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Tigers vs. Angels preview: Matt Manning to the main stage

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The Tigers top pitching prospect will face a tough test tonight, but hey no Mike Trout at least.

MiLB: MAY 04 Nashville Sounds at Toledo Mud Hens Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The circumstances aren’t ideal, but such is life. The Detroit Tigers would’ve liked their top pitching prospect, righthander Matt Manning, to get in a better groove early this season, with an eye toward a debut in July or August. However, fate mocks the best laid plans of man, and the rash of pitcher injuries they’ve suffered recently left them with few options. The result is that Manning will make his major league debut tonight in Anaheim.

First off, let’s remember that expectations should be tightly under wraps tonight. If Manning can keep them in the game for five innings that would be a huge success. More than likely he’s going to have a rough go against one of the better offenses in the American League this season. With Shohei Ohtani starting opposite Manning, the odds are that he isn’t going to get much run support.

The past year has really been a rollercoaster for the 23-year-old. In spring training 2020, we saw Manning looking like he was on the verge of another breakout. He touched 100 on multiple occasions, showing the ability to really ramp up the intensity level when challenged. He was starting to mix in a true slider that he didn’t have much command of yet, but all signs were positive.

Then COVID hit, and Manning, like everyone else, spent the next four months of the shelf. The Tigers brought him to summer camp prior to the short season, and when the MLB season opened, he was working out of the team’s alternate site in Toledo. That didn’t last all that long, as Manning felt some mild forearm soreness and was ultimately shut down the rest of the way. On every front, it became a lost season of development for him, right as he was prepping to level up to the major leagues. As a result, the early part of the 2021 season was viewed almost like rehab starts, with the goal being for Manning to build up his arm again and work on a few adjustments in his delivery.

The key mechanical adjustment has been the change from an arm swing takeaway at hand break, where he’d reach back toward second base before loading his arm to throw, to more of a dip move, where he simply reaches down, unfolding and then refolding his arm into load at front footstrike. The shorter arm path was designed to help him stay on time and sync’d up with his body position.

Compare his delivery in spring 2020, to the clip of him in May in Toledo to get a look at this.

Point being, Manning’s development has been largely stuck in neutral over the past year. Final work on his delivery and pitch mix was long delayed, and so far this season he’s remained a work in progress, rather than a pitcher looking like he’s fully taken the next steps to graduate to the majors. This is all coming a bit too soon. So it’s best to look at this start as a learning experience, and for those of us who’ve tracked his pro career intensely, as a bit of a fact finding mission.

Probably the key question is simply how his stuff will play at the major league level. We’ve been a broken record begging for a hard slider or cutter from him almost since he was drafted. While he’s made a few attempts to develop something along those lines the past two seasons, it just hasn’t taken for whatever reason. We saw him throwing a harder, tilting and somewhat sliderish curveball variant back in spring training, but since his season with Toledo began the project has largely been shelved.

As a result, Manning is heading into Anaheim working with fourseam fastballs at 93-95 mph—with plenty more in the tank when he wants it—a power curve around 80 mph, and a fairly hard changeup that moves like a high 80’s sinker when its right. He’ll break out a running twoseamer at times, but we’ve seen less of that the past few seasons.

When his command is sharp, Manning will work over the entire zone with his fastball, moving it up and down, in and out, to hitters of either hand. Even in a season where he’s been bitten by far more hard contact than he’s ever seen against him, Manning still gets plenty of whiffs, fouls, and soft contact off the fastball. If he locates well tonight, there will be plenty of balls in play, but he should be able to keep the Angels in the park for the most part, and his success, or lack thereof will then largely depend on defense and batted ball luck.

Manning’s huge extension and easy armspeed help the fastball play up even in the lower velocity band. The real question remaining revolves around the movement on the pitch and how easy a time MLB caliber hitters will have squaring it up when he’s filling up the zone. When Manning works to his glove side, the pitch sometimes gets cutting action that can make him extremely tough on lefthanded hitters when he pounds them inside. However, it doesn’t have much horizontal run, and as a result often looks pretty straight to observers in the scouting section.

