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Matt Manning’s new slider is a difference maker

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The rookie righthander still has plenty to work on, but the biggest piece of the puzzle has come together in record time.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Detroit Tigers rookie righthander Matt Manning has debuted in the major leagues, and put together several solid starts in the process. As we weren’t even necessarily expecting to see him in a Tigers uniform until after the All-Star break this year, the 2021 season hasn’t exactly gone badly for him. Still, things clearly haven’t gone as planned either. In fact, for about two years now, the 23-year-old’s progress has stalled out somewhat for a variety of reasons, COVID included. Now, there are very good good reasons to think a glow up is on the horizon.

Back on Independence Day against the Chicago White Sox, Manning broke out a completely revamped slider. Harder and tighter than the slurve he’d shown in the spring, this is more of a classic rifle spin slider look, boring in at 85-87 mph before disappearing with above average depth. And while the White Sox had little trouble with Manning in that outing, the Twins saw a more consistent version of it five days later, as did the Texas Rangers in Manning’s last start. When it was located well, the slider looked pretty good.

Since the early days of Manning’s pro career, we’ve begged for this pitch. While he did develop a pretty good curve ball that emerged during his breakout 2018 campaign, he hasn’t shown good command of the pitch, and the lack of whiffs generated spoke to poor interaction between his fastball and the curve in deceiving hitters.

Manning is a low spin guy. His fourseamer has some shifty, even cutterish movement at times, but overall the movement profile is below average in terms of ride and horizontal movement. Of course, pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, Gregory Soto, Diego Castillo, and a host of other very talented pitchers all have fastballs in that same low spin band around 2000-2200 rpms. It’s all in how you use what you’ve got.

As a result, it won’t be surprising if it takes a little time to tweak the optimum movement for Manning’s fastball. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if he and pitching coach Chris Fetter started adding his somewhat forsaken twoseamer back into the mix, much as Tarik Skubal recently started throwing a sinker again here and there.

Don’t be fooled though, the Manning fastball has plenty of points in its favor anyway.

First of all, Manning gets good extension to the plate. At 6.9 feet of extension to home plate, he’s in Jacob deGrom territory in that regard. He has easy arm action that can be deceptive considering the velocity he can produce. Even at 92-93 mph, throwing a high rate of fastballs, he was rarely squared up in the minor leagues until a bad stretch of starts at the Triple-A level this season, and even then much of the big damage came against the changeup and the curveball.

This brings us to the question of the straightness of Manning’s fourseamer. It certainly doesn’t tail. Sometimes it looks a true cut fastball. Sometimes it sinks late. Sometimes it seems to ride. It all adds up to below average horizontal and vertical movement, per Statcast, but it doesn’t appear to play that way in game. The extension, release point, and easy velocity play a role, but one way or the other, the fastball isn’t getting crushed for power out there, and there’s a strong argument that we’re still seeing a Manning far from peak strength.

Manning has thrown 268 fastballs at the major league level, and exactly two have left the yard. There are three barrels total off the fastball, and that’s after having thrown three full—by current standards—starts worth of heaters. This despite the fact that he had nothing else really working until the slider came on the scene a few weeks ago. He’s thrown 61.5 percent fastballs overall. The rate was higher in some of his earlier starts, and yet, despite everyone in the park knowing a fastball was coming most of the time, only two men have managed to lift one over the walls.

Those names are Jose Ramirez, of course, and Austin Hedges. The point being, teams can square Manning’s fastball up like anyone else—see the Chicago White Sox back on July 4th—particularly when he’s behind and when location is poor, but they usually hit ground balls and line drives. Small sample overall, but that’s a pretty good sign, and as mentioned, this isn’t the hardest throwing version of Matt Manning we’ve seen. He’s still got some physical projection left.

Watch this clip from spring training back in March 2020. Look at Manning’s size and delivery. The fact that he leans in and is sitting 95-97 as the inning progresses. Remember that he touched 100 mph in spring camp last year.

That looks like a slightly bigger, more muscular version of our current Matt Manning. And according to him, he’s still working to regain the 15 pounds he lost to a nasty bout with COVID-19. We probably aren’t seeing Manning in his physical prime just yet. So far he’s averaged 93.2 mph on the fastball, but it’s pretty easy to see that number popping substantially higher in the years to come. He’s going to add muscle back, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be sitting 95 mph and reaching back for near triple digits when he wants it. That may take an offseason to rebuild, but it’s in there. All in good time.

For now, he appears to have some of the fastball traits of a Spencer Turnbull—hard to lift, though with fewer whiffs that high spin fourseam pitchers—but potentially with better command and even more velocity to boot. Turnbull’s tailing twoseamer is the show pitch, but it’s his relatively straight, seam-shifted wake fourseamer that does most of the heavy lifting. We’ve seen how effective that can be when paired with a good slider, and thanks to the rapid development of that pitch by Manning and pitching coach Chris Fetter, he now has that weapon in his bag. It needs plenty of sharpening in terms of command, of course, but the good sliders we’ve seen are plenty good enough to bag a lot of whiffs.

Conclusions

From a scouting perspective, it’s easy to look at Manning and see a pitcher whose stock was in decline this spring. He’s 23 now, he’s got five years of pro ball under his belt, and at that point you’d like to see results. Instead his velo is down a little and the secondary pitches have been hammered quite a bit this year to date. He’s not getting the same strikeout numbers he did at the Double-A level either. But real life doesn’t take those standards into account.

Manning is still a year younger than Mize and Skubal. He lost basically all of the 2020 season, was shut down with a mild forearm injury, and his physical development was set back by the illness on top of it. There is more projection left here than either Manning’s age or experience level might suggest. We’re still quite convinced that there’s much better to come. The hurdle of developing an effective slider has finally been partially cleared, and that is a major developmental step for the big righthander. If he can refine command of the slider-changeup combination, he could be everything the Tigers hoped. And if it takes another season to get there, so be it.