Why Blue Jays' Alek Manoah is seeing pronounced platoon splits in sophomore season

Watch Kevin Barker speak on Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah after another standout performance against the Chicago White Sox, breaking down his mental development as a pitcher and ability to read bats.

Alek Manoah enters Thursday’s off-day with a 1.81 ERA and 2.52 xERA, making it hard to characterize his sophomore season as anything but a roaring success.

Despite the overall production, Manoah’s has surprisingly found his strikeouts plummet, going from a pitcher who produces significantly more K's than average, to a guy whose K/9 is decidedly unimpressive.

While it must be slightly unnerving for the Blue Jays to see their star’s K/9 (7.88) come within spitting distance of Jordan Lyles’s mark (7.84), this graph oversells the extent of the issue.

Because Manoah has been so efficient generating outs, he’s facing fewer batters per inning — meaning he has fewer opportunities to rack up K’s. A graph of his raw strikeout percentage more accurately depicts the scope of this shift:

Those numbers help reinforce the fact that the 24-year-old stuff hasn’t diminished in a general sense. The velocity on each of his four pitches is within 0.3 m.p.h. of where it was last year, and there hasn’t been a seismic shift in the movement or spin on any of them.

The most dramatic decline against league averages has come on his slider which has seen its horizontal movement go from 72 per cent above average to 50 per cent. The break on that pitch is the exact same 15.5 inches it was in 2021, with a velocity just 0.1 m.p.h. slower.

That change likely has to do with the trendiness of sweeping horizontal sliders throughout the majors. If that made the pitch suddenly ineffective (which it wouldn’t considering 50 per cent above average is still outstanding) that would show up against right-handers.

It seems safe to conclude Manoah’s stuff is essentially the same as last year’s, which makes his inability to strike lefties out confusing:

This might seem like needless nitpicking because if the right-hander is effective it doesn’t really matter how he finds his success. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, he hasn’t been effective against left-handed hitters this season allowing them to slash .295/.355/.411 against him. The lack of strikeouts is making a tangible impact.

If we take a look at the Manoah’s effectiveness missing lefty bats on a pitch-by-pitch basis, we get a clearer look at where the whiffs have gone missing.

At the very least, we can throw the changeup out. It’s an inconsistent offering that he’s conceded hard contact on, but it’s not at the heart of Manoah’s strikeout woes.

When it comes to Manoah’s fastballs, elevation seems to be playing a significant factor. Below are heatmaps of where the big righty got his whiffs against lefties on heaters in 2021:

Here’s where he’s thrown his fastballs to lefties in 2022:

It may seem counterintuitive to lump his two fastballs together, but here are where Manoah’s whiffs on sinkers came last season:

The pitch was a sinker in name only. In reality, it’s the offering's arm-side movement running away from lefties — not any kind of downwards action — that can give them trouble.

There may be some level of intentionality here in Manoah elevating less, but pounding the lower part of the zone with fastballs isn’t a widely-practiced strategy in 2022. With lefties hitting .329 on Manoah’s heaters this season, it looks more like a command issue.

Something similar could be said about Manoah’s slider. Last year, there was a very specific spot where the righty’s breaking ball generated an enormous percentage of its whiffs against lefties.

Instead of getting opposite-handed hitters with a true back-foot slider, Manoah continuously had them whiffing on a pitch that looked like it was on the inside corner but darted just below the zone…

…or off the plate inside.

It’s not an easy pitch to make by any stretch of the imagination, but Manoah seemed to have that location nailed down as a rookie. In 2022 it’s proven elusive. Instead of finding that magic spot off the corner, he’s had more pitches live either a few inches higher or too far inside to be competitive.

Because Manoah’s slider has such extreme glove side movement with bog-standard drop, it’ll always be far more effective against righties who it runs away from than lefties who see it come into them. Yet that doesn’t mean he can’t re-find the sweet spot when he doesn’t have the platoon advantage.

The two biggest issues with Manoah in 2022 — his strikeouts and struggles against lefties — are interrelated, but the concern level for them should remain modest. As long as the right-hander’s sweeping slider is his best pitch — with his changeup remaining difficult to command and susceptible to hard contact — he’ll always see significantly more success when he has the platoon advantage.

That’s OK considering Manoah has held the 357 right-handed hitters he’s faced in his MLB career to a .145/.213/.238 line. If he keeps going at even close to that pace his status as a top-of-the-rotation starter will remain unimpeachable.

While the platoon disadvantage baked into his horizontally-oriented repertoire has been pronounced in 2022, there are answers to be found in what he accomplished in his rookie year. All he has to do is establish competency against left-handers, and he can cushion himself against any future regression against right-handed hitters — and become truly matchup-proof.

He cleared that bar in 2021, and can do it again with slightly better command. If his changeup grows into a reliable weapon, he could absolutely soar over it.

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