Matt Manning slammed his glove into the bench in the Comerica Park dugout on Sept. 28. He wanted to pitch despite discomfort in his right forearm, but Detroit Tigers coaches and trainers wouldn’t let him, so manager A.J. Hinch scratched his starter a couple minutes before his scheduled first pitch against the Chicago White Sox.
What upsets Manning — the No. 9 overall pick in 2016 — isn’t an outing that wasn’t, but rather the inability to stay healthy through a full season. He suffered a right shoulder injury after two starts in April, spent more than three months on the injured list and returned to the Tigers in early August only to make just 10 starts before another injury ended his year.
“I’ve worked a lot on the pitching side,” Manning said Oct. 1. “But this offseason, I’m really going to get my body right.”
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The 24-year-old, on the injured list with a right forearm strain, feels optimistic about his chances of avoiding surgery, and the Tigers agree. Still, he is set to get a second opinion from Dr. Keith Meister in Dallas in the near future.
If all goes as planned, Manning will enter the offseason in search of consistent lower-body mechanics. He has spent the past two seasons crafting his repertoire — which features a four-seam fastball (that he used 51.4% of the time in 2022), a slider (22.9%), a curveball (10.5%), a changeup (7.6%) and a sinker (7.6%) — with some noteworthy developments this past season.
“Taking it to a game plan against different style hitters is going to be really key,” Hinch said Sept. 29. “I think he’s learned a lot in the last couple years, certainly has advanced in certain areas and also understands the value of having to pitch a little bit differently depending on the style of the lineup that you’re facing.”
This year, an improved slider produced a 35.8% swing-and-miss rate, a massive jump from last year’s 22.9% whiff rate on his old slider. For the first time, he has a premier secondary pitch to get hitters to chase when needed, though his 18.3% strikeout rate remained below league average (22.1%). His elite extension, a product of his 6-foot-6 stature, helped his fastball play up. His heater, which averaged 93.2 mph but appeared faster to hitters, is considered his best pitch.
His curveball, once his top secondary pitch, has been surpassed by the slider in usage, while his changeup is an average pitch.
“My raw pitches — all four of them — when I throw them right, they’re legitimate swing-and-miss pitches,” Manning said. “The foundation of all my pitches is there. I like the movement profiles. It’s just getting consistent checkpoints in my head for each one, so each game, I’m bringing the same pitch.”
“Repeatability” will be Manning’s watchword on the mound for 2023.
When Manning commands his fastball, he can dominate the best lineups in baseball. He tossed seven scoreless innings Aug. 7 against the Tampa Bay Rays, seven innings of one-run ball Aug. 19 against the Los Angeles Angels, six scoreless innings Aug. 24 against the San Francisco Giants and seven scoreless innings Sept. 16 against the White Sox. When he fails to command his fastball, though, his outings can be messy.
Right now, he lacks the consistency of a frontline starter.
That’s why strength in his lower body is at the forefront of Manning’s focus this offseason. Maintaining his health to log 30-plus starts is crucial, but so is getting the most out of his pitches. He didn’t think his legs were strong enough this season, which threw his upper-half mechanics out of sync.
“That’s where you miss a little bit mechanically, when you’re going too much arm and trying to get too much from your upper body,” Manning said. “You can yank off and not stay in line. There were times where my lower body felt really strong one week, and then not strong the other weeks.”
A sturdy lower half, Manning believes, will provide a consistent delivery across the board. Of course, it’s irrelevant if he can’t stay healthy. He posted a 3.43 ERA with 19 walks and 48 strikeouts across 63 innings for the Tigers, chipping in 22⅓ innings in the minor leagues for rehab assignments.
Several times, Manning delved into his pitches and mechanics only to bring up his mental shortcomings in 2022. He talked about the stress of MLB’s lockout and his lengthy stint on the injured list, as well as the demands of the big-league travel schedule and learning the tendencies of his opponents.
“The way my season went, a lot of stress mentally and physically,” Manning said. “It drained me a little bit.”
Despite the glove slam, Manning handled the most frustrating season of his baseball career with maturity, a sign of his growth as a pitcher and a person. He also built a strong foundation for his pitches and doesn’t plan to overhaul his arsenal. Amid a broken season, Manning came away with some positives.
Moving forward, he needs to clean up the inconsistencies.
“I know I can pitch well here,” Manning said, “so the pitching side of it I’ve handled pretty well. Now it’s just getting stronger to be able to hold the full season.”