Detroit Tigers’ Matt Manning, MLB’s long lockout and prepping for Year 2 without coaches

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Matt Manning is driving home from Tampa.

He is cruising along Interstate 4, a highway located entirely within Florida. The 24-year-old resides in Lakeland and isn’t far from TigerTown, where the Detroit Tigers run their spring training operations.

It’s been this way for Manning’s entire professional career.

But this year, he seems so far away.

“I think at some point we’re going to get it resolved,” Manning said Friday, referencing Major League Baseball’s lockout and collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the MLB Players Association. “Whenever they say it’s back open, that’ll be the first day I’m back in there.”

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Preparing for his second MLB season puts Manning in one of the most important stages in his development. But the former No. 9 overall draft pick (in 2016) can’t communicate with Tigers manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter. He is also barred from entering the team’s complex in Lakeland.

“That stinks,” Manning said.

These are the downsides of being on the 40-man roster during the ongoing labor negotiations, whereas minor-league players are unaffected. Manning was supposed to report to spring training Feb. 16, with the Tigers’ first game set for Friday, and their first Grapefruit League game set for Saturday. But MLB has canceled spring training contests until at least March 8.

The league’s owners implemented the lockout Dec. 2.

“It’s been tough to not talk to anybody, and usually I work out at the (team) facility,” Manning said. “It’s been a little bit of a challenge on how to get creative with some things. I was just lucky enough that Alex (Faedo) and Casey (Mize) live close by, and (Kyle) Funkhouser and (Bryan) Garcia are here.”

If there isn’t a new CBA by Monday, regular season games will be nixed. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the league needs four weeks of spring training before the start of the season. Opening Day is supposed to be March 31.

There’s no telling when Manning will report to camp.

“I’m listening to what my body tells me,” Manning said. “If I need a break and need to shut it down for a little bit, then I will. But right now, I just plan to stay on schedule and pitch as if it’d be a regular spring or a regular season. I know the timeline for it and where my body needs to be.”

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Manning and Faedo, both on the 40-man roster, train at a local gym in Lakeland, then complete flat-ground throwing at a football field in the area. Manning travels to Tampa for bullpens with Mize at KineticPro Performance.

“Ever since the lockout started, we’ve had to basically do it on our own,” Manning said. “We just took it upon ourselves. We’ve made some good strides, got some really good work in. Just really ready to get back to camp.”

So far, Manning has completed about 10 bullpens (with two live batting practices) and has reached 40 pitches in his throwing program. His third live BP is scheduled for Monday. He is pitching to MLB hitters, minor leaguers and some high schoolers.

All of this should be happening in TigerTown.

There’s no question Hinch and Fetter would prefer to be monitoring Manning’s every move, as opposed to observing the 60-plus minor leaguers in minicamp — none of whom are on the team’s 40-man roster.

“He’s super knowledgeable,” Manning said of Fetter’s influence. “He makes everyone feel very comfortable and knows how to approach everybody differently with how they need to be approached. I enjoyed working with him, and I’m excited for this year.”

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In 2022, the Tigers will strive for improved results and a spot in the postseason.

Manning is one of the keys to success.

“A lot of it is taking that next step forward,” Manning said. “It’s throwing more innings, having quality starts every time I go out there, trying to win as many games as I can. I think I have that ability, that every time I take the mound, we have a chance to win.”

‘I have all the tools’

Back in June, the Tigers called up Manning for his MLB debut.

The 6-foot-6 right-hander cruised through the minors early in his career but imploded in seven starts for Triple-A Toledo in 2021, with an 8.07 ERA over 32⅓ innings. Still, the Tigers needed his healthy arm to cover for mid-summer injuries to several starters.

Manning started 18 games for the Tigers, posting a 5.80 ERA with 33 walks and 57 strikeouts in 85⅓ innings. He put his old slider back into his arsenal, learned a two-seam fastball and navigated successes and failures. Overcoming obstacles, as well as avoiding a demotion, showed his toughness.

“I really just learned on the fly,” Manning said. “A lot of the stuff I had before I got to the big leagues was OK, and I was able to survive, but if I wanted to pitch well, I was going to have to revamp and come up with some new things to get the ball moving more horizontally.”

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Whenever spring training begins, Manning will throw the same five pitches he relied on last season: a four-seam fastball (41.4%), two-seam fastball (19.4%), slider (15.2%), changeup (12.7%) and a curveball (11.3%).

But the percentages of each pitch should look different.

“My curveball has really been my best pitch,” Manning said. “I had a lot of success with that last year when it was right, so I really worked on my curveball. I want to throw that a lot more. For my slider, I want it to be more horizontal. Maybe not as hard, but just something that gets away from the righties. And then keep working on my changeup and two-seam and attacking the top part of the (strike) zone.”

Manning has spent the most time crafting his curveball.

He believes a more reliable curve, combined with better pitch sequencing, will boost his all-around performance. To figure out what works best, he has tinkered with pitch design and studied the analytics of all his offerings with Mize and other teammates.

“(The curveball) makes hitters not sit on my fastball,” Manning said. “For throwing 60% fastballs last year, I had some pretty good success, I guess in that sense. But if I can throw more breaking balls and have the hitter really think about four pitches that I can throw at any time, then I think I have more at my disposal when I’m on the attack.”

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As a prospect, Manning was known for his high-velocity fastball. His four-seamer averaged 93.5 mph last season, rarely flashing in the upper-90s. In the offseason, he cleaned up his mechanics to find rhythm in his throwing motion.

Staying efficient with his body should unleash his top-tier heater.

More importantly, Manning’s fresh mechanics should synchronize his release points.

“It helps everything,” Manning said. “Everything comes out cleaner and with better tunnels. I think everything gets a little sharper and is easier on the body.”

For Manning’s final 2021 outing, he faced the Chicago White Sox — the American League Central champions — and put on a spectacular show.

He carved up the AL’s most powerful lineup for five scoreless innings with a career-high seven strikeouts. Manning, making his first career start in October, was pulled after 69 pitches. Hinch called the decision a “no-brainer” because he wanted the rookie to end on a high note.

But Manning isn’t a rookie anymore.

The Tigers surely won’t treat him like one in 2022.

“I think I have all the tools to have a lot of success,” Manning said. “I just got to put them in the right spots.”

‘Fighting for what we produce’

Despite Manning’s successful offseason without guidance, he can’t test his tweaks until MLB ends its lockout, which won’t happen until there’s a new CBA. Although MLB and the MLBPA have met for five consecutive days, disparities remain on several economic issues.

The clock is ticking without significant process.

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Core economic issues include the minimum salary, a bonus pool for pre-arbitration-eligible players (those with less than three years of service time), the competitive balance tax and cutting down on alleged service time manipulation. There’s optimism the two sides will soon finalize the structure for a draft lottery.

“I think everything they’re (the MLBPA) going for in the negotiations is very fair,” Manning said. “It’s really just fighting for what we produce on the field. I’ve tried not to get too much into it, but I know we got some good people working for us.”

These slow-moving negotiations are out of Manning’s control. He pledges his allegiance to the union and agrees with the opinions of executive subcommittee player representatives (and ex-Tigers) Max Scherzer and Andrew Miller.

Many of the topics at hand will impact Manning’s future, but he isn’t letting the talks — nor the waiting game — consume him.

“I just try to focus on the baseball,” he said.

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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