TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays could have tossed out the results from a six-run, one-out outing against the Houston Astros, squinted real hard at process and talked themselves into giving Alek Manoah another start.
A flare base hit at 68.1 m.p.h. off the bat, bunt base hit fighting just hard enough to stay fair, then a chopper at 90.3 m.p.h. that if picked by the usually deft Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is probably a double play. Even the grand slam by Corey Julks, on a just-above-the-knees sinker fading out of the zone, wasn’t a terrible pitch. So there’s a real pathway to a much neater first, and if that happens, who knows? This is Alek Manoah, after all.
But at a certain point, it also became clear that this isn’t Alek Manoah. At least not the one who took the majors by storm in 2021, all of 35 minor-league innings over nine starts under his belt, made the all-star team in 2022, mic’d up on the mound told broadcaster John Smoltz he was sexy for calling backfoot slider on Jeff McNeil, and eventually landed third in AL Cy Young voting.
The Blue Jays had already rationalized the 89-pitch, four-inning, two-run grind against the Milwaukee Brewers last week. Process can’t trump results forever.
“Those are the things that seem to be happening as of late, game after game,” pitching coach Pete Walker said of the misfortune versus the Astros. “And it’s not just bad luck. That’s not the only reason. But the bad luck seems to show up when someone is struggling. It’s just hard to get out of that hole.”
That’s why on Tuesday, the Blue Jays decided it was time to throw Manoah a rope, optioning him to the Florida Complex League where with full access to the club’s Player Development Complex in Dunedin, Fla., he’ll begin the progressive climb back to the majors. “The pitching lab is part of the plan just to make sure that the deficiencies in the delivery that we’ve recognized are being corrected,” said Walker.
After the pitching equivalent of a full diagnostics check, “it’s not going to be an immediate, throw him right into games,” explained manager John Schneider. “But if everything checks out the way it should check out, hopefully he’s getting rolling pretty soon.”
Much as they need the 25-year-old to bounce back quickly, the Blue Jays won’t rush Manoah through what’s essentially a timeout from the grind of a season in which his best on the mound has been a moving target.
The steady deterioration of his results over the past month meant that news of his demotion was met largely with both an understanding of why it happened and disbelief that such a dramatic measure was actually necessary.
While past situations were different, the prescription has precedent in Blue Jays history, with Roy Halladay sent all the way down to A-ball for a total physical and mental rebuild with late pitching guru Mel Queen in 2001, and Ricky Romero optioned to Dunedin in 2013. Both of those moves happened during spring training, while Manoah will surely want to rebound quickly with the Blue Jays fighting to make a second straight trip to the post-season.
Pivotal, of course, will be the way he attacks the work once the shock wears off. Veteran Chris Bassitt, optioned 14 times by the Chicago White Sox and Oakland Athletics before cementing himself in the majors, is confident his young teammate will understand that “it’s something everyone goes through” and emerge better for it.
“First and foremost, his maturity through the struggles is really overlooked. How he’s handled himself, off the field, publicly, is really admirable,” said Bassitt. “Second, I’ve been optioned so many times it’s not really funny. And I’ve struggled. I mean, (Kevin) Gausman has been DFA’d. We’ve all been through this. It’s not really uncommon in our sport. It’s just unfortunate for us that he’s struggled a little bit. But when it comes to him and his career, so to speak, I don’t have any doubts that he’s going to be back this year and be really good.”
Added George Springer: “He’s done a really good job of handling what he’s kind of going through individually on top of feeling like he’s letting us down, which isn’t true. He’s loved and he knows that everybody loves him. A huge, huge part of our team. … He’ll be back up here soon enough doing what it is that we know he can do.”
In the interim, the Blue Jays are hoping Bowden Francis, selected from triple-A Buffalo, will fill the void, at least initially, although he’s also available to deliver bulk innings beforehand if needed. As long he’s not used in advance, he’ll get the ball Saturday, possibly behind an opener, against the Minnesota Twins and a host of options are on the table beyond that.
There are few options behind Francis in Buffalo, with the just optioned Jay Jackson and Thomas Hatch other multi-inning possibilities. Outside the organization, there are few players on minor-league deals with outs upcoming, and even fewer palatable alternatives there.
In other words, then, the Blue Jays really need to stay healthy and they really need Manoah to get right, fast. But there are no shortcuts in this process and they wouldn’t have taken this drastic step if they didn’t have what’s best for him at heart.
“After (Monday’s) outing,” said Walker, “it just seemed like we were at the point where he just needs to step away from this level for right now to continue to do the things he’s been doing and working on, which is refining his delivery just a little bit, getting in the strike zone consistently, getting first-pitch strikes, getting some weak contact, all the things that he did last year. That’s where he needs to get to. It’s hard to do that and continue to work through things at the major-league level. Sometimes you feel like you’re really close, but everything that can go wrong does. …
“When you’re chasing results and your results aren’t there, you tend to shy away from contact. You try to miss bats. You try to punch guys out before they have two strikes. You do some things that are not normal for you. That’s not how he pitched in the past. And it was almost like he was chasing results. … I think his stuff is really close. The delivery is really close. He’s got a few things he needs to work on. But we’re very optimistic that this is a short run and that we can get him back here and he’ll breathe some life into the team when he gets back, and he’ll be the pitcher that we know from last year and the year before.”