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Tigers player previews: Matt Manning is primed for a good season

The right-hander continues to improve, but he needs to finally stay healthy for the long haul.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday’s contest against the New York Yankees had something on the line for Matt Manning. After a third straight season saw him beset by minor arm trouble, the 25-year-old right-hander and the Detroit Tigers pitching coaches had a lot to clean up this spring. His early Grapefruit League outings didn’t inspire much confidence. But just when things started looking dicey, Manning put it together in a start that locked up his spot in the Tigers’ rotation.

His work against a modest Yankees lineup lacking Aaron Judge wasn’t anything special. Manning just needed to show that all the adjustments he’s making are starting to come together. He comfortably did that much and in the process we got an interesting look at the changes he’s working on. There will be keen focus on those changes over his final spring outings.

The real question this season is whether Manning can finally stave off the injury bug and handle the workload. With 30 major league starts under his belt, Manning holds a 4.79 ERA/4.26 FIP combination. It’s not like he’s had no success in parts of two big league seasons. The Tigers clearly have a solid major-league starter here already. But if he can put the nagging arm issues behind him and get a full season of consistent reps under his belt? Matt Manning’s full potential may finally be unlocked.

Matt Manning 2021-2022

Season Level IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Season Level IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
2021 AAA 85.1 6.49 25.0 6.9 3.06
2021 MLB 32.1 4.62 14.8 8.6 1.05 0.8
2022 AAA 20.1 2.87 26.4 14.9 0.00
2022 MLB 63.0 3.78 18.3 11.0 0.86 1.0

Manning’s strength has always been his four-seam fastball. Much like teammate Spencer Turnbull’s various heaters, it’s a bit of a creature. Turnbull will actually throw a true cut fastball at times, but even his more distinct four-seamer is straight and cutterish, almost never hit hard in the air. Manning’s has similar properties despite much more riding action. Even when hitters hit it hard, it’s still really difficult to lift for extra bases and home runs.

Hitters batted .198 with a truly meager .252 slugging percentage against the four-seamer in 2022, despite him throwing it 51 percent of the time. Manning doesn’t get a lot of whiffs on it yet, but when he’s locating the fastball even big-league hitters have trouble doing any damage. That’s a pretty good foundation for a good starting pitcher. And if Manning can build back up to his peak velocity when the adjustments he’s working on this spring, the four-seamer will be more than a foundation. The issue remains taking the next step with his secondary pitches. On that score, it’s been a rocky road since he was drafted as a raw prep prospect almost seven years ago.

Manning talked this spring about being encouraged to lean on his fastball in the minor leagues rather than developing his secondary pitches. Despite a rather glaring need for a harder breaking ball than his curve, he was already close to the major leagues before any real emphasis was put on learning a slider. And over time, a curveball that looked like a future plus weapon at the Double-A level remained very inconsistent.

Still, the Matt Manning that arrived in spring camp back in February of 2020 was in a great place. A certified blue-chip pitching prospect already, he came to camp with some added muscle and generated a little buzz by touching 100 mph in spring action. From that point, when COVID shut things down, it’s been a cycle of minor injuries, rehab, getting to a point where he’s really pitching well, and then starting all over again.

Tuning a pitching prospect

Since Chris Fetter took over as the Tigers’ head pitching coach prior to the 2021 season, Manning has gone through a long overdue player development crash course at the major league level. Tinkering with his mechanics. Tinkering with his breaking ball grips and release points. Finally addressing issues left unfocused as he bored his way through the minor leagues with little more than a fastball and his natural athleticism. These haven’t been simple adjustments for a young pitcher facing the best hitters in the game for the first time.

Manning has lamented the need as well.

“It’s frustrating sometimes, honestly, because there’s so much stuff that I’m changing,” Manning said. “I’m trying to start from the ground up but also do the little things right by getting ahead of hitters, throwing strikes, staying in the zone and not putting myself in bad situations.”

After numerous experiments, Manning finally settled on a pretty good edition of his slider last season after working with Gabe Ribas, the Tigers' new director of pitching. A 35.8 percent whiff rate in 2022 says hitters thought it was pretty good as well. He didn’t always command it, but things improved as he settled in. A couple of cement mixers with no depth led to two home runs allowed, but overall it was very effective for him.

