The 2023 season isn’t off to the best start for last year’s AL Cy Young finalists. Reigning winner Justin Verlander missed the first five weeks with a shoulder strain and now faces the unenviable task of rescuing an ailing Mets rotation. Runner-up Dylan Cease has had his moments but an equal number of surprisingly poor outings. Finally, third-place finisher Alek Manoah is struggling most of all. His ERA has doubled, his WAR is in the negatives, and his 1.28 K/BB ranks last among qualified major league pitchers.
Manoah’s slow start has been difficult to watch. Last season, at just 24 years old, he established himself as the ace of the Blue Jays’ staff, securing his first All-Star selection and earning the nod for Game One of the Wild Card Series. Six months later, he was awarded the Opening Day start, making him the youngest Opening Day starter in the American League. The analytics crowd (myself included) might have argued Kevin Gausman was the true no. 1 in Toronto, but the Blue Jays clearly chose Manoah, and it wasn’t hard to understand why:
Those who favored Gausman as the no. 1 would have pointed to Manoah’s underlying numbers last season, none of which were as impressive as his sterling 2.24 ERA. Accordingly, the projection systems weren’t so high on Manoah entering 2023:
Alek Manoah: Due for Regression?
But what we’re seeing from Manoah this year is about more than just regression to the mean. His BABIP, LOB%, and HR/FB are much closer to league average than they were last season, but his performance has been far worse than we’d expect from just those simple regressions. Even the most pessimistic among us could not have foreseen a 4.83 ERA and 5.76 FIP from the young All-Star.
Perhaps, then, it’s worth considering a few more factors that aren’t entirely within Manoah’s control. For one, his battery mate, Alejandro Kirk, hasn’t been putting up the elite framing numbers he did last season. Manoah has thrown to Kirk in all eight of his starts, making him the only Blue Jays starter to have worked exclusively with him. Theirs was a fruitful partnership last season when Kirk was one of the best pitch framers in the game. This year, he hasn’t had nearly as much success fooling the ump:
Kirk’s Framing Problem
Framing Runs (Baseball Savant)
If Kirk were still earning so many additional called strikes, Manoah’s strikeout-to-walk ratio wouldn’t look so tragic. That being said, Manoah’s called strike rate hasn’t actually changed this season, nor has his called strike rate in the shadow zone. So while Manoah could certainly use a few extra strikes, Kirk’s framing isn’t to blame for his teammate’s troubles.
The new shift restrictions also had the potential to affect Manoah more than most. He isn’t a big strikeout arm, and he succeeded last season by inducing easy-to-field balls in play. The Blue Jays’ defense helped him in that regard and did an excellent job shifting behind him. Out of 104 pitchers with at least 500 batters faced, Manoah ranked 12th in the percentage of his plate appearances with at least three infielders on one side of second base. That defensive positioning was especially effective against right-handed batters, whom he held to a .211 wOBA with the shift on.
In 2023, Manoah’s BABIP on groundballs has increased by more than 100 points; that translates to an extra five or six groundball hits. His BABIP on pulled groundballs has hardly changed, though, and that’s where you’d expect to see the influence of the shift ban. Instead, it’s all the other grounders that have caused the problem:
While the Blue Jays might not be positioning themselves quite as well behind Manoah, the new rules are not the root of his problem. Expected regression, catcher framing, and shift restrictions might be playing a small role in his difficult season, but there are no excuses to be made: Manoah has been anything but ace-like in the follow-up to his star-making campaign. Only two of his eight appearances have been quality starts, which means he already has as many non-quality outings as he did all of last season. In 41 innings pitched, he barely has more strikeouts (32) than free passes (29), and the only way to make his 5.49 BB/9 seem low is to put it beside his 6.32 xERA.
Indeed, those numbers perfectly encapsulate the problem: Manoah is throwing oodles of balls and giving up heaps of hard contact. That’s a deeply unsustainable business model for a pitcher who also lacks the ability to overwhelm hitters with tremendous velocity. In order to succeed, he needs to induce weak contact (and to do that, he needs to throw enough pitches in the zone). It’s what he did last season when he held opposing hitters to a 5.4% barrel rate and 31.5% hard-hit rate, both second-best among qualified AL starters. All that soft contact had the intended effect, and he finished with the third-lowest BABIP and HR/FB in the league. Doubters pointed to those numbers as proof that Manoah was due for regression; believers argued his ability to limit hard contact was legit.
This year, things have fallen into disrepair. Manoah is giving up more walks and fewer balls in play, and when hitters have made contact against him, the results have been rough. His hard-hit rate has risen to 41.5%, and to make matters worse, the hard contact he’s allowing is even harder than it was last year. Manoah has actually given up fewer batted balls in the 95–100 mph range, but he is allowing almost twice as much contact over 100 mph. If that weren’t enough, all of the extra hard contact is coming on balls in the air. His average exit velocity on groundballs remains unchanged, but it is up nearly five miles per hour on fly balls and line drives. Before, Manoah induced soft contact in the air by getting batters to swing underneath the ball, but he’s struggling to do the same in 2023. The percentage of his balls in the air classified as being hit “poorly/under” by Statcast has fallen precipitously, and the percentage classified as solid contact or barrels has more than doubled.
