If you were to ask a pitching coach to build a prospect from scratch, they would basically create Matt Manning. Not the current version of Manning — even after a full year in pro ball, he’s still quite raw. No, they would create Manning the athlete. A player with a tall, athletic build, broad shoulders and long limbs, and the frame to add a bit of weight if need be. These proportions allow a pitcher to create a smooth, repeatable delivery, one that provides “easy gas,” mid-90s heat that gets on hitters faster than they expect.
Manning, for his part, is prospect clay at this point. Still very young and raw, Manning has all the physical tools to be a dominant pitcher in the major leagues. He and his coaches will work together to see if they can mold him, a raw physical specimen, into that dominant pitcher. There will be bumps in the road along the way — a documented drop in velocity and loss of command at one point last season is a prime example — but hopefully those edges get smoothed out and the Tigers can one day enjoy the stud pitcher they hoped they would get when they drafted Manning in 2016.
The son of former NBA player Rick Manning, Matt started out as a basketball player, naturally. He picked up baseball in high school, and scouts soon discovered his lofty potential. With the aforementioned long frame and a mid-90s fastball at his disposal as a teenager, Manning shot up draft boards in 2016. The Tigers landed him with the No. 9 overall pick, and he signed for his slot value bonus of roughly $3.5 million. He overpowered hitters in his first stop that summer, the Gulf Coast League, striking out over 14 batters per nine innings.
Manning’s first full year of pro ball had its ups and downs. He started the year in extended spring training, but was the Opening Day starter for the short-season Connecticut Tigers. He pitched well overall in Connecticut, holding opponents to a 1.89 ERA while striking out over a batter per inning. However, he had some trouble later in the summer between Connecticut and Single-A West Michigan. He suffered a three-start stretch in July where he pitched just six total innings for the Tigers, then gave up 11 earned runs in his first three starts for the Whitecaps in August. He finished strong, though, striking out 15 batters in 11 scoreless innings over his final two starts of the year.
Manning’s best pitch is his mid-90s fastball, a plus offering that could become an elite pitch with more development and refinement. He mostly sat in the low 90s during starts last year, but can reach back for 95-96 mph (or more) at any time. While that velocity has fluctuated at times (more on that in a bit), that heater has helped him overpower hitters at every minor league level thus far. And, as MLB Pipeline notes, he could potentially add velocity as he sorts out his mechanics. Baseball Prospectus noted that his fastball “has big plane and occasional cut,” and can play up at times due to “relatively compact arm action and big arm speed.”
Manning’s aforementioned frame and athletic build are also major pluses. MLB Pipeline identified as much when they named him Detroit’s No. 2 prospect. From their 2017 write-up:
He uses his athleticism and 6-foot-6 frame on the mound exceptionally well, with his extension making his already-plus fastball get on hitters even faster. Manning was up in the 96-97 mph range during his senior year and in the Gulf Coast League, using his fastball and power curve to miss a ton of bats.
Manning’s other two pitches are major works in progress at this point, but have the potential to be very good. His knuckle-curve is the better of the two, a potentially plus offering described by Baseball Prospectus as “a big breaking, mid-70s 12-6 downer.” The changeup is even more inconsistent and doesn’t have the same potential, but could be a necessary average third offering for him. Minor League Ball’s John Sickels thinks the changeup could also be a plus pitch, but FanGraphs thinks it has an average ceiling.
All of Manning’s issues relate back to his relative inexperience as a pitcher. He struggled with his mechanics for stretches last year, including a few starts that the crew at Baseball Prospectus attended. Those viewings led to an assessment that was more pessimistic than the rest of the industry, but also helped portray how things could go wrong for the 20-year-old righty.
Even when Manning was going good, the command and mechanics were being battled to at best a stalemate. The fastball will drop down into the 80s even on his good velo days, and I had him as low as 85 by the third inning in one outing. He struggles with his release point and had two different arm slots within ten days of each other. Needless to say he is a work in progress here despite his obvious athleticism.
The velocity should not be a concern, but Manning’s mechanics are still a work in progress. FanGraphs grades him with well below-average (30 grade) command at present, but believes he could get there in time. Minor league walk rates aren’t always the best gauge of this either — Manning could still be hitting the zone if he misses his spots, or opposing hitters could just be entirely overwhelmed by his high-powered fastball. He is athletic enough that these mechanical issues shouldn’t be a long-term concern, but they’re still around right now.
Projected team: Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps
There was initially some hype this spring that Manning would essentially skip the Midwest League and head straight to High-A out of camp. However, a strained oblique will hold him back for a bit, and he will then return to West Michigan, where he finished with a flourish in 2017. Manning may not need long to prove his mastery over Single-A hitters, but he’s the type of prospect that could be instructed to work on a specific aspect of his game (in his case, nearly anything but his fastball) for a while. The results may not be pretty at times, but that could (partially) be by design. We’re still several years from seeing him in the majors. As long as he stays relatively healthy and continues building up his innings count, we need not worry too much.