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2020 BYB Tigers Prospect #2: RHP Matt Manning just keeps getting better

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Manning has seized the top spot in the system on several prospect lists and continues to improve in leaps and bounds.

MLB: FEB 29 Spring Training - Tigers at Yankees (ss) Photo by /Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s an axiom in scouting circles that fits Detroit Tigers’ right-hander Matt Manning perfectly. “Sometimes you just bet on the athlete.” Manning was still a very raw and inexperienced pitcher when the Tigers selected him ninth overall in the 2016 draft. Now that he’s developed into one of the top pitching prospects in the game, everyone is on the bandwagon, but it’s easy to forget just how easily that selection could’ve gone wrong.

High school arms are typically a risky proposition, even by the high standard of risk that applies to all pitching prospects. Look no further than Manning’s fellow prep pitcher in the 2016 draft, Riley Pint. The Colorado Rockies drafted Pint five spots ahead of Manning, and almost four years later, Pint, who was already throwing 100 miles per hour with a wipeout breaking ball in high school hasn’t even managed to handle the Class-A level.

A year later, the Cincinnati Reds took prep pitching prodigy Hunter Greene second overall. Greene also carried a triple digit fastball in his high school days, and unlike Pint, had the perfect frame to project future success upon. Unfortunately, Greene had elbow trouble in his full season debut and had to be shut down. Efforts to get him going last season ended in further damage to the elbow, and he eventually underwent Tommy John surgery that will keep him out for most, if not all, of the 2019 season.

Certainly the full story isn’t written for either pitcher, and Greene at least has been extremely impressive in his short time on the mound as a pro. However, by comparison, what looked like a pretty risky selection of Manning has turned out to be an excellent decision by the Tigers front office. They’ve backed that up with good player development, doing a really nice job of overhauling Manning’s mechanics early on. That solid base and early patience has served him well.

It may feel like it’s all come together easily and naturally for the 22-year-old, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

Background

Manning’s backstory is quite well known by now. The son of former NBA player Rich Manning, he was originally focused on basketball and starred in that sport in high school more so than in baseball. Manning could’ve gone on to Loyola University on a full ride basketball scholarship, but took up pitching seriously prior to his junior year, and improved so rapidly that by his senior year he was a lock to go in the first round of the MLB draft. The Tigers took him with the ninth overall pick, and paid his full slot value of $3.5 million to sign him.

Those who watched Manning in the early days will remember just how impressive an athlete he was, despite the gangly appearance. They’ll also recall just how raw he was in terms of his mechanics and overall game. The fastball was always impressive, and the curve had potential, but Manning was little more than a thrower at that point. The Tigers held him back in extended spring training the next year to keep to a conservative buildup in workload and to work on a litany of adjustments to his delivery.

He finally made his 2017 debut at the short season A-ball level in late June for the Connecticut Tigers with a nine strikeout performance in just 4 13 innings of work. However, Manning’s mechanics fluctuated every time he took the mound. He changed his stride direction. He altered his arm path and release point. He adjusted his posture and his drive off the rubber. Several times that summer he looked particularly awkward and frustrated as he tried to ingrain the many changes he and the Tigers were working on.

The Tigers moved him up to Class-A West Michigan late in the season, and after a rocky start with the Whitecaps, things started coming together for him in his final few starts even as prospect hounds were cooling on him a little, thinking this was more of a project than expected.

The next spring, Manning was sidelined with a minor oblique injury and missed most of April. Prospect lists showed some minor concerns with his development, and he was ranked as low as fourth on some Tigers’ lists. FanGraphs actually had Franklin Perez, Beau Burrows, and Christin Stewart, all ranked ahead of him at that point.

You know what happened from there.

Every single part of Manning’s game took a leap forward in 2018. His mechanics became much more natural and refined, with easy velocity now more consistently in the mid-90’s. His fastball command improved substantially. The 12-to-6 power curveball sharpened into a plus pitch. Manning started showing ability to set hitters up and put them away with something other than the heater. He improved out of the stretch and developed his pickoff move. He became a better fielder. The cherry on top was the blossoming of an average changeup late in the season as Manning completed a run through two levels of A-ball to reach Double-A Erie by season’s end.

Early in 2019, it didn’t look like Manning would even be at the Double-A level much longer. From April through June, he was featuring a plus fastball, plus curveball, and an average changeup. In the first half of the season, he posted a 2.35 ERA with 91 strikeouts to 22 walks in 76 23 innings of work and looked very close to major league ready. In the second half, command of his secondary pitches wasn’t quite as sharp and he returned to leaning more on the fastball and just pounding the zone. He trimmed his walks and was still dominant, but it was clear where more improvement was required.

Strengths

The lede to this report gives away the biggest of Manning’s strengths. He has the perfect frame teams are looking for in a starting pitcher, and combines it with the athleticism that made him a two sport star in high school. Again and again, coaches and teammates remark on Manning’s athletic aptitude for grasping new concepts and instruction, and ingraining adjustments rapidly. This is a premium athlete with excellent makeup, and as FanGraphs wrote in ranking Manning the 12th best prospect in all baseball last month, he has “become the dream.”

The element that amplifies everything Manning does is the enormous extension he gets toward home plate. His long legs and flexibility allow him to get way down the mound on-line, and he’s able to power his weight out over his front side to release the ball without sacrificing balance. It’s a move that would ruin the control of many tall pitchers, but Manning repeats it very consistently and only needs a little more tuning in terms of fastball command.

