Blue Jays’ Manoah calls velo bump a ‘good check point’ after rough outing

Hazel Mae and Shi Davidi discuss Alek Manoah's rough debut outing and why we should be looking beyond the box score, getting back into the swing of things by shaking off the cobwebs, and what the Blue Jays will be looking for in his next outing.

LAKELAND, Fla. – These are still the beyond-the-box-score days of spring training, when the numbers that matter aren’t necessarily found in stat-lines, great or ghastly, but in the underlying measures that for now mark progress or regression. 

It’s there Alek Manoah identified his advancement during a 1.2-inning, four-run, three-hit, one-walk, three-hit batter outing Tuesday in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 6-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers. Pitching in a game, even if a Grapefruit League one, for the first time since he allowed four runs in four innings against the Cleveland Guardians last Aug. 10, he was searching for fluidity and flow on the mound as much as a handsome pitching line. 

He believes he found the former, even in the absence of the latter.

“The biggest thing last year, never felt like I got to my true velocity and I feel like right now, just not having to think velocity and just feeling that natural flow and then being able to have pretty good velocity, that’s a really good check point,” said Manoah. “When that stuff is playing, the slider velocity is usually honest, changeup, sinker, all that stuff. I feel like that’s a pretty good box to check this early, but at the same time not chasing velo, chasing easier velo. 

“So it was good to be in the mid-90s today, naturally.”

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In that final marker at Progressive Field last summer, his four-seamer sat at 92.9 m.p.h. and topped out at 94.5 after months of focus on ramping himself up to get there. At Joker Marchant Stadium on Tuesday, his fastball averaged 93.7 m.p.h. and maxed at 95.5, a significant jump for his opening outing, and it’s possible there’s still more to come.

His slider was firmer, too, going from 80 last time to 81.5 with two more inches of vertical break, although both two-run doubles he allowed, to Colt Keith in the first and Spencer Torkelson in the second, came on the offering. 

So, that’s a building block for one primary area of concern, velocity, with runway to recalibrate others, such as command (only 17 of his 38 pitches were strikes) and slider location.

“Right now, this early, everybody’s still trying to get that release point. For me, it’s trying to get that release point where we can throw it early in the count for strikes, but not babying it either, continuing to attack it,” Manoah said of his slider. “Fine if some of those are down, miss the zone, but over time, just continue to attack them, continue to throw them with really good conviction.”

All of that involves some leap of faith that Manoah will progressively build back up into a viable starter for the Blue Jays, which isn’t a given after an off-the-rails 2023. 

By not adding an established starter over the winter — they did sign Cuban Yariel Rodriguez who should be able to deliver some bulk innings, at minimum, but needs to build up after sitting out last season coming to North America — the club paved a path back to the rotation for the 26-year-old right-hander.

Minds would certainly have been put at ease had he gone out and shoved right out of the gate and the juxtaposition between his pitching line and the seemingly positive takeaways may seem incongruent. 

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But, as manager John Schneider explained before the game, “if the stuff is there, he’s going to get his outs. That was a part of the uphill battle last year, whether it was delivery or stuff. We want to see how he operates, see how he’s executing. He’s got certain goals in mind for camp that we are aligned with in terms of strikes, quality strikes, actual spin, things like that. We want to see him go out there and be Alek the pitcher, as opposed to Alek, the guy that throws in the bullpen. We want to see his whole game.”

Hence, what matters now is building toward those points so he’s hitting stride at the end of March, not at the end of February. 

Given the tumult of the past year, it’s reasonable to think Manoah had some nerves on the mound and there’s a transition in moving from the controlled settings of bullpens and live batting practices to actual games.

While walking out from the bullpen got his “juices flowing,” there was for the first time in a while the need to worry about, “slide-stepping, make sure you’re holding (runners), situations, knowing which guy you’re throwing to with a double play, all those little things that in the off-season you really are not working on just because you’re not in game atmosphere,” said Manoah. “Continue to get acclimated to that and continue with that natural flow.”

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A moment demonstrating that came in the first, when consecutive hit-by-pitches on Torkelson and Mark Canha after a leadoff Riley Greene single loaded the bases. 

Up came Gio Urshela, who tapped a good sinker back to the mound and Manoah’s first instinct was to throw to second to start a double play, before he stopped and came home to start a 1-2-3 twin-kill instead.

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“In my head, it was just trying to get two,” he explained. “And then I heard Spencer Horwitz (at first base) say, ‘Four,’ and I was like, well, we can get two over there and save a run. So I was able to turn it and just make that play.”

Colt Keith went down to get a slider that caught too much of the bottom of the zone right after, while a two-out walk to Greene in the second led to Torkelson tagging another misplaced slider. 

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Schneider felt Manoah’s command issues “came down to rust and release point” and that “some good work on the side in between (will help him) make those adjustments for his next time.”

That’s where Manoah’s head is at, too. 

“Once the mechanics get natural and get in that flow state you really don’t have to think about it, just minor little cues here and there,” he said. “Over time, the game will slow down a little bit. Everything will start to fall into place. My plan is to just continue to stay focused on the little details and let everything else just work itself out.”

In other words, Manoah is trusting that the process will eventually deliver results and the Blue Jays are very much counting on it.

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