How top Blue Jays prospect Alek Manoah made sure 2020 wasn’t a lost year

TORONTO — It started with some games of catch in the driveway. Soon afterwards, a portable mound arrived, allowing for de facto bullpen sessions, too.

And for a while, it worked. But as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in and it became apparent that life wasn’t about to return to normal any time soon, even a personal pitching mound wasn’t enough for Erik and Alek Manoah. Erik, the elder of the two brothers, spent six seasons pitching in the Mets’ and Angels’ organizations. At 24, he has hopes of breaking into pro ball once again. As for Alek, the Blue Jays’ 11th overall pick in 2019, this was supposed to be his first full year as a pro. A lost season was simply not an option the 22-year-old was ready to entertain, pandemic or not.

Before long, Erik and Alek started brainstorming. How could they stay in shape — or, more precisely, get in better shape — while also staying safe? There would be no affiliated minor-league baseball in 2020, and until July there weren’t even centralized training sites. Under the circumstances, training would require some creativity.

“Everything was closing,” Alek Manoah recalled in a recent interview with Sportsnet. “(We thought) why don’t we find a way where we’re able to get better, you’re not having to contaminate yourself driving all over the state, all over town do training sessions here and training sessions there.

“The easiest way to control the circumstances is if you own the gym.”

That gym, named Manoah Driven, now exists in a Miami warehouse for which the brothers have a year-long lease. They’ve added all kinds of equipment: squat racks, barbells, treadmills, elliptical trainers, bikes, tires to flip and resistance bands, for instance. “Basically everything,” Alek Manoah says. And since Erik has experience doing personal training work, he can assist the clients, who visit in staggered intervals to stay safe.

Once the gym opened, the client base grew — and quickly. After six months of business, Manoah Driven already had 50-70 clients plus staff. With that, a lifelong dream of working together in Miami was realized for the two brothers.

“We had to find a way, man,” Alek Manoah said. “It was either ‘use this time to stay inside and use it as an excuse,’ or ‘how can we try and find a way to get to the big-leagues and take some steps forward while everything else is on pause.’”

Yet even as the clientele list grew, Erik and Alek had goals of their own to chase. After a stint in the independent American Association, Erik hoped to make his way back to affiliated ball, while Alek was looking to build on a strong pro debut in which he posted a 2.65 ERA with 27 strikeouts compared to just five walks for the Blue Jays’ Vancouver affiliate.

Early in the summer, Alek could work on strength and conditioning at the gym while keeping his arm fresh with regular games of catch. But until he arrived at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site in Rochester, N.Y., he couldn’t test himself against live hitters.

It was there that he finally got to test and develop his change-up, a pitch in which he had previously lacked full conviction. When you’re six-foot-six, 260 pounds with an upper-90s fastball and a nasty slider, the change of pace isn’t necessary to overpower hitters in college or the lower-minors. Eventually, that third pitch will be a prerequisite for a starting pitcher, though, so Manoah worked on it intently in Rochester. Before games, he’d review Rapsodo and Trackman data to understand its movement profile. Once the games began, he faced a steady supply of former big-leaguers and top prospects. By the end of the summer, his comfort level with the pitch had increased considerably.

“I got to a point where I was able to throw my change-up in a 3-2 count to a righty,” he said. “That confidence and that trust… I wouldn’t have thrown it even if it was 1-2 in the past.”

That work didn’t go unnoticed by Blue Jays decision-makers, either. Even though the minor-league season didn’t unfold as anticipated, the Blue Jays were pleased to see continued development from Manoah, who signed for a $4.55 million bonus last summer.

“He’s been awesome,” general manager Ross Atkins said. “He’s really been impressive. I think he’s just continued to evolve and grow as a professional. It’s unfortunate he missed the season and didn’t have that opportunity, but all of the attributes that we acquired we’ve seen and we’ve seen them improve.”

But even if Manoah’s pandemic experience has been more productive than most, he knows there’s even more work ahead. Seeing the Rays pull Blake Snell in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series was an ‘eye-opener’ for Manoah, who’s now intent on building as much stamina as possible.

“The biggest goal this off-season is to make sure that when I’m pitching in a World Series game for the Jays, the numbers don’t tick down, the velocity doesn’t tick down in the sixth inning,” he said. “Get to that seventh inning without the numbers playing down, without anything playing down.”

That means extra endurance work, lots of conditioning work and a continued mandate to ‘feed the legs,’ as Manoah puts it. Along with that, there’s the recovery work between workouts to make sure he’s ready once the minor-leagues get back to their regular rhythm in 2021.

“At this point it’s about the rigours of a professional season and getting into that routine and seeing how it impacts his routine and how it impacts his recovery,” Atkins said. “I’m excited for that.”

Predicting timelines is always a challenge, and that’s especially true after a season without traditional minor-league games. But if those endurance workouts keep paying off and the feel for the change-up keeps coming, Manoah could be pushing for a major-league roster spot by the end of next year. For now, even thinking about joining the Blue Jays’ young core at the highest level is ‘extremely exciting’ for the 22-year-old.

“The hype has been there the past couple years,” he said. “Everybody’s noticed that there’s a future dynasty in Toronto with Bo, Vladdy, Biggio, Rowdy, all those guys. Being able to sign Ryu was huge. So the foundation’s there and the pitchers are coming.”