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Say hello to Matt Manning’s new little friend

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Detroit’s highly-heralded pitching prospect already had a lot going for him, but his newest pitch could be a difference-maker.

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

Spring training is in full swing and on Wednesday the Detroit Tigers got their second glimpse at one of their most prized pitching prospects in Matt Manning. More importantly, the fans — at least those with MLB.tv — got a peek at his new breaking ball, rumors of which have been churning in the mill over the past month since it was first revealed that he was working on a second curveball.

The big question has been what exactly is this new breaking pitch: is it an adjusted version of his traditional 12-6 offering or does it have more slider-like qualities? Mum has mostly been the word in the media leading up to March, but it appears that we might just finally have some answers. After two innings of relief work against the Philadelphia Phillies, there is now a four-pitch sample pool to help figure out what is up with Manning’s new little toy.

As an overview, the 23-year-old righthander tossed two full innings on Wednesday, allowing an earned run on three hits while striking out two using 28 pitches, raising his ERA to 2.25 in the nascent preseason. His first outing on March 3rd — also against the Phillies — saw him throw two scoreless innings in relief, allowing just one hit while striking out one. Not too shabby of a start for a member of Detroit’s pitching prospect triumvirate.

My colleague Brandon Day made an excellent point about his revamped delivery while watching him on Wednesday, in which it appeared that Manning has shortened his stride and shortened his arm path somewhat. The adjustments afford him the ability to make some tweaks, which appears to be the case with his “new” breaking pitch and could potentially provide more benefits as he gets more comfortable with these refinements. All in all, he looks a little more stable and in control, while still showing easy gas up to 97 mph. No doubt he can reach back for more if required.

Back to the original topic: What about that second breaking ball? The term “curveball” and “slider” have been often used interchangeably to describe it thus far and so we were keen to get our first look at this new weapon. As Manning told Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic Detroit in early February, the pitch is still gripped like his standard 12-6 curveball, but with a little different release and emphasis.

“I’ve asked some people if they want me to call it a slider or not,” Manning said of his new pitch. “I’ll call it a slider because it moves that direction. It’s my same grip. I’m just throwing it with a new arm slot and a different wrist position.”

According to MLB.com’s Gamecast, in his first outing, Manning threw 13 total pitches with three curveballs averaging around 78.5 mph and a slider clocked at 82.5 mph, which was put in play for the final out of the inning. On Wednesday, he tossed three curveballs again, this time having two landing around that familiar 78.5 mph spot but the third at clocked at 80.3 mph, suggesting the two breaking pitches might blend together a little. However, the two pitches he threw that registered as sliders hit 83 and 84 mph, so perhaps there is an appropriate amount of velocity separation to distinguish the two.

In case you were not able to watch Manning’s outing, Chris Brown’s tweet below shows his full first inning of work. Two sliders and three curveballs (one of which was clocked at 80-plus mph) came during this stretch, which should suffice as a sample for now.

Starting at the 0:10 mark in the video above, Manning winds up to throw what is registered as a 83 mph slider. Note that the catcher is set up low and on the outer third of the plate, but not really prepared for significant horizontal movement — because the pitch does not really tilt too much, it just appears to have more late bite than his upper-70s curveball. His next breaking pitch comes at 0:18 in the video, with the catcher setting up in the same position as before with the slider and again takes a sharp dive but was logged as an 80.3 mph curve.

The very next pitch, once again with the catcher in the breaking ball position, Manning throws a slider that backs up a bit arm-side, hits 84 mph, but hung there long enough to get fouled off. He finally earns the strikeout on the final pitch of the at-bat with a 78.5 mph 12-6 that is ever-so-clearly the classic curveball. He threw one more curve that inning — the second-to-last pitch — that again fit the classic description of a vertical breaking pitch.

So what’s the verdict? From my educated perspective based on this extremely small sample size, what was said in the preseason about Manning’s second breaking pitch being another version of the curveball appears to be completely true, despite Gameday’s insistence upon calling it a slider. In the end, defining the pitch type can be based on grip or movement, but we’ll go with Manning’s own assessment that this is a curveball variant.

The pitch does appear to have a bit more late action thanks to the increased velocity but, at least in the tiny sample we saw on Wednesday, there does not appear to be too much horizontal component. However, his revamped delivery could open up some opportunities when it comes to tinkering in this area — not to mention Manning is still only 23 years old and has plenty of headroom remaining. The new pitch is still a work in progress, so we’ll see how it develops over the course of the season.

One of the biggest knocks on the young hurler is his lack of a true swing and miss breaking ball. So combined with his already impressive arsenal, a legitimate slider or firmer, late breaking second curveball, could truly elevate him a notch or three. For now, we will have to settle for a glimpse of this new little toy, but as he learns to command and use it effectively, it could develop into something special down the road. Thus far, this looks like an experiment that could stick.