We see pitchers like Oakland Athletics’ starter Sean Manaea in the draft every year: pitchers that are huge and talented, but coming off of some major injury. In Manaea’s case, specifically, it was his hip, but most often it’s a player returning from Tommy John surgery.
Regardless of what the ailment is, those players fall into their own subcategory of “what if” guys. They’re not as raw as a toolsy high school outfielder, but they inspire daydreaming from scouts and fans all the same: “What if he gets healthy and puts it all together?”
That was undoubtedly the arc of Manaea’s rise from small college pitcher to potential 1-1 candidate to the 2013 draft’s biggest risk/reward prospect, eventually chosen by the Kansas City Royals with the first pick of the supplemental round. He was equally maddening yet tantalizing in the minors, flashing top shelf stuff but never throwing more than 121 innings in a season because those injuries never seemed to go away.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the breakout Manaea is currently experiencing was immediately preceded by a stint on the disabled list. But since returning to the A’s rotation on May 15th, he’s shown why everyone was so excited about him in the first place.
First, the simple stats. Since coming back, Manaea has made six starts. In that time, he’s pitched 37 innings, has an ERA of 2.68 and has struck out over a quarter (26.9 percent) of the batters he’s faced. Most notably, his walk rate in that time is an impressive 8.3 percent. Considering the main knock on Manaea as a prospect was his occasionally suspect command, that should terrify opposing hitters. This is what Sean Manaea looks like when he’s healthy and puts it all together.
And it’s not as if Manaea has been feasting on bottom dwellers either. Since his return, he’s pitched well against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, three of the better lineups in baseball. The Athletics are still terrible, but it’s not because of Manaea’s.
Even more impressive, he’s remained effective despite having somewhat unremarkable stuff:
Manaea doesn’t blow you away with velocity, and despite the fact that he stands 6’5” and tips the scales at 245 pounds, his herky-jerky delivery negates some of the advantages one would assume would go along with that big frame. His extension is nothing special, and Manaea’s average perceived velocity is actually a bit slower than his actual velocity. It’s a strange combination, but he’s made it work.
The primary reason for that success is his ability to live on the edges of the strike zone, particularly below it:
With that said, the primary factor in Manaea’s break out has been the excellence of his slider. That has always been a pitch he has shown some feel for, but it’s quickly developed from occasionally effective to one of the best pitches in baseball.
Among the 53 pitchers who have thrown at least 200 sliders in 2017, just two have a better whiff rate with the pitch than Manaea’s 47.1 percent: Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke. Pretty good company, yeah? From the swings the pitch elicits, you’d have to say so:
The question now isn’t so much whether or not Manaea can continue to pitch like this, but for how long. We talked about it earlier; when he’s on the mound, he’s often very good. But he’s often not on the mound enough to really show what he can do.
As good as he’s been the last month and a half, we’re still talking about a very small sample size. All pitchers are susceptible to injury, but we know that previous injuries are the biggest indicator of future injuries. Manaea has a very long track record in that regard.
In the meantime, however, the A’s and their fans have to be thrilled with the way Manaea is pitching. This is a franchise that’s still at least a couple of years away from contending once again, but he’s already looking like one of their most promising building blocks. With that said, there’s a big difference between promising and stable. He’s shown the first, no doubt. Now he just needs to prove that he can do it over the long haul.