Overall, hitters seem to be seeing Manoah’s pitches and timing him up better than before. In addition to the extra barrels and solid contact, opposing batters have been pulling more balls in the air and hitting more grounders the opposite way; that’s the best way to maximize damage on balls in play. What’s more, opponents are whiffing far less, and not just because Manoah is throwing fewer strikes. On a per-pitch basis, he has earned fewer whiffs in all four of the heart, shadow, chase, and waste zones.
So why have Manoah’s pitches been so much less effective? The modeling data from Stuff+ suggests his stuff is to blame; PitchingBot indicates his command is at fault:
Manoah’s Pitch Modeling
Manoah’s four-seam fastball has lost a tick, down from 93.9 mph to 92.9 mph, per Statcast. The average four-seamer in the majors is 93.9, so it’s a threshold a pitcher doesn’t want to fall below. To add insult to injury, Manoah is throwing more four-seamers in the waste zone at the expense of four-seamers in the heart zone. Bear with me through some oversimplified analysis, but 94-mph four-seamers in the heart zone have a .413 wOBA this year; 93-mph four-seamers in the waste zone have a .635 wOBA. All else being equal, fastballs are better with more velocity, and they’re more effective when they’re thrown for strikes.
Indeed, Manoah’s four-seam fastball has been much less effective this season. Hitters are swinging at it less often but making stronger contact when they do. The four-seamer was his best weapon for inducing “poor/under” contact last season, but this year, hitters haven’t been fooled so easily:
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Fastballs are better when they’re fast, and similarly, sliders are better when they’re sliding; Manoah’s slider, unfortunately, has lost two inches of horizontal movement. He is also throwing it outside the zone more often, and while sliders are good for inducing chase, it’s risky to try to generate more chase with a less deceptive pitch. As with his four-seamer, opposing batters are swinging at his slider less often but making more contact when they do. The whiff rate on it is down from 31.8% to 24.2%, and the put-away percentage is down from 20.6% to 7.4%.
On the bright side, Manoah’s sinker looks sharper than his four-seam fastball. It hasn’t lost as much velocity (only half a mile per hour), and he’s throwing it in the zone more frequently. Specifically, he is locating it more consistently in the shadow zone and the upper third of the strike zone, two areas where he has historically had more success with the pitch. Accordingly, the sinker has been his most effective offering so far, with a -6 run value, per Baseball Savant. But it might only be a matter of time before the other shoe drops. The whiff rate on the sinker is down from 16.1% to 10.2%, and the put-away percentage has fallen from 21.4% to 14.1%. Most concerning, the average launch angle on his sinker has risen from one to ten degrees, which means it isn’t generating groundballs like it used to.
When Manoah locates his sinker in the right spots, it’s still a dangerous pitch. In the shadow zone and the upper third of the strike zone, his sinker has .203 wOBA and .164 xwOBA in 2023. Unfortunately, the pitch has been a serious liability everywhere else. Hitters are barrelling it up more and sending it into the ground less. Combine that with a dismal 8.8% whiff rate, and it’s evident his opponents are seeing his sinker more clearly than before.
Why would that be? Because they’re seeing it more often and in more hitter-friendly counts. Manoah has turned his sinker into his go-to fastball against right-handed batters. In particular, he’s throwing more sinkers to righties when he’s behind in the count. Meanwhile, he has not upped his sinker usage to lefties, but he is falling behind against them far more often. Thus, he is giving both right- and left-handed hitters more opportunities to punish the pitch. Once his opponents know he needs to throw a strike, his sinker is no longer an effective weapon. When Manoah is behind in the count, his opponents are hitting for a .384 wOBA and .551 xwOBA against his sinker:
Manoah’s fourth and final pitch is a changeup, which has been facing similar problems to his sinker. The pitch modeling systems agree his changeup is better than ever this season, both by stuff and location, yet it’s getting pummeled wherever and however he throws it. He’s hitting his best spot more consistently (the outside edge against left-handed hitters), and he’s doing so with an additional two inches of horizontal break. Even so, his opponents are barreling his changeup like plastic monkeys.
There are a couple of possible explanations, and the most likely answer is a combination of both. First things first, changeups only work when you have another good pitch to pair them with; no one gets by on a changeup alone. If Manoah’s other pitches aren’t working for him, it’s no surprise his changeup isn’t getting the job done. Secondly, he is throwing his changeup with less vertical movement (after accounting for gravity). just 8.6 inches of drop this year compared to 9.6 inches last season. Interestingly, when he has been able to throw his changeup with at least nine inches of drop this year, opposing batters have been helpless (.222 wOBA, .200 xwOBA). Conversely, when he has thrown it with only eight or fewer inches of drop, his opponents have gone wild (.379 wOBA and a .594 xwOBA). The sample size is still tiny, since the changeup is his least-used pitch, but that’s a trend worth watching.
It seems like everything is going wrong for Manoah. He is struggling to throw strikes, and even when he does, he’s getting punished for his efforts. Opposing hitters are teeing off on all four of his pitches, and the underlying numbers suggest his 4.83 ERA is only going to rise. In the process, he’s learning an important life lesson: As he tries to recapture the simple bliss of his early twenties, he is discovering how it feels to be 25. His prefrontal cortex has fully developed, he can rent a car in all 50 states, and he has established himself as a fully-fledged adult big leaguer. Expectations are higher than ever, and he can no longer disregard his struggles as mere growing pains. It’s far too soon to give up on a player with his talent and track record, but the version of him we’re watching is no longer the young phenom who took the AL East by storm. Like any 25-year-old struggling to adjust to adulthood, he needs to make some changes if he wants to turn things around.