TORONTO – There is plenty of research that examines the perils of emotional decision-making and it’s worth keeping that in mind as you clamour for Alek Manoah’s promotion to the Toronto Blue Jays this very second.
The right-hander’s latest gem at triple-A Buffalo – one run on four hits and a walk with 10 strikeouts over six innings against Worcester – made for an enticing juxtaposition against the thumping Ross Stripling took from the Boston Red Sox in a 7-3 loss Wednesday night.
Stripling gave up five consecutive hits to open the game, including a leadoff single to Kike Hernandez before consecutive homers by Alex Verdugo and J.D. Martinez, as part of a five-run opening frame that dropped the Blue Jays too deep underwater to recover.
Even though he recovered enough to at least give manager Charlie Montoyo 3.2 innings worth of work, it left the 31-year-old wondering “if you go back to the drawing board and change some stuff up.” And as the 23-year-old great hope was simultaneously shoving at Polar Park, after having his start pushed back a day to line up with Stripling, well, you can pretty much guess what happened.
Both are next scheduled to pitch Monday, when the Blue Jays wrap up a four-game set with the Tampa Bay Rays. Throwing Manoah’s top-of-the-rotation stuff at a division rival instead of Stripling’s mix-match-and-locate repertoire sure carries some appeal, especially with the latter questioning his approach.
Does it make sense to back Stripling off as he makes an adjustment? Is one turn of the rotation enough to get him right?
“Maybe, I mean, he's smart enough to do it. I know that,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “So maybe. We'll see. I know exactly what you're saying, but we'll see. That's my answer to you.”
In contrast to that thoughtful, measured response were the immediate pro-Manoah rallying cries.
Let it ride! What’s there to lose? Don’t waste those starts in the minors! He couldn’t do any worse! Time to find out!
All that feels so tempting, and Manoah’s body of work with the Bisons is really pressing the case.
Across three starts, he’s struck out 27 in 18 innings, allowing one run on seven hits and three walks. That’s man against boys stuff, and his arrogant strutting around the mound irked the Worcester hitters, Danny Santana in particular, who chirped the six-foot-six righty as they battled in the sixth inning (Manoah broke Santana’s bat but his flare touched green in left for a single).
The dude is going to be a whole lot of fun whenever he arrives.
And it’s easy to imagine that playing better than Stripling, who in the first got burned on a curveball to Hernandez, had the wind spoil a changeup to Verdugo (“just a God-awful pitch that deserved to be hit for homer”) before Martinez hammered a slider for back-to-back longballs, gave up a single to Xander Bogarets on a changeup before Rafael Devers turned on a fastball for a double. Christian Vazquez’s RBI groundout came on a fastball while Bobby Dalbec capped the rally by doubling on a curveball, as the Red Sox had an answer for anything Stripling threw them.
After Hernandez homered on a fastball in the second, Stripling retired eight in a row, but down 6-1 with Garrett Richards settling after a shaky first, it was too little, too late.
“I'd given up three runs before I blinked, basically. And then the next two guys got hits and I'm looking at second and third, nobody out with three already in. There, man, you just grind as best you can and try and keep it where it is, limit the damage and give your team a chance to get back in it. Really wasn't able to do that,” lamented Stripling. “It's just frustrating. What you can lean on is still understanding that you always have the advantage as a pitcher. I mean, heck dude, we're up to six no-hitters on the season now. Like, pitching is ahead of hitting right now. And you should feel like you have every advantage. But sometimes when you look at the scoreboard, you've given up six runs, it's hard to be confident in real time. You just got to keep your head up and keep plugging away, man, and understand that we have a really good lineup and we have a chance to get back in the ball game. It just didn't work out in this one.”
All of which bolsters the emotional case for Manoah time.
Is it, though?
Manoah has nine – nine! – professional starts under his belt and while he’s gone six innings in each of his outings this year, he’s yet to throw a pitch beyond that. As he develops, no biggie, but if he hasn’t gone seven as a pro yet, is it reasonable to expect that if he’s promoted now, he’ll just start eventually doing it somewhat regularly in the majors?
Perhaps, but is that the optimal growth path for him?
Consider this, too: In the sixth inning Wednesday, the top of the minor-league Red Sox lineup grinded Manoah for 22 pitches and left runners at first and second when Marcus Wilson lined out to left.
That experience is valuable because doing the same thing will be much harder against the big-league Red Sox. Learning how to fight through fatigue to beat hitters who have already seen you twice, or to survive an ambush first inning when nothing works, is better done at triple-A, and Manoah needs to master both to become a front-of-the-rotation starter in the majors.
Nate Pearson’s uneven transition is a relevant case study in pure stuff not being enough and it’s these kind of subtleties that GM Ross Atkins is referencing when he talks about developing the whole prospect.
If you don’t give a pitcher the chance to learn how to pitch deep into games, to build up reference points of how to handle a variety of different situations, you’re putting him on a five-and-dive trajectory.
Stripling’s recovery demonstrates why that matters. He could have wilted, not escaped the first and dumped eight-plus on the Blue Jays bullpen. Instead, he recovered, ate up nearly three more innings and allowed Montoyo to just get by on Trent Thornton, Jeremy Beasley and A.J. Cole, leaving the relief corps in better shape for Thursday.
There’s not a lot of satisfaction to be found in that, and in an easy-answer, instant-remedy world, committing to Manoah for the next time out sure would feel like a remedy.
The Blue Jays, however, can’t afford to think about his promotion in irrational, magic-bullet terms. As competitive as Manoah might be right now, they have to consider the bigger picture and not truncate his development in search of a quick fix.