New Blue Jay Alek Manoah hoping to bring more championships to Toronto


West Virginia pitcher Alek Manoah throws against Texas during an NCAA college baseball game Friday, April 26, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

HOUSTON — Over and over while growing up, Alek Manoah would hear his name being called in the draft in his dreams, as if it were a recording on loop. So, it’s fitting then that having just signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, the 11th-overall selection earlier this month would see the Toronto Raptors claim their first ever NBA championship and let his inspiration take over.

“I’m here in Dunedin and my parents just left me (Friday) morning, they were here to watch me sign a contract, so we watched the game in the hotel room (Thursday) night,” Manoah says during a conference call. “It’s actually funny because my step-dad is a Golden State fan and it was a close game the entire way through. I was extremely excited at the end that the Raptors won and extremely excited to see the support Toronto gives that team, and Canada in general, the support they have for that team and being able to bring that first championship to Canada. …Really looking forward to enjoying that feeling one day with the Blue Jays.”

The Blue Jays, as you might have noticed, are quite far down the wrong end of that path at the moment, and their deficiency on the pitching end of things is the prime obstacle to progress. Manoah, a six-foot-six, 260-pound right-hander born in Homestead, Fla., and drafted out of West Virginia University, appealed to them as a way help alleviate that.

Along with top pitching prospect Nate Pearson, a 22-year-old hitting triple digits on the radar gun at double-A right now, he has a chance to become the type of impact arm desperately needed to advance the program. He pitches with a 94-97-m.p.h. fastball complemented by a plus slider and work-in-progress changeup, but really got himself on the radar of teams this spring by cleaning up his mechanics and finding the zone more regularly.

During his first two seasons with the Mountaineers, he walked five batters per nine outings. After eliminating his windup and working out of the stretch in his junior year, he cut that number down to 2.2 while his strikeouts per nine shot up to 12.0. He logged 108.1 innings — 1.1 innings fewer than his combined total from his freshman and sophomore campaigns — and allowed only 71 hits. He was the second pitcher taken in the entire draft.

“I’m a pretty big kid and it’s not easy to get all these long limbs and body parts in sync at times,” says Manoah. “From the stretch I found that I’m able to load my hips better, as well I can really keep my velocity from that position, stay more consistent and more direct to the plate. I know I’m big, I don’t try to confuse myself and try to be a little guy like these athletic pitchers. I know what works for me and that was one of the biggest things for me, simplifying things to be more consistent with my arm angles, my release point, my direction toward the plate.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Understanding ways to leverage his size is no simple task, as few big-league pitchers have carried a similarly imposing frame and enjoyed a lot of success. CC Sabathia is probably the best example but Manoah says he developed his mechanics on his own, without looking to a comparable big-leaguer for guidance.

“I think my delivery is molded to me,” he says. “I love Max Scherzer’s competitiveness. I love the way Justin Verlander mixes his pitches and his slider. And I learned my slider from a Dellin Betances cutter grip and a Chris Sale slider grip, kind of just molded it into one of my pitches, which really helped me. So I don’t think there’s one set pitcher I look to mimic or try to be like.

“I get a bunch of different guys who do things I like and study stuff and how it would work with me, put it all together, try things out,” he added. “Some things work, some things don’t. It’s a work in progress and it’s been a good work in progress so far to this point. There’s a lot more work to do to evolve into a big-league pitcher.”

To that end, Manoah is big on studying video rather than making use of the TrackMan or Rapsodo data they had at West Virginia. He’d break down film to see how his body worked certain pitches and make sure his arm angles and release points were where they needed to be.

That helped him to stay sharp in his first college season as a starter wire-to-wire, while the mechanical changes he made allowed him to find more success on the mound, and to find himself as a pitcher.

“I’ve always had a great demeanour on the mound, I’ve always been a great competitor, I’ve always pitched with emotion,” he says. “When you’re walking a lot of guys or giving up hits, or giving up runs, it’s easy for a coach to pull you. But when you’re doing good, coach usually doesn’t even make mound visits. Usually stuff just goes good and I’m in good shape to be able to go deep into games and late into the games, I’m able to let my competitive demeanour take over and be able to win those later innings.”

Winning those innings only gets tougher and tougher from here on out. He’s currently on a throwing program in Dunedin and GM Ross Atkins said recently Manoah would likely head to short-season A Vancouver on a limited innings count due to his already heavy workload.

It will be his first visit to Canada — he had to rush and apply for passport after he was drafted — although he’s already made friends with one Canadian new to the organization, right-hander Alex Nolan of Burlington, Ont., who recently signed as a non-drafted free agent.

“He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” says Manoah. “If Canadians are anything like him, I’m extremely excited to get over there and meet some of those people and play for them for a long time.”

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