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Breaking down Alek Manoah’s 2021 minor league starts

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What can it tell about what to expect at the MLB level?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As Alek Manoah prepares to make his major league debut tonight in New York, I thought it would be worth breaking down each of his three AAA starts this year in terms and what they might tell us about how tonight might go.

May 6th vs. Worchester

6 IP, 0 runs on 2 hits, no walks, 3 HBP and 12 strikeouts

Simply put, Manoah’s 2021 debut was about pure dominance and overpowering hitters. Of his 83 pitches, batters swung at 36 and made contact just half the time, on 18 of those swings. That resulted in Manoah striking over half of the 22 batters he faced, which is impressive by any measure.

Even better, the little contact that Woo Sox hitters did make was low quality. The seven batters who did put the ball in play managed just five ground balls on the infield, and neither of the two balls in the air were well struck. The two hits were were both singles, one of the infield variety and the other a dunker into no man’s land in right-centre. On both contact and batted outcomes Manoah dominated, and managed to pick a batter off to boot.

If there’s something to nitpick, it’s the control. Beyond the three hit by pitches, of the 47 pitches that were taken Manoah landed just 15 for called strikes. The line between overpowering dominance and ineffective wildness can be quite narrow, and the risk is that better hitters with more advanced approaches would be able to exploit poor control and essentially let Manoah beat himself. Yes, there’s probably still be quite a bit of swing-and-miss and strikeouts, but also long innings that mean at worst he’s out of the game quickly and at worst constantly has runner aboard who eventually find their way in.

May 12th vs. Rochester

6 IP, 0 runs on 1 hit, 2 walks, a HBP and 5 strikeouts

In contrast to the statline from the above, this one looks much more pedestrian. While the first outing was characterized by overwhelming batter sand and frankly sometimes toeing the line of being effectively wild, this outing was about being in control.

Manoah still missed plenty of bats, with batters whiffing on 10 of their 33 swings (33%). This time, 13 of 21 batters put balls in play against him, but did very little damage. The one hit he did give up with a hard fliner double leading off the last inning, but that was it in terms of balls squared up. The other 12 were five ground balls and two popups on the infield, and five can of corn fly balls.

Overall, Manoah was more efficient and overall in control, needing just 76 pitches for 21 batters and six innings, of which only five worked him for more than four pitches in a trip to the plate. Two of the free passes came back to back in a command wobble in the third inning, but it was otherwise pretty clear sailing.

May 19th at Worchester

6 IP, 1 runs on 4 hits (a HR), 1 walk but no HBP and 10 strikeouts

The most recent outing had elements from both of the first two, but also some novel occurrances. Though the same length inning-wise, Manoah worked deeper as he threw 94 pitches. His fastball sat 93-95 per stadium readings, but he held that throughout with ample 94s and 95 in the last inning.

Manoah was quite overpowering, particularly early, striking out six of the first 10 batters faced (runs of three strikeouts on either side of the home run). Overall, batters took 53 swings against him and came up empty 21 times, just shy of 40% whiff rate.

For the first time, batters did get to him for a good amount of solid contact. In addition to the home run to centre field, he gave a line drive double and single. the last single was lower quality, but he also had a couple of softer/sinking liners find gloves. Of 12 balls in play, only three were on the ground, and one popout).

Overall

18 innings, 1 run on 7 hits (0.50 ERA), 3 walks, 4 HBP, 27 strikeouts

Those headline numbers speak for themselves, quite loudly, and are essentially unimpeachable. Taking the walks and hit by pitches together, the free pass rate of 11% (7/63) is on the high side, but it’s more than manageable when you’re also punching out 43% of batters. It also means that less that 50% of batters are putting the ball in play, which is a big inherent advantage even with some control wobbles.

Of 253 pitches, 165 have gone for strikes (65%), which is right around MLB average. Batters have swung at 122 (48% swing rate), and come up empty on 49 for a very healthy 60% contact rate/40% whiff rate. Manoah has no problem missing bats. He’s got ahead of 30 hitters, fallen behind 30 hitters; just three have put the ball in play on the first pitch.

That isn’t very surprisingly given Manoah’s raw stuff, and I’d expect MLB hitters and the Yankees particularly to approach him similarly, first give him the chance to beat himself, especially in a major league debut. To me, this will be a key tonight, throwing enough strikes.

In terms of contact, it’s just a sample of 29 but overall Manoah has done very well suppressing it, with over half belonging in what I classify as “very weak” (routine grounders and infield popups). About another 25% is in a weak/routine bucket (outfield fly balls), with only six balls being well struck (about 20%). When he has got squared up though, it’s generate been very hard.