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Tigers prospect Matt Manning is wrapping up a superb 2018 campaign

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The Tigers 2016 first round pick is establishing himself as one of the better pitching prospects in the game.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Around this time last year, Matt Manning was just trying to settle into A-ball after a quiet first full season as a professional. He’d been held back for extended spring training until June, and initial impressions of him when assigned to the short season A-ball Connecticut Tigers weren’t terribly reassuring. Erratic mechanics led to some deflated velocity readings and bouts of wildness on the mound. Manning rebounded once he got to West Michigan, putting it all together in his final few outings. But his outlook as a prospect was undercut by struggles which seemed to confirm the longer development curve expected for such a raw prep player.

One year later, and things have changed quite a bit.

Last Wednesday night, Manning wrapped up a sterling Double-A debut against the Harrisburg Senators, the Washington Nationals’ affiliate, in his penultimate start of the season. He struck out eight and allowed just three hits and walk in blanking the Washington Nationals’ Double-A affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators. In the process, Manning sent one more strong message in a season full of them, that he’s rapidly developing into one of the better pitching prospects in baseball.

After missing the first few weeks of the season for a mild oblique strain, Manning returned to the West Michigan Whitecaps and, after a few rocky outings, showcased much better control and ability to self-correct his mechanics during an outing. There were still a few hiccups, but the change was noticeable just a handful of starts into the season. The walks dropped, the waste pitches diminished, and Manning was transitioning much more easily between the wind-up and the stretch.

Manning moved to High-A Lakeland and spent the summer dominating college players years older than he is. Throughout the season, he made consistent improvements in his command and with the consistency of his curveball. Now, he’s graduated through a tough transition, the one to the Double-A level, in style. While he has work to do to take the next step, and the new level will doubtless produce some struggles and setbacks next season, he’s shown himself fully ready for the challenge. In the process, he’s forced some serious reappraisals of both his probability of success and developmental timetable.

When the Tigers picked him with the 8th overall choice in the 2016 amateur draft, Manning was a very high-risk, high-reward selection. Most observers agreed that his raw velocity and ability to spin both the heater and the curveball were tantalizing, despite his short time focusing on baseball. When coupled with a very low mileage arm, the unique frame and athleticism of a very good high school basketball player, and the genetics of a former NBA player, there was an awful lot to like. That athleticism led many to think he could overcome the challenge of developing his command with a slender, long-limbed frame. Manning’s work ethic and overall makeup drew high grades as well.

However, with an arm so raw, with far less innings than most prep pitching prospects, there was also an extremely wide variance in the possible outcomes. He could be the next ace power pitcher in the Tigers’ rotation someday. He could also have turned out to be a complete bust. At very least, his 2017 season left many feeling as though Manning was possibly years away from graduating out of A-ball. His wide-ranging, steady improvements in 2018 have put many early concerns to bed. The progress has been rapid, and at just 20 years old, with substantially less experience than others his age, the chances of further substantive improvements seem very good indeed.

Over the course of the season, we’ve seen Manning’s fastball velocity tick up in terms of its sustainability throughout a long outing. He’s always had the ability to reach for 97 mph or even a tick more when he wants it, but what has impressed is his growing ability to sit at 93-95 mph all game long with little obvious effort. Even as recently as early August there was still a tendency for the velocity to fade a little late in his starts. The fact that Manning has already doubled his innings total from 2017, yet is getting stronger at the finish, is a positive sign for his developing endurance and mechanical efficiency.

His curveball has always drawn plus grades at his best, but was pretty hit and miss in 2017, and even early this season. This is another pitch that has shown sustained, incremental development throughout the season. His overall command and ability to locate it for strikes while also using it as a swing and miss pitch below the zone has improved dramatically since the spring. Manning is also getting much more consistent movement now, and the general increase in velocity with the curveball has made it even more of a whiff generating weapon, leading Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs to contemplate double-plus grades on the best of his offerings in his final outing at High-A.

