3 steps Detroit Tigers RHP Matt Manning must take in final 2 months of season

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers right-hander Matt Manning has two months to check three boxes: throw as many innings as possible, develop his secondary pitches and separate himself as a frontline starting pitcher for 2023.

In Sunday’s 7-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Manning became the Tigers’ third pitcher this season to deliver seven scoreless innings, along with left-hander Tarik Skubal (May 10 and June 1) and righty Beau Brieske (June 16).

It was Manning’s second MLB start since April 16 and the 22nd of his career.

“I think on any given day I have a feel for all four pitches,” Manning said Saturday. “I think the days that I’m really good is when I’m mixing up all four, have a good feel for everything and am tunneling my pitches.”

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The first box to check is the innings.

Manning has missed most of the 2022 season with a shoulder injury and a subsequent setback in his first rehab assignment. He has pitched 20 innings for the Tigers and 22⅓ innings in the minor leagues throughout seven rehab starts.

Skubal, for comparison, has tossed 117⅔ innings over 21 starts, though he hasn’t pitched since Aug. 1 because of left arm fatigue. Manning could face workload restrictions in 2023, simply due to his lack of innings this season.

To avoid limitations, Manning needs more starts like Sunday’s seven-inning performance, in which he dominated with all four pitches. He allowed four hits and three walks with seven strikeouts, throwing 63 of 95 pitches for strikes. He recorded a career-high 13 swings and misses.

“The sweep on his slider has gotten a lot better,” manager A.J. Hinch said Sunday. “He threw some really good in-count changeups that got some funky swings. The fastball is fine. He even broke out some curveballs late. That was as complete of an arsenal in recent memory. I’m sure he had more powerful stuff last year at the end, but I thought he was excellent.”

For his 95 pitches against the Rays, Manning used 47 four-seam fastballs (49%), 21 sliders (22%), 18 curveballs (19%), five changeups (5%) and four sinkers (4%). He earned swings and misses with all his pitches: two four-seamers, four sliders, two curves, four changeups and one sinker.

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The second box to check is the growth of his secondary pitches.

He had all three working Sunday.

“(Defining my pitches is) giving the hitters different looks and not letting him sit on certain pitches,” Manning said. “If he’s looking for the sweeping slider, you can drop in the curveball that goes more 12-6 (downward break). I have different fastball shapes. One might have cut to it, and one might have run to it.”

In Manning’s Aug. 2 start, his first in return from the injured list, he posted one strikeout and five swings and misses across five innings against the Minnesota Twins. Four of the five whiffs came from his slider.

He tweaked his slider while on the injured list to add more horizontal movement.

“Just to differentiate it from the curveball more,” Manning said.

Facing the Twins, Manning threw 36 four-seam fastballs (46%), 23 sliders (29%), 10 sinkers (13%), five curveballs (6%) and four changeups (5%). He allowed three runs on five hits and four walks, tossing 78 pitches.

“It wasn’t really hard,” Manning said of adjusting his slider. “It was finding a grip and shape that I thought worked for me. After that, I kept working on it down in Lakeland and working on it in my rehab starts. I found different ways to mix it in.”

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The third box to check is growing into a dependable starter for next season.

The Tigers drafted Manning with the No. 9 overall pick in 2016, and since last year’s June 17 MLB debut, the 6-foot-6 right-hander owns a 5.13 ERA with 40 walks and 69 strikeouts over 105⅓ innings.

His strikeout rate (15.2%) and whiff rate (21.5%), both worse than MLB average, should improve once he can consistently command his secondary pitches. In 2022, Manning has a 2.25 ERA with seven walks and 12 strikeouts over 20 innings in four starts.

“I would like to see his first inning be as dominant as his last innings,” Hinch said. “Getting into games has always been a hold, cold approach. There’s been times he’s coming in hot, and there’s been times he’s eased into his outing and finished very strong. … Matty’s got to learn to grow and figure out how to navigate the early part of his games and utilize his pitches.”

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Entering 2023, the Tigers are counting on five starting pitchers: Manning, Skubal, Brieske, Eduardo Rodriguez and Spencer Turnbull, with Casey Mize (Tommy John surgery) possibly sidelined until the 2024 season. Alex Faedo (right hip surgery) could be in the mix, too.

Skubal is recovering from arm fatigue and hopes to avoid a serious injury; Brieske returns Wednesday from a month-long shutdown as the organization monitored his innings; Rodriguez hasn’t pitched for the Tigers since May 18, remains on the restricted list and won’t throw in the majors until the third week in August; Turnbull isn’t scheduled to pitch in games until spring training in his comeback from Tommy John surgery.

The rotation has several problems the Tigers need to sort out before next season begins, and the same issues exist among the position players. For the next two months, all eyes will be on Manning.

“I’m focused on finishing the year healthy, strong and on a good note,” Manning said, about 24 hours before twirling his gem against the Rays. “I’m building for next year. I’m building the repertoire, sharpening things up and getting more experience.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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