TORONTO – During his college days with the West Virginia Mountaineers, Alek Manoah met often with head coach Randy Mazey. Sometimes, they talked about the way he was pitching. Other times, the way he was acting on the mound would come up. They’d discuss the future a fair bit, too.
“I would always tell him that, ‘Hey, man, one day when you’re starting against the Yankees, you’re not going to be able to do this, this and this. And one day when you’re starting against the Yankees, you’re going to have to do this, this and this,’” Mazey recalled Tuesday. “When we talked (Monday), he said, ‘Hey, you remember all those talks we had about you saying one day when you’re starting against the Yankees? Well, guess what? I’m starting against the Yankees.’
“It was pretty cool to see his dreams realized.”
That nice little bit of symmetry left Mazey feeling like a proud father after Manoah called to say he’ll be debuting for the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday against the New York Yankees.
The 23-year-old right-hander wasn’t always on such a promising trajectory during his days at South Dade High School in Homestead, Fla., or with the Mountaineers, recalling how “a lot of tough love” from his older brother Erik and high-school coach Fred Burnside sent him down a path that brought him to Yankee Stadium.
“It’s been a long road from being undrafted out of high school to having no (college) offers all the way until my senior year of high school, to not even being a pitcher until my senior year of high school,” said Manoah. “It’s been fun to look back and be like, man, at one point I was just grabbing the ball and throwing it. Then we learned a little bit of mechanics. Now we’re learning some analytics. Just continuing to see my journey and getting super excited for the future because I know there’s a lot left to learn, a lot left to get done and a lot more to get better at.”
Mazey was front-and-centre in that process, too, hammering away at Manoah during “constant meetings” with the message that if he wanted to be a big-leaguer “at some point, you’re going to have to make that decision that you want to do this for a living.”
Manoah made that decision ahead of his draft year, making a significant step forward in his conditioning and nutrition in combination with some gains made on the mound.
“When he finished his freshman year, he was really, really big – he was too big,” said Mazey. “The first three or four meetings we had together I would tell him the Stephen Strasburg story. I played against Stephen when he was at San Diego State and I was at (Texas Christian University), so I heard all of the stories about how Strasburg was overweight as a senior in high school and really had to make the decision to get in shape. And his career took off when he did that.
“Between that sophomore and junior year, AK really made the decision to take care of his body and got to the point where every time we would have a meeting later on in his career, he’d say, ‘Yeah, coach, I know, Stephen Strasburg. I know. I get it.’ But he finally did get it. And when he when he made that decision, he just his career just took off, too.”
Pivotal, too, was Manoah’s time in the Cape Cod League following two middling seasons with the Mountaineers, when he split time as a starter and a reliever and was all over the place.
Before joining the Chatham Anglers, “I took some accountability,” he said, giving a blunt assessment of where exactly he stood in that moment. “I was walking too many guys, hitting too many guys, curveball was absolutely terrible, changeup was absolutely terrible. I was a one-pitch guy that didn’t throw strikes. Can’t win like that. Maybe an inning or so out of the bullpen in college, but I had bigger expectations and dreams for myself.”
To stand out among the host of big arms he’d be competing with in the Cape, he scanned Pitching Ninja (clips) to check for mechanics, messed around with different grips and picked up a new slider that “ended up being amazing.” He also focused on improving his fastball command, locking in on being able to dot the ball on both sides of the plate.
“Most of my bullpens, I wouldn’t move over to the other side of the plate until I hit my spot every time I needed to hit my spot,” said Manoah. “Then I would move over and do the same thing on the other side. There was a stretch there I was throwing 40, 50 pitch bullpens, just trying to gain my command. Not throwing strikes at this point of my career is inexcusable. I had to figure it out and that was it – being able to throw a lot of strikes, add in the breaking ball and the changeup was a continuous development. It all just came together.”
The Blue Jays took notice of his performance in the Cape and eventually made him the second pitcher taken in the 2019 draft at No. 11 overall. Manoah joins the big-league club after just three starts with triple-A Buffalo – striking out 27 in 18 innings while allowing only one run on seven hits and three walks – and nine total outings in pro ball.
To his credit, he made the most of his time at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site last summer, mitigating the loss of the minor-league season by regularly facing off against upper-level hitters.
Then, at spring training, he immediately accelerated his timeline with three eye-opening outings against Yankee regulars, striking out 15 in seven innings of one-hit work. Under more ideal circumstances, the Blue Jays might have given him a bit more time to develop, but once Anthony Kay was optioned last week to sort himself out, it was either a bullpen day or Manoah for Wednesday’s outing and a rough weekend for the relief corps negated the first possibility.
“That’s why we go day-to-day whenever I say, ‘bullpen day,’” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “We didn’t know we were going to be playing extra-inning games against the Rays, of course, and the bullpen has thrown a lot. So that’s why we came to this decision to bring up Manoah. And he earned it. It wasn’t just like we needed a pitcher. He’s been pitching (well) and the spot opened for him.”
A dropped-in-the-deep-end debut at Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly the blueprint for transitioning prospects, but Manoah doesn’t seem the type to get fazed by his surroundings. He handled the situation well in Grapefruit League play and called the new opportunity “amazing.”
“Obviously the team has confidence in me to throw me into the fire and I’m ready to go, man,” Manoah added. “As long as that mound is still 60 feet, six inches, we’ve got a shot.”
Mazey believes the Blue Jays will get plenty than that, too.
“I’m not a gambling man but if I were, I’d be betting on Alek Manoah in any situation,” he said. “His competitiveness is going to drive him. The bigger the moment, the better he’s going to be, so the fact that he’s pitching in Yankee Stadium against the Yankees is better for him than to pitch against somebody who doesn’t have that tradition.”