Manning confident vs. vaunted Jays lineup

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — For a minute, the battle between Matt Manning and Bo Bichette looked like the same pitch on a loop: Manning throwing a fastball, Bichette fouling it off. It happened on four consecutive pitches, and five times in a nine-pitch at-bat.

“It was hard to come off the heater,” Manning said after the Tigers’ 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays on Monday at Joker Marchant Stadium. “I wanted to change eye levels a little bit with the slider and the curveball, and then just keep attacking in the zone.”

Bichette didn’t bite on the curveball off the plate, nor did he worry about the slider two pitches later. With the count full, Manning went back to the fastball. Bichette finally put it in play, but on the ground at second baseman Willi Castro for the out.

Manning didn’t get much of a chance to catch his breath. Up next came Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who took a big swing at Manning’s first-pitch 95 mph fastball and popped it up to shallow right field.

“I was hoping they brought some of their [big] guys over,” Manning said. “They have a really good lineup. I knew a couple of them had to be making the trip.”

On a day when Manning pitched opposite Blue Jays phenom Alek Manoah, Manning needed just 27 pitches to throw two scoreless innings. A third of those pitches went to Bichette. Three other outs came on the first pitch before Manning finished with back-to-back strikeouts.

This was Manning at his most confident, putting his entire arsenal on display in his first outing of the spring. That in itself was a statement, considering how long it took him last summer to throw all his pitches.

After a rough opening month at Triple-A Toledo, Manning survived in the Majors last summer by throwing a lot of fastballs. But like teammates Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, he also has the arsenal to thrive. Now he has the confidence to attack with all of it.

“I’m pretty comfortable with everything,” Manning said. “I think all of it needs to be worked on, brushed up a little bit. The good thing about having so many pitches is if one’s not working one day, I can lean on another one. Something’s gotta be there.”

The metrics last year weren’t kind to Manning, whose strikeout percentage was in the bottom four percent of Major League pitchers. His swing-and-miss rate was in the bottom one percent. With balls in play against him averaging 91.4 miles per hour — again, among the bottom four percent of MLB hurlers — surviving on contact was risky.

Still, Manning found a way through it. Despite the high exit velocities, hitters “barreled” balls in play against him — a combination of the ideal exit velocity and launch angle — at a 7.9 percent rate, barely in the bottom half among big league pitchers. He had an above-average ground-ball rate, helped by his sinker, allowing his infield defense to go to work.

While Manning finished the season with a 5.80 ERA, his Fielding Independent Pitching — measuring performance on an ERA scale while focusing on strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs — was 4.62. It’s still not great, but was better than most of his Tigers peers, including Mize (4.71 FIP despite a 3.71 ERA), Skubal (5.09 FIP, 4.34 ERA) and Wily Peralta (4.94 FIP, 3.07 ERA).

“Stuff-wise, [he’s] really good,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I thought the end of the season was as strong as could’ve ever hoped for, and that only came through a little bit of challenges throughout the season, and him understanding that his best is good enough.”

What Hinch wants to see isn’t so much in Manning’s stuff, but how he uses it to get into more favorable situations. The more Manning gets ahead in counts, the more situations he’ll find to induce hitters to chase pitches out of the zone, another struggle for him last year.

“When he pitches to leverage, he’s really good,” Hinch said. “He’s got four pitches. He can throw them anywhere he wants in the zone, and it becomes a little bit easier for the pitcher whenever you’re ahead in the count. We’re not fixated on the array of pitches as much as we are in his strike percentage.”

That was on display Monday, albeit in a small sample size. He threw first-pitch strikes to his first five batters before falling behind his final two. One of those was a curveball to Mallex Smith that missed, prompting him to throw another curveball in for a strike to even the count.

“I worked a lot on my curveball this offseason,” Manning said. “I think when I threw it, I had the most success with it last year. Now it’s just being able to consistently land it and put it where I want to.”

Manning has a comfort level to work on that in this camp. Unlike last Spring Training, when the Tigers brought in veterans to compete with Mize and Skubal for rotation spots, Manning’s role is secure. A thin pitching market helped that decision, but it works to Manning’s advantage regardless.

“We’d like Matt to be in our rotation,” Hinch said last week. “We feel like the games that he pitched, certainly how he grew throughout the course of his time in the big leagues, is something that we need to pay attention. He doesn’t have to be perfect in this spring. So I’ve got to apply the right amount of pressure, knowing that he is a big part of our future.”

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