Currently, Manning sits 93-96 mph with his fastball and shows some feel for adding and subtracting velocity to different parts of the zone. He has 98 mph in his back pocket whenever he wants and doesn’t show much apparent effort to get there. The prospect of triple digit velocity remains as Manning has consistently come to camp bigger and stronger each spring without bulking up or losing any of his flexibility. The Tigers do not emphasize throwing max velocity the way many team do, so don’t count out the possibility that there’s still a little more available to him when he wants it. However, the extension he gets makes his fastball look a tick or two faster to hitters anyway.

Manning’s curveball is already plus, but with more consistency it could be great. At times he’s gotten in a good groove with it and showed off a near double plus version in the low-80’s that he could spot to either side of the plate. More commonly it’s a plus 12-to-6 hook in the high 70’s with sharp action that will lock hitters up and draw weak contact.

As early as summer of 2018 we were already seeing the best of the curveball, and it was impressive. He carried it through much of the first half last season as well, but lost feel for it later in the summer. When he dials it in again, the hammer is going to be a major weapon for him.

Right now the changeup draws generally average grades, with a future as an above average pitch as the likely finishing point. Indeed for much of 2019, we saw plenty of above average changeups from him before he lost feel for it in the second half.

Manning has settled on a split change grip after experimenting with different grips for a few seasons. When he throws it with conviction it’s already an average pitch with plenty of fading action and generally good armspeed to sell it. What it doesn’t have, is good separation in velocity form his fastball. His extension helps it play up, and it’s liable to work as an average or better pitch even if it never quite gets there on its own merits. But he does need to show more consistency with it for it to become more than a show-me pitch.

You can get an idea of the horizontal movement Manning gets with his best changeup in the clip below. More often it moves a little less and he’s not confident throwing it for a strike as it still flirts with many left-handed hitters’ bat path too much. A little more depth and less velocity would be helpful.

Weaknesses

There isn’t much that can be rightfully called a weakness here, but there are a few question marks that remain. The fastball-curveball combination, and the developing durability Manning has shown all argue for a bright future as a starter, but Manning does need to refine the secondary pitches, particularly the changeup, in order to fill out his ceiling as a frontline starter. However, there are a few other keys to watch in his delivery and his pitch mix.

Manning’s huge stride and extension are a plus, but because he sinks so deeply into his left knee, his mechanics neutralize his height to a degree. There has been some thought that he might be better off shortening his stride a little bit to make it easier to post up fully on his lead left leg. Finding a balance between that stride length and the desire to pitch taller with more downward plane is still a work in progress.

However, Manning has consistently gotten stronger each season, particularly in his legs, and it shows in his developing ability to resist with his lead leg and pitch with a little more upright posture and downhill plane on his pitches. He’s focused on that this spring, and it all looks to be coming together without costing him in terms of extension.

This is a good thing, and it also illustrates that for all his progress the past two seasons, he’s still making some noticeable refinements to his action.

The second issue comes from the type of movement his fastball produces, and how it interacts with his curveball. Despite the desire to compare him to another young Tigers’ pitching prodigy, Manning has little in common with Justin Verlander other than size and a similarly biting hammer curveball.

While Verlander is the king of fastball spin, Manning’s spin rate is typically well below average on his fastball. FanGraphs has him at an average of 2100 rpms. For a pitcher with his velocity that is still an outlier fastball, just one on the low side of the spin range rather than the high side. Either way, being further from average is generally good. But what is interesting about Manning, is that he still works up in the zone quite a bit anyway, and gets most of his whiffs there with the fastball.

This is possible because of his extension and velocity, but rather than a true riding fastball, Manning’s moves late, with a little drop and tailing action well after a hitter has passed the point of no return with his swing. He’ll mix twoseamers in that run more toward a right-haned hitter, but largely he’s working up in the zone a lot with something closer to a power sinker than a true riding fourseamer. That’s a bit of a funky mixture and it remains to be seen how well the fastball and power curve will tunnel off each other when he has the best hitters in the world waiting in the batter’s box.

Because of that spin profile and his mechanics, development of a cutter or slider has always been advisable. In fact, early in his pro career he would sometimes throw what looked like an accidental cut fastball when he’d close his stride off. The curveball can play off high fastballs, and Manning has discussed working to tunnel their respective releases more consistently, but if Manning can develop a harder breaking ball with more horizontal movement, that would really open up a whole world lower in the zone for him to exploit.

Manning has taken all this to heart, and began work on a slider this offseason. We’ve yet to see it, but there is plenty of reason to believe the project will bear fruit. Manning, along with Casey Mize, Alex Faedo, and the other top pitching prospects in the system have really taken to the technology now available, coaching each other through sessions utilizing Rapsodo data and high speed camera footage of their release. That understanding and teamwork has paid dividends for some of them already.

The Tigers also recently hired former USC head coach Dan Hubbs to refine the use of data and technology in developing their pitching prospects. Combine the buildup of knowledge in the system with Manning’s ability to learn and ingrain new concepts, and there’s a fair chance he’ll have another swing and miss weapon in his arsenal before too long.

Projected 2020 team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens

We’ll see how the slider comes along, but right now the 2020 season is mainly about refining command and testing himself against more experienced hitters. That will happen as a member of the Toledo Mud Hens’ soon-to-be stacked rotation. Manning will put his ability to manage contact against the major league baseball, which spiked home runs across the Triple-A level last season. If he can keep building on his track record of relentless improvement and durability, we should see Matt Manning make his major league debut late this season.