DETROIT — For the second consecutive offseason, Matt Manning has been training in Florida with some of the Tigers’ other young starting pitchers. It makes sense, considering the bond they’ve built. Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo came up through the farm system together, including in the summer of 2019 as a star-studded rotation at Double-A Erie. They were critical cogs of the Tigers’ rebuild.
“It’s a good group right now, and we’re enjoying the time together,” Manning said Thursday.
That friendship remains, even if everything around them has changed, from their own situations to the organization.
Mize is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery; he won’t return to pitching until late this season at the earliest, with 2024 looking more realistic. Skubal is expected to pitch at some point this season, but his recovery from flexor tendon surgery puts his timetable in flux. Faedo is due back from right hip surgery but has pitched just 69 1/3 innings over the last three years.
“Mentally, it’s always tough going through that stuff,” Manning said. “They’re just attacking every single day and getting better and stronger. Once they get healthy, it’s going to be very good for our team.”
Manning is the only one whose career hasn’t been interrupted by surgery. Even he has had injuries, though, from a shoulder scare last April that cost him a couple of months to a bout of tendinitis that ended his 2022 season a couple of weeks early and led to a visit with orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Meister.
“His best is good enough,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We’ve said that over and over and over again with him as he’s developed his routine and he faces some lineups for the second and third time [in a season]. We saw he’s able to take down some innings. He’s able to do it against different styles of lineups — power, speed, guys that are on fastballs, guys that he can blow away.”
When Manning was healthy, he was effective. His 3.43 ERA was the lowest of any Tiger with at least 10 starts last year, and his 3.78 FIP was second to Skubal.
Manning posted quality starts in five of his final nine outings. While he averaged an extra strikeout per nine innings over his 2021 average, his hit, home run and walk rates all dropped. His 2.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio was third best among Tigers starters. His fastball became a more effective pitch, even while using it more than half the time. His slider became the swing-and-miss pitch he’d been needing, drawing a 35.8 percent whiff rate.
Aside from the Mariners, who roughed him up for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings on Aug. 30 at Comerica Park, the toughest opponent for Manning was arguably his health.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” he said. “I never want to be on the IL, and I have a track record of being pretty healthy. So my first experience of dealing with that stuff, mentally and physically, was a challenge.”
Once he was cleared for a normal offseason workout plan, he took the opportunity to look at his delivery and how to make it more efficient. Much of that has focused on his lower body rather than his arm. Pitching coach Chris Fetter has been a big help as usual, but Manning credited the Tigers’ newest pitching assistant, Robin Lund, with helping him understand the different components of his delivery.
“I got a bet that we have the only professor in our organization,” Manning said, noting Lund’s early career as a kinesiology professor. “He’s not afraid to try different things. He doesn’t care where you were drafted. He doesn’t care what kind of hype you had around you. He looks at everybody kind of like a stick figure, and if he sees deficiencies, he can break it down and tell you where.”
There’s more in store for Manning than health, but it starts there. The more he pitches, the more he learns. He’ll focus on that, and let the Tigers worry about his workload.
“I think for him, as a young pitcher at this level, he’s going to have a ton of confidence based on the positive outings that he had last season,” Hinch said.