, or is that something they let you work on yourself?
Manning: Yeah we talked about what my plan was, and I came back early to Florida to start my throwing program with the Tigers’ staff. They gave me a strength program, so I followed that as much as I could, and then got back here for my throwing program and finished in January. It was mainly weight training, conditioning and arm care.
BYB: So have you met any of the Tigers since you’ve been in Lakeland?
Manning: Yeah I’ve seen everyone around. I had a chance to meet Verlander, and to meet Norris and a few of the other guys. Michael Fulmer. They’re all really good guys, good to look up too, and as goals to shoot for.
BYB: One thing I wanted to ask you was from an article with Keith Law, ESPN’s prospect expert. He was talking about the fact that you throw your curveball with a spike grip, and that there are some teams that encourage guys to move away from that to a traditional grip. Has there been any talk of changing your grip? Or are your coaches pretty happy with the action on your curve at this point?
Manning: They, right now, really want me just to be as comfortable as I can be. They’ve taken me as I am, so they can build from that. They haven’t really changed me at all, they’ve just encouraged me and done some brush-ups, but really since I was drafted things are the same.
BYB: Have they talked to you at all about things like your spin rate? That’s a popular topic in data and statistical analysis of baseball. Is that anything that’s been discussed with you to this point?
Manning: No. No, I know that there’s some analysis that goes into that, but so far it’s not something anyone in the Tigers’ staff has really talked about or tried to keep track of.
BYB: Have the Tigers told you were you’ll be assigned this season?
Manning: I haven’t heard anything yet. We’re still doing mini-camps so it’s still pretty early.
BYB: You were a two-sport standout in high school, and a good student. You must have a pretty good grasp of setting goals for yourself, and putting in the time to achieve them. Are there are particular goals you have for yourself in 2017?
Manning: My goals in 2017 are just to stay healthy and perform well. I would like to finish the season in Lakeland if I could, and if my numbers show. Other than that it’s just about gaining strength and experience right now.
BYB: Is there a pitcher in major league baseball that you model yourself on, or at least see a resemblance to yourself in?
Manning: Not too much. I’m just trying to be my own person. Feel how my body develops and make my own mold. But if there’s a pitcher I really like to watch it’s Noah Syndergaard. I think we have kind of the same body type. That’s who I mostly watch, but I’m always myself and trying to stay true to that.
BYB: If there was one thing you have to keep in focus to have a successful major league career, what would you say it is?
Manning: I would say throw strikes and have good command. Put my pitches where I want to be. Not overanalyze the game, but keep things simple and have fun, and just make sure to take the experience from each year into the next.