That brings us to Manning’s changeup which had a bit of a coming out party on Wednesday night. An erratic show-me pitch for the most part in his pro career, Manning has tried different grips from a circle change initially, to a split change variant that Whitecaps pitching coach, Jorge Cordova, showed him last season. Neither seemed to give him the feel he needs. But in a Baseball America interview in July at the MLB Futures Game, Manning showed a fosh changeup grip as his most recent experiment. Based on his work against the Senators, there seems to be some progress.

Several of his changeups Wednesday night flashed plus and elicited ugly swings from Senators hitters. The changeup is still a little firm, and doesn’t consistently have the depth and velocity separation one would prefer, but he did a better job of keeping his armspeed and extension, and thus his deception, with the pitch. Knowing he likely needs an offspeed pitch to handle a better class of hitter, catcher Jake Rogers called for a heavier dose of them than Manning has thrown in any of my viewings this season. Of his offerings, the changeup still lags far behind, but with such a good fastball, even an average changeup, commanded effectively, will be an effective weapon.

Here’s a look at a first pitch changeup from Manning.

Let’s just dream on Manning’s maximum potential here for a moment. He’s 20 years old, and has only been throwing baseballs with intent for about four years. It’s unlikely he’s reached his physical maturity as a pitcher, other than in terms of his height. There’s still plenty of room for growth, particularly in his leg and core strength. In fact it seems more likely than not than Manning will still put a decent amount of lean muscle onto his wiry frame. Whether he ends up with Tyler Glasnow’s physique, or Noah Syndergaard’s, is beside the point, but adding another tick or two to his fastball still seems like a reasonable expectation. There’s still good reason to think he’ll be sitting 95-96 mph and hitting triple digits as his max. With what appears to be a high spin rate fourseam fastball, and very good extension toward the plate, that is a monster fastball.

Now, you dial that curveball up another two ticks in concert with the fastball and you’ve likely got an 83-85 mph hammer not dissimilar from that thrown by the Houston Astros’ Lance McCullers. In other words, one of the better swing-and-miss curveballs in the game. There are numerous guys, from McCullers and Charlie Morton, to the DodgersRich Hill, succeeding without much changeup usage with just a good high spin fastball and a monster curveball. If Manning can get his changeup consistently above average, this could be one of the better starting repertoires in baseball.

Suffice it to say, the upside here is as good as any Tigers fan could’ve hoped. His stuff is going to be very good, even if his velocity projection is maxed out. But there’s probably more to come.

Command, building endurance, and the finer arts of learning to read and sequence hitters, are going to be most of the story the rest of the way. Particularly for a guy who is going to be a flyball pitcher with a high-spin fastball, working up in the zone a good deal, strong command is going to be a must to be able to use the fastball down in the zone as well. He’ll need that to avoid the home run ball against the best hitters in the game.

Manning also has a huge stride and a lot of knee flex on his lead leg in his delivery. This is a boon to his extension and perceived velocity, and explains why even good A-ball prospects looked totally overmatched by Manning’s fastball. However it may also be worth giving a bit back in stride length if it allows him to pitch with more stability and better location. Pitching from a firmer front leg would help Manning use his height to its full advantage, and help him to get more two-plane movement on his fastball.

It’s also possible that his delivery is fine, and improving his leg and core strength, will be enough to help Manning utilize his frame to best advantage. Stabilizing that long stride and soft front knee should help him to avoid some of the pitfalls with command often endured by tall, lanky pitchers. However, this is another point in which his sustained improvements this season, impressive athleticism, and multi-sport background argue in his favor.

All in all it’s been a very successful season, and the Tigers brass has to be extremely pleased. Manning has one start remaining on Monday evening for the Erie SeaWolves. While it won’t matter in the grand scheme of things, it would be great to see him finish the season on a major high note. There remains plenty of work to be done, but the Tigers took a real risk selecting such a raw talent so highly in the draft. The 2018 season has validated that decision. Don’t expect to see him in the Olde English D in 2019, but you may not have to wait too much longer. What remains now, is to see how far Manning can push himself toward a ceiling that is sky high.