Minneapolis — Change-up, 92 mph. Change-up, 93 mph. Change-up, 94 mph.
It seemed like the scoreboard radar gun was on the fritz Monday night at Target Field. Nope. It was just Tigers’ rookie Matt Manning once again making the hard-working data techs at Statcast recalibrate his pitch profile. Just like he did earlier this season when he decided to start throwing sliders again.
“Those pitches in the 90s definitely weren’t change-ups,” catcher Eric Haase said.
Wat they were, Manning said after, were two-seam fastballs. A pitch that before Monday night he hadn’t thrown in a big-league game.
“I learned a two-seam,” he shrugged, as if it was no big deal. “I worked on it a couple of times the other day and I used it.”
Statcast recalculated his pitch mix and the final reading showed 21 two-seamers. He also threw 18 curveballs, 15 four-seamers, 10 change-ups and 10 sliders. But to learn a pitch in a bullpen session between starts and have the conviction to use it that much in competition three days later is remarkable.
“It’s tough, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to try new things, to go out there and throw pitches with conviction and try stuff out,” Manning said. “Just see what works and what doesn’t.”
This is usually what pitchers figure out in the minor leagues. But these are different times, for the Tigers and for most teams across baseball. Through injuries and attrition, pitching is thin, especially starting pitching. So sometimes the incubation process has to take place at the big-league level.
It’s sub-optimal, of course, but Manning seems to be relishing it. Coming up through Double-A ball in 2019, all he really needed to dominate was his upper-90s fastball and floppy curve. But after missing all of 2020 because of the pandemic and a forearm strain, the fastball is sitting between 92 and 93 mph, and the four-seam, though he has above-average spin on it, can be flat and hittable.
So Manning and pitching coach Chris Fetter have had to be resourceful. First it was convincing him to go back to his slider, a pitch he’d abandoned in 2019. He had an extended break before and after the All-Star break which he used to refine and reincorporate the slider.
The slider was a key pitch for him in his strong six-inning win against the Rangers in his first start after the break.
“He’s going through this league, he’s facing hitters for the first time and he wants to make a good impression,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I know he wants to stay here and be a part of this rotation and continue to develop.
“So now we’re asking him to bring back a pitch he didn’t have enough confidence in to keep when he went down to the minor leagues. I’m proud of his conviction and I’m proud of his effort to make sure it’s shaped the right way. It’s hard to do that while you’re competing. This isn’t instructional league.”
Then he comes out Monday with a two-seamer.
“I wanted to get more horizontal movement on (the fastball),” Manning said. “I wanted something I could get in on right-handers and move away from left-handers. Just gives hitters another look.”
He also found time to tweak his curveball between starts, changing the grip and adding 117 rpms of spin. He got four swings and misses and four called strikes with the pitch.
“I moved my fingers closer together to get more spin,” he said.
Manning has shown himself to be a fearless competitor over his first seven starts. He was hit hard throughout his five-plus innings Monday. The average exit velocity on balls put in play by the Twins was 97 mph. Yet, until he hung a curveball to Brent Rooker leading off the sixth, he’d allowed just two runs and four hits.
“I try to get better with every start,” he said. “I’m pretty disappointed with how this one finished up. Just try to get better with every one.”
What’s next? A cutter? A split-change? Knuckleball?
“He’s coming along nicely,” Haase said. “He showed a lot of growth tonight. He threw a couple of different pitches for strikes, some off-speed for strikes. That’s going to be his next step going forward.”
One thing is certain with Manning, he won’t ever be easily defeated. He’s taken his lumps in his seven starts, but he’s never once dropped his chin or lost his swagger. And in this game, at this level, that’s vital.
“I feel I’ve come a long way,” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten better the more I’ve gone out there. I think I am pitching better than some of the stats show and I’m putting my team in a position to win for the most part. That’s all I’m trying to do.”