Next frontier for Tigers’ Matt Manning: ‘Learning to strike out big-league hitters’

Detroit News

Detroit — It sounds counterintuitive but stay with this.

The next frontier for Tigers right-hander Matt Manning, the way he sees it, is getting more swing-and-misses and more strikeouts in his game. And one of the ways to get there is to throw his best pitch less often.

Told you. Sounds daft. But it’s not.

Going into his start Wednesday against the Royals, his next to last start of the season, his chase rate is 27.4%, his swing-and-miss rate is 22.4% and his strikeout rate is 18% — all rank in the bottom quarter of baseball.

“Figuring out how to strike out major-league hitters is something you have to learn and adjust to,” he said Tuesday. “I think (getting more) swing-and-miss has always been in the back of my head. And once I got the slider, that helped a lot.”

When Manning came off the injured list in August, he had a new weapon. He’d tweaked the shape of his slider, getting more sweeping action on it. He hasn’t locked it in completely. He’s still had a few outings where he didn’t have a feel for it.

But hitters are swinging and missing at that pitch 36.8% of the time.

“But I’m going to need to brush up on my curveball, too, and get my fastball usage down,” Manning said. “I think more swing-and-miss will come when my fastball percentage goes down so hitters have to look for all four pitches.”

More: Another memory for Tigers’ Joey Wentz, pitching opposite his boyhood idol Zack Greinke

Manning throws his four-seam fastball 51% of the time. And why wouldn’t he? It’s been his most consistently effective pitch, holding hitters to .198 batting average and .252 slugging percentage. He’s allowed just five extra-base hits with the fastball out of the 146 that have been put in play.

“I think his breaking ball getting better has helped his fastball,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I think the strike zone leverage has helped him. And I think his location is better. He’s throwing it more to areas he wants to throw it and against the hitters he wants to throw it to. That’s key.”

Coming up through the minor leagues, Manning dominated hitters with a power fastball. He was ringing the radar gun at 96, 97, 98 mph. He didn’t have to worry about pinpointing location. At 6-foot-6, throwing on a downward plane with nearly seven inches of extension, he could blow it by most minor-league hitters.

These days, the four-seamer is sitting at 93 mph. Occasionally he will hit 97 and 98. He will throw the occasional 89, 90, 91-mph fastball, too. Doesn’t seem to matter. He’s still getting hitters out.

“Yeah, on any given day it could be different,” Manning said. “Sometimes the velocity is higher than other days. But just the metrics of it, it’s playing pretty well. I have a different fastball than most righties, I guess. It might be the extension. I know I get behind the ball really well so there isn’t much horizontal movement. If anything, it cuts sometimes which is probably tougher for lefties, and maybe righties, too.”

Left-handed hitters are hitting .194 and slugging .263 off Manning’s heater. Right-handers are hitting .203 and slugging .237.

The idea of throwing that pitch less often seems like it’d be a tough sell. But he has just 29 punch-outs with the heater. Hitters aren’t hitting it hard, but they are getting the bat to it. Throwing more quality secondary pitches, the theory goes, will get hitters off the heater more.

“Getting in leverage counts is first,” Hinch said. “You can’t chase chase without throwing strikes. There’s going to be areas of the zone you can exploit as you learn more about yourself and the hitters. It’s not a one size fits all. It’s not the same game plan against every single hitter.

“Matt is partly right (about needing to throw fewer heaters). But it’s also partly incorporating more pitches into his arsenal.”

Being able to consistently execute the game plan, being able to throw all of his pitches in the prescribed zones and exploiting hitters’ weaknesses will help Manning conquer this next frontier.

“As a pitcher, you have to be pretty well-rounded,” Hinch said. “You can’t throw sloppy fastballs in the zone, no matter how hard you throw or how good your extension is, or your vertical movement or any of the pitch characteristics — you still have to throw them in the right location to the right hitters.

“He’s starting to do more of that. And I think the evolution of his breaking ball, even though it hasn’t been perfect his last couple of starts, it’s effective enough to get hitters off his fastball.”

Around the horn

Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris, who was hired while the Tigers were in Baltimore last week, spent some time in the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon introducing himself to the players.

… Looking at the Tigers’ defensive metrics collected by Sports Info Services, you might be surprised to see they are plus-14 defensive runs saved in left field. That is on the strength of Akil Baddoo’s plus-10 at that position.

“His understanding of the position is growing,” Hinch said. “He’s got some room to grow and get better but for him to be a player at this level — of course we’re going to always look at the scoreboard and see how he’s hitting — but there is so much more he can do on the field. Piece by piece, we’re seeing some flashes of him being a really good player.”

… The Tigers, overall, rank 11th in baseball at plus-28 defensive runs saved.

Twitter: @cmccosky

Royals at Tigers

First pitch: 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit

TV/radio: BSD/97.1


LHP Daniel Lynch (4-11, 5.06), Royals: This will be the third time he’s faced the Tigers this month and he might want to change something. The Tigers have put 10 runs, 15 hits and four homers on his ledger in just 8⅔ innings in the first two. It’s not just the Tigers that have hurt him, though. Opponents are hitting .289 with a .807 OPS and a 48% hard-hit rate. He struggles abnormally against left-handed hitters, too — .316 average and .883 OPS.

RHP Matt Manning (2-3, 3.43), Tigers: A career-high five walks and a couple of errors behind him torpedoed his start in Baltimore but he’s had a strong month (four earned runs in 17⅓ innings in his three other starts). His four-seam fastball has been sneaky good. He doesn’t run it up there consistently at 96-97 anymore, but opponents hit just.198 with a .252 slugging against it and have just five extra-base hits in 146 fastballs in play.

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