LAKELAND, Fla. — Still sweating after he finished his first two spring training innings Monday, Alek Manoah grabbed a top-step perch in the sun-soaked Toronto Blue Jays dugout to watch a similarly big-bodied, atomic-armed young starter take his place on the mound.
“He's nasty. I love watching him throw. I wish I could throw 100 that easily,” Manoah said of Nate Pearson, who entered behind him in the third and threw two overpowering innings of his own against the Detroit Tigers. “He used to be really aggressive, really attack with his mechanics. Now, they look a lot more fluid. It just comes out so easy. It's honestly amazing to watch because it's 100 miles per hour and it looks like he's just playing catch.”
Really, it's amazing to watch both young Blue Jays right-handers coming off wildly divergent seasons trying to build on what they’ve become, and show everyone what they still could be.
Toronto’s 2022 rotation is loaded with established veteran talent in Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Hyun Jin Ryu, and Yusei Kikuchi, substantially raising the run prevention bar following an off-season that saw the club prioritize just that. But for the Blue Jays to annually contend for American League East titles for years to come, converting emergent, high-end talent like Manoah and Pearson into dependable big-leaguers like the aforementioned won’t only be a luxury, but a necessity.
Hitting on Manoah has already been an underappreciated boon for the franchise, which plucked him out of West Virginia in the first round of the 2019 draft when he was still a raw talent throwing a power fastball he couldn’t locate consistently and a still-developing slider he learned to grip on Twitter. It isn’t acknowledged nearly enough just how far he’s come since.
Remember, at this time last year Manoah had all of six professional appearances — a mere 17 low-A innings — under his belt. He’d impressed plenty at Toronto’s alternate site during the shortened 2020 season, but he hadn’t been on a game mound engaging live competition for stats that count in 18 months. For as many reasons as there were for the Blue Jays to be excited about his potential, there were plenty of reasons to be cautious, as well.
But then Manoah tore through spring, dominated three triple-A starts, and became undeniable. He didn’t just knock on the big-league door — he Kool-Aid manned through it. And once on the other side, he kept raising the bar.
He went six shutout on the road against the New York Yankees in his debut; he stymied the White Sox in Chicago and the Red Sox in Boston; he pitched to a 1.46 ERA over four starts against the Rays, striking out 36 over 24.2 innings while holding the AL East champion’s lineup to a .143/.265/.191 batting line.
Whatever a 23-year-old with little professional experience getting their first MLB taste is supposed to look like, this wasn’t it. There were bumps in the road, of course. Manoah had a couple rough days against the Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics; he let his two-seamer get away from him at times, plunking 16 batters, including a rather high profile one in a game against Baltimore that got him ejected. But the good far outweighed the bad. And now he enters 2022 with a locked-in rotation spot — not that he’s looking at it that way.
“I feel like I've got a lot more to prove this year. So, the mindset's going to stay the same,” he says. “All gas, no brakes.”
But while Manoah could do little wrong over his extraordinary 2021, Pearson couldn’t get anything to go right. He hurt his groin in spring training and, only a handful of outings after returning, hurt it again in June. He came close to having sports hernia surgery right then and there, which would have ended his season. But after visiting with a series of specialists, he opted instead to take a cortisone injection to numb the pain and try to salvage something of his year pitching shorter stints in relief.
He struggled with his command while pitching with revamped mechanics at first, but finally got everything to click in September and went on a run of strong, high-leverage outings while helping the Blue Jays make a postseason push. That was the best he’d felt all year; the best he’d looked in over two. But then time simply ran out, as the Blue Jays missed the playoffs by a game and Pearson’s season ended just as it had gotten off the ground.
“It definitely got hard there at times. That's just the nature of the game. You're going to have injuries, you're going to have ups and downs. And I had some downs,” Pearson says. “But I think I'm on the way up now. And I'm thankful for everything that I've been through because I learned so much. It's very humbling. And I'm just very happy to be standing here right now.”
