Matt Manning had a very exciting 2018 season. For a fanbase looking for reasons to believe in the future, he was certainly one of the big ones. The intimidating right-hander pitched his way across three full season levels of minor league ball, and improved just about every facet of his game. Casey Mize is going to draw the attention early this season, but it has to be emphasized that of all the Tigers’ collection of good pitching prospects, Manning is the youngest. He may well prove to be the best, as well.
Things weren’t necessarily so rosy this time last year. In Manning’s first full season as a pro, in 2017, the Tigers had held him back in extended spring camp, and Manning was erratic when he eventually got back on the mound for live action. Even the high velocity heater was in question as Manning worked on mechanical adjustments amid the many challenges of a teenagers’ first season as a professional athlete. Always a high-risk, high-reward selection, the risk was a little more evident to a hopeful fanbase by the time the season ended.
Late in the season, Manning did start putting things together with a series of fine outings for Class-A West Michigan. Still, it was a little more clear that Manning was as raw as expected, and not at all immune to the risk attached to a prep pitching prospect. An oblique injury at the end of camp in 2018 was a worrisome beginning to his sophomore season. However, Manning shrugged it all off with his characteristic focus, and in the end, the late start just made it easier to manage his innings.
As soon as he returned to the mound in late April, Manning made it clear that all the hard work was paying off. He surpassed expectations by dominating both A-ball levels and reaching Double-A Erie by August. A strong trio of starts for the SeaWolves put the capstone on an excellent year of development that now has Manning looking well ahead of schedule.
Manning’s background is probably familiar by now. The son of former NBA player, Rich Manning, he was a fine high school player who declined a scholarship to Loyola Marymount to enter the major league draft. Manning didn’t begin taking pitching that seriously until his junior year, but when he did, he quickly opened some eyes.
By his senior season, reports of Manning approaching triple digits and flashing the makings of a good breaking ball had scouts filling the seats for his starts, and while he didn’t bother much with the showcases, the word got around quickly. He was pretty unanimously pegged at a top 10 pick in the 2016 draft. The Tigers selected him ninth overall, and he immediately became one of the key focal points of their attempt to build up the farm system and produce a future contender.
Thus far, Manning has seen little but success, despite the early mechanical issues. He’s racked up 262 strikeouts in 198 innings of work as a pro, while issuing just 83 walks. Manning holds a career 3.36 ERA, and didn’t miss a beat in three Double-A starts in August. He tossed 117 2⁄3 innings in 2018, and has generally been healthy and durable, sustaining his velocity deep into games.
Manning’s size and athleticism are his two most obvious strengths. Standing 6’6, and looking a good deal bigger and stronger than his listed 190 pounds, he’s displayed balance and coordination rarely found in a pitcher of his stature and age. Manning’s long limbs produce an exceptionally long stride and superb extension toward the plate, but with enough balance and control to locate the ball pretty well for his experience level. He already maintains his velocity deep into games, and probably still has room to add muscle to his rangy frame.
Manning’s fastball typically sits between 93-95 mph now, with the ability to touch 98. The odds are fairly good that he’ll find a little more in the tank as he continues to develop physically. He just turned 21 in January, and is still younger than the college players who will be taken in the draft this coming June.
At times, Manning has had the fastball straighten out, or even cut on him as the Tigers tinkered with his mechanics, but he had much more consistent movement on it in 2018. His extension makes the velocity play up well beyond readings on the radar gun, and for the most part, Manning looked to be competing with himself more than with hitters until he hit Double-A ball. When he’s thrown strikes, he’s been absolutely dominant. It’s a plus fastball already, with a good likelihood of being even better than that as he gets stronger.
A hard curveball with tight spin and a bit of tilt remains Manning’s sole breaking ball. According to FanGraphs, it features pretty prototypical spin rate, but better than average velocity. The extension and angle Manning gets on it makes it play even a little better than its basic vital signs. He grew much more comfortable with the pitch as the 2018 season progressed, and was showing a consistent plus curveball by the time he reached Erie in August.
Here's that Matt Manning curveball I was talking about from two nights ago. 82 mph, about as good as of hook as you'll see pic.twitter.com/vsvFHd4ApC— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) August 25, 2018
Manning’s changeup is the offering that has lagged behind, but even there he showed progress last season. He still telegraphs it a little by slowing his armspeed, but he was much more confident in his command by late summer and was throwing the change more liberally. Manning has experimented with both a circle changeup, and more of a split-change grip, but at last report had settled in with a fosh grip which gave him quality fading action. Typically he was sitting around 86 mph with the change, which is a bit less velocity separation from his fastball than is optimal, but with some refinements, the making of at least an average future changeup are in place. Again, his fastball velocity and extension should help it to play up as he improves.
There is still work to be done, of course. To that end, there is a particular change to his delivery that has been suggested by Tigers’ pitching coach, Rick Anderson, among others. Manning’s long stride forces him to collapse too much on his lead leg, inhibiting hip rotation and not taking full advantage of his height. It’s also a less stable platform to throw from, possibly hindering him from locating as consistently as possible, particularly down in the strike zone.
If Manning can shorten his stride a little bit, and post up taller on his lead leg, the benefits may be far-reaching. He should be able to rotate his hips with better speed and efficiency, possibly producing extra gas with less effort from his upper body. That position is also more stable than the deep knee bend Manning currently throws with, which could help his command and consistency. Finally, it would get him throwing more on a downhill plane, taking full advantage of his height and long arms. He doesn’t need to go all the way to the straight lead leg of Noah Syndergaard or Tyler Glasnow, two tall power pitchers Manning is often compared to, but finding a comfortable middle ground between them and his current motion will be something to watch for in 2019.
At this point, Manning’s command continues to need work. He locates pretty well at the top of the zone, and to either side, and will pitch aggressively inside. The breaking ball will still get away from him from time to time, but we saw a lot less of that as the 2018 season progressed. Overall he was getting much more consistent movement and velocity, and really looked to have dialed in his release point, moving much more fluently between the wind-up and the stretch. Improving at locating the ball down, and otherwise continuing to refine his command, will be the tasks this season.
Finally, Manning lacks a pitch that moves away from right-handers. This isn’t a pressing issue, as with continued improvements in command, Manning already has the ceiling of a frontline starter. However, developing a slider or cutter along the way would really tie his entire repertoire together.
Manning can already pair high fastballs with his curveball, but his fastball is actually a power sinker, with FanGraphs recently reporting an average spin rate of 2150 rpms, less than major league average. A slider or cutter typically goes better with the sinker, particularly as Manning improves at locating the ball down in the zone. That probably won’t be a priority this year, but developing a pitch that moves in on lefties and away from right-handers could eventually be the final piece of the puzzle if Manning is to fully max out his ace potential.
Projected 2019 team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves
Manning has already made three starts at the Double-A level, and they went well, so it’s easy to forecast his home for most of the 2019 season. Like most young pitchers, the likelihood is that he’ll run into some adversity against older and better hitters this season. After the huge jump he made in 2018, it’s possible that he’ll need a season to consolidate those gains before taking the next step.
However, only small refinements are needed to get him to the point where he’s ready to tackle the major leagues, and it will surprise few if he throttles Eastern League hitters without much issue. In such an event, he’ll reach Triple-A Toledo this summer, and while the Tigers would probably like to take things slowly, may be primed to force his way to the show sometime in 2020.