HOUSTON – Amid the toughest four-start stretch of his young career, Alek Manoah is focused on the bigger picture. To be clear, the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander is well aware of the messy details, the 6.98 ERA, the 15 walks in 19.1 innings, the erratic command and fluctuating velocity underlying his struggles on the mound. He’s actively working to correct the mechanical issues behind it all and believes he’s just about right. But the 25-year-old is also making sure to frame a rough entrance into the 2023 season through the proper lens. Like anyone, he’s had a few bad days at the shop. Adapt and adjust. Trust the ability and the work. Things will turn.
“The perspective for me is in the real world, there are a lot tougher problems,” Manoah says after a workout at Minute Maid Park this week. “That doesn’t mean I put my problems to the side and not pay any attention to them. That just means I’m not going to press about it. That’s something that will roller-coaster downhill. The more you put pressure, feel like I’ve got to do good, you’re going out there in the first inning trying to throw a seven-inning shutout. You can’t do that in baseball.”
Well, at least you shouldn’t, and Manoah could very easily have fallen into that trap after sitting 91 m.p.h. with his fastball in spring training, taking damage on opening day against the St. Louis Cardinals, underperforming his seven-shutout innings against the Kansas City Royals and taking lumps from the Detroit Tigers in the home opener and the Tampa Bay Rays last Sunday.
Instead, the 25-year-old is applying a methodical diagnose-and-remedy approach to again pitch at the front-of-the-rotation level he carried throughout a Cy Young finalist-calibre 2022. In spring training, as he was locked in on repertoire, he didn’t focus enough on his mechanics, and that led to issues with his lower half. Once those were fixed, he identified a problem in his upper half. The correction there altered the alignment of his sightline, which he’s reset ahead of his outing Saturday against the New York Yankees.
“Those are like pieces to the puzzle and I truly believe my first couple of starts, we were working on one piece of the puzzle and the other pieces lagged, then my last couple of starts, we figured out the other piece,” says Manoah. “My last start, the velo was great, the ball was jumping out of my hand, my four-seam had life, my sinkers were moving a ton, I threw some really good sliders, my changeup was really good. Yeah, the command was not the best. I did make some mistakes that they made me pay for. But that’s baseball. … I just feel like the puzzle is almost all there. I’m confident that once it is all there, I’m going to be fine.”
The first piece, identified ahead of the opening day start in St. Louis, was that he wasn’t hinging on his back hip the way he usually does, sapping some his velocity. As he shifted the weight in his hips to counter, the rest of his body adjusted a smidge, too, causing “my eyes to move, so the plate kind of shifted on me a little bit, which is where I lost my command.” That limited the range in his right shoulder, and fighting the rotation around his body caused him to spray his fastball and miss all over the glove side of the plate with his slider. In the start against the Rays, he was better with both his hips and his shoulder, but his head was somewhat offline again which led to inconsistencies with how he saw the plate at release.
That’s what made the 4.1-inning, seven-run, nine-hit, five-walk, five-strikeout outing such a grab bag, as he locked in and out of his best delivery. At 93.6 m.p.h., his velocity was back in line with his 2022 average.
“You eliminate the first few batters in the first inning all the way up to that fifth inning, that was me, attacking guys, filling up the zone, jamming guys with the sinker, striking guys out with the four-seamer, throwing really good sliders, getting bad swings on it, throwing really good changeups,” says Manoah. “I truly feel like the first couple (starts) were the legs, then we worked on the shoulders and now I’ve got that where I want it, we’ve just got to run with it.”
While teammates like Kevin Gausman have taken him aside to offer guidance through a difficult period – “It’s the first time he’s really struggled at the big-league level … I told him, ‘Hey, we’re going to figure this out, you’re too talented to not come out of this,” says the veteran righty – Manoah has kept in mind that focusing only on results won’t guarantee better results.
Based on the pitching line, the Royals outing, for instance, was way better than his performance against the Rays. But Manoah understands that for sustained success, process is what matters and that he needs to pitch closer to the way he did against Tampa Bay than the way he did at Kansas City.
Last summer, when he had another four-start stretch when he struggled, allowing 13 earned runs in 22 innings with 10 walks July 29 to Aug. 16, he understood a velocity dip was the result of fatigue. “Having a velocity issue when I’ve been feeling good and I know there’s juice in there and I feel like I’m throwing hard and then I look up and it’s 90 or 92, I know something is going wrong, so we made adjustments there,” says Manoah.
“I’m not going to look at giving up seven runs (Sunday), like, ‘Oh, I’m nowhere near where I need to be,’” he continues. “If you eliminate the results, body-wise, the way I pitched, the way I compete, the way the stuff was coming out, that’s who I am. I told Pete (Walker, the pitching coach), I felt like myself more than I have all year. It’s a matter of using that and making minor adjustments from there. But I feel like the big adjustments have already been made.”
Saturday’s outing against the Yankees offers Manoah the opportunity to prove precisely that.