In Manning’s last outing, on March 17 against the Yankees, it was interesting how many of his pitches suddenly showed increased movement as we got Statcast data Clearly the pitch shaping lab is still tinkering with Manning’s stuff. The results looked very positive. The slider actually averaged three more inches of drop than it did last year, for example. We’ll see if that translates to more whiffs.

We also note that Manning’s changeup looked really good against the Yankees. He was getting almost six inches more horizontal movement on the pitch than he did last season. Instead of a fairly straight, dropping changeup, the reworked model fades away hard to his arm side and generated some ugly swings from the Yankees.

Fetter also helped Manning add a more distinct sinker last season, though it’s more of a two-seam fastball than an actual sinker. It still rides like the four-seamer, but it has several inches more horizontal break, giving him two fastball types that look the same out of his hand. The four-seamer is still the primary fastball, but the better sinker adds a wrinkle that should help him remain a hard pitcher to drive the ball in the air against.

Once again, that start against the Yankees showed improved riding life on the fastballs as well. Manning’s four-seamer averaged 13 inches of drop, and as little as 10 inches in a few cases, whereas he averaged 15 inches of drop on the heater the last two seasons. Less drop equals more ride, and despite Manning’s low four-seam spin rate, Fetter has helped him maximize the ride with seam-shifted wake effect. If he can consistently get even more ride like he showed on Friday, the fastball will play even better up in the zone.

The tweaks are ongoing.

Robin Lund and Manning’s delivery

After Scott Harris, the most interesting hire the Tigers made this offseason was to lure Iowa pitching coach Robin Lund to a role as Chris Fetter’s assistant. A kinesiology professor and expert on biomechanics, Lund became a full-time baseball coach after a long teaching career and established himself as one of the more innovative minds in the game coaching the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Fetter and Lund have been putting that expertise to work on Manning’s pitching mechanics, looking to make some adjustments that will take pressure off of his arm and improve his throwing efficiency and overall consistency.

Manning is a big believer in Lund’s teachings on pitching mechanics already.

“He is the only one that’s been able to describe it so I can grasp the concepts,” Manning said, “but I’ve been working on it for the longest time. I have flashes of it when it’s perfect, and then I’ll lose it. The better I understand it, the better I can grasp onto it and hold onto it longer. ... With Robin coming in, it’s different voices and now the numbers can confirm it. We know we’re on the right track.”

Listening to Manning describe the changes they’re making and then watching him on the mound, it’s not as though anything looks radically different. He appears to be trying to stay back on the rubber longer and sit into his right hip at the beginning of his motion, rather than leaping down the mound and forcing his upper half to catch up and provide power. Manning’s huge stride often forces him to open his hips up to the target early. Staying back allows him to keep his hips closed longer as he strides with his left leg, and should allow him to generate more of his velocity from hip rotation at footstrike.

Staying back on his right side a little longer should help synchronize his footstrike, hip rotation, and shoulder rotation to generate power more efficiently. Losing that hip/shoulder separation early in his delivery forces him to use more raw arm strength to throw, and is possibly the culprit behind the arm fatigue that has repeatedly sent him to the injured list.

Hopefully, they’ve cracked the code, though the slow buildup in velocity and intensity this spring has made it hard to judge. The outing Friday was the first one where all the adjustments seemed to be coming together for him. All the stuff showed better movement than we’ve seen from Manning before, and the velocity was back to normal, though still not all the way back to his full potential. We’ve seen Manning sit comfortably 95-96 mph and ramp it up to 98-99 at will in the past. That potential remains if the adjustments keep him healthier and allow him to stay on the mound consistently.

Matt Manning’s development has followed some frustrating and very winding paths. For all that, he was still a pretty good starting pitcher in 2022. Now it’s time to prove he can take the ball every fifth day for a full season and give the Tigers consistent reps. A bright future as a starter lies ahead of him if he can, but another year of injury issues could finally force some reconsideration of his future role. Hopefully, Manning can seize the opportunity and run with it.