Pearson watched Manoah closely last season, admiring the poise and mettle he carried to the mound. While Pearson was nibbling at corners and falling behind hitters, Manoah was attacking the zone and getting ahead. While Pearson was thinking about the discomfort he was pitching through and its impact on his stuff over the course of an outing, Manoah was intensely focused on putting away the hitter in front of him and, if he didn’t, putting away the next. While Pearson was obsessing about his velocity readings on Trackman and Rapsodo units, Manoah was letting his come naturally and troubleshooting if it wasn’t all there.
“Alek’s got amazing stuff. But what makes him so good is that he’s so confident. His mound presence is crazy to watch. I learned so much from him,” Pearson says. “I was like, ‘That's how I need to pitch. That's how I should be. I should be that bulldog out there.’ And I realized I’d kind of lost myself. I was like that and I lost it for a bit due to injuries and everything else.”
So it had to be encouraging for the Blue Jays on Monday to watch this duo making demonstrable strides in their spring debuts, looking like the dominant arms the organization hopes they can — and perhaps needs them to — be.
Pitching with what he described as “pretty easy” 94-95 mph velocity, Manoah was locating his two-seamer inside to righties and his four-seamer extension-side to lefties. Maxing out at what his teammates joked as “only” 99 mph velocity, Pearson was elevating his fastball before landing sliders in on the hands of lefties and down-and-away from righties.
Manoah was flipping in changeups, a pitch he seldom used last season but wants to incorporate more going forward after tinkering with it under Guasman’s guidance. Pearson was getting called third strikes with a curveball he dedicated his off-season to working on, including one that made future hall-of-famer Miguel Cabrera flinch.
That’s what people forget about Pearson — he’s more than the two pitches you’ve seen him throw out of the bullpen. There’s a frontline starter’s repertoire behind his imposing physicality. There’s that big, high-70’s curveball he can both bury and locate for strikes; a changeup, too, which he only got to throw once in Monday’s short outing but plans to get to more often his next time out. It’s why the Blue Jays are so bullish on him as a starter. If Pearson can remain heathy and finally start to increase his innings load, there’s no telling how far he could go.
Of course, Manoah’s one step ahead in building that innings base, with the 129.2 he threw between triple-A and the majors last season providing a strong platform entering his second trip through the league. And he keeps finding new ways to get hitters out, like when he doubled up on his slider for consecutive swinging strikes against Jonathan Schoop in Monday’s first inning, and when he stole a first-pitch strike from Willi Castro with an unfair changeup in the second.
Manoah kept his slider and changeup usage fairly steady last season, fluctuating in how often he used his four-seam and two-seam fastballs depending on the day. Both heaters proved effective, as their spin direction mirrored the action on Manoah’s devastating breaking ball. As a hitter, you really had to try to lock in on one or the other. And as a left-hander, you had a changeup with nearly 30 inches of drop to worry about, as well. If Manoah can improve on that pitch, mixing it in a bit more frequently to right-handers this season, he’s not going to be a fun plate appearance.
Of course, it’s important to remember that when it comes to young, high-upside starters acclimating to life in the majors, Manoah’s the exception and Pearson’s the rule. Look at their teammate, Gausman, 2012’s No. 4 overall pick who came out of college with frontline stuff but didn’t fulfill his potential until he was 30. Or their former teammate, Robbie Ray, who couldn’t get his overpowering fastball and slider in the zone consistently until he was 29. Or even Jacob DeGrom, who pitched to a 4.52 ERA at triple-A when he was 25, the same age Pearson is today.
It's a process. It takes time. And no career is linear. As easily as Pearson could break out after his miserable season, Manoah could implode after his remarkable one. What’s fun, what’s fascinating, what’s utterly absorbing is watching uncommon talents like these two work their way through long, unpredictable journeys. Watching the successes, the failures, every incremental setback and triumph. Just like Manoah was on Monday, perched atop that sun-soaked dugout in Lakeland, watching Pearson take another step.
“You know, If I get knocked down, I can get back up,” Pearson says. “No matter what I'm going through or what I'm facing, there's light at the end of the tunnel always. So, I'm just thankful to be healthy — and to have some fun out there today."