The question is whether we’re actually looking at a straight fastball, or whether, like Spencer Turnbull as a prime example, Manning’s fourseamer has seam-shifted wake movement that gives him unpredictable late life and makes him hard to square up. The consistent lack of hard contact in the air, until this spring anyway, smacks of a fastball with some tricky late movement that doesn’t line up with the spin hitters see coming out of his hand. So does the fact that, without a high spin rate, Manning gets a lot of whiffs up in the zone. I’ll be very interested to see Statcast data on his spin vs. observed movement when this one is over.

Of course, no matter what levels you’ve had success at, the major leagues is a whole different beast. If Manning comes out throwing 70 percent fourseam fastballs, he’s going to have a long, or short as it were, night on the mound. If he fails to get ahead of most hitters, he’s going to have a rough time. And, if he leaks fastballs over the middle, particularly in swing counts when he has hitters down a strike or two? Yep. Gonna be a bad time.

Another question on our minds is how well Manning’s curveball will play against MLB hitters. It’s a plus curve with sharp 12-6 break, with Manning showing a bit of feel for adding and and subtracting a little horizontal movement. He’ll freeze hitters with the curve, but we don’t see many whiffs. The curve tends to pop up out of his hand a bit as well, and major league hitters who decide to sit on it may not have much trouble recognizing the breaker coming once they’ve gotten a look at a few. Hopefully he throws a good mix of curves and changeups anyway, because if he gets locked into leaning too heavily on the heater there’s no way he’s getting through the Angels lineup more than once.

MLB hitters are the final test, and they’ll presumably tell Manning and the organization plenty tonight about where he needs to focus his work in the weeks and months to come.

Detroit Tigers (29-39) at Los Angeles Angels (33-35)

Time/Place: 9:38 p.m. ET, Angel Stadium of Anaheim

SB Nation Site: Halos Heaven

Media: Tigers Radio Network, Free on YouTube TV

Pitching Matchup: RHP Matt Manning (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. RHP Shohei Ohtani (2-1, 2.85 ERA)

Game 69 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 ERA fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 ERA fWAR
Manning (AAA) 32.1 6.54 25.0 6.9 3.06 8.07 N/A
Ohtani 47.1 3.41 34.0 14.0 0.76 2.85 1.1

As for Manning’s opposite number tonight, he needs little introduction. Shohei Ohtani is the most incredible baseball player we’ve ever seen. A prodigious power hitter with 19 jacks already and a spot high on the offensive leaderboards, he’s also one of the nastiest power pitchers in the game.

Ohtani’s fastball velocity has been highly variable again this season, perhaps due to the two-way workload he carries. He’s averaging 95.5 mph with his fourseamer, but has still touched 100 mph at times, using the pitch 55 percent of the time. His splitter sometimes registers as a sinker, leading to some disparity in data from FanGraphs vs. Statcast, and we’re going with Statcast of course. Ohtani throws the splitter about 20 percent of the time. The rest is a mix of cutters and sliders, with the occasional power curve mixed in there when he wants a real change of pace.

Ohtani still walks a lot of hitters, and the Tigers offense will have to try and be patient tonight, hoping for a bout of wildness that will allow them to generate traffic. They’re presumably going to strike out a ton, but if they can create some long innings and get him out of the game in the fifth or sixth inning, they’ve got a good shot to score some runs against a pretty poor bullpen.

Key Matchup: Tigers bullpen vs. Angels

Hopefully Manning surprises us with a strong outing. Either way, we’re pleased to see him get a chance to work with Chris Fetter, and he’ll be familiar with either Eric Haase, or even more so with Jake Rogers behind the plate. Unlike his college pitcher cohorts among the Tigers good young pitching prospects, Manning has been in pro ball for almost five years now, and that relentless grind doesn’t come with the same highs and lows as experienced by pitchers getting the college experience. That his major league debut is finally here can only be a good thing, giving him a glimpse of what he’s been working for all this time, and presumably teaching him a few hard lessons along the way.

That said, expecting him to outduel Ohtani is just a bit much at this point. Hopefully Manning can hang in there into the middle innings, but either way this game is probably going to come down to the bullpen’s ability to lock down the Angels and give the offense time and space to mount a comeback.