On a Wednesday night in June, Sean Manaea hurled his second shutout in the season. Manaea has become the best version of himself this year. Oakland found their ace in the Ben Zobrist trade back in 2015 and he’s been searching for what he could be since that trade. Our own Jai Correa wrote about a preview of his retooled arsenal and expectations, and now Manaea is meeting those expectations. He’s getting more whiffs and controlling the quality of contact has made Manaea into one of the most reliable starting pitchers in the American League.
All Statistics are reflected on the morning of Thursday, June 3rd. The statistics will not reflect any games played on June 3rd.
More Whiffs Than Ever
Manaea has carried the label of being a command expert throughout his big-league career. He’s never posted a walk rate over 8%. In his past three seasons, which does include an injury-shortened 2019 so about 150 innings, Manaea has a 5% walk rate over that time. It’s come at a price though, over a full season Manaea has never had a K% over 21. His swinging-strike rate has always been at league average or below it. In the past, Manaea has been a sinker, changeup, slider approach. He still sticks with the sinker and changeup but has made his slider into an interesting mix of curveball and slider mix while calling it a curveball.
This new arsenal he’s created has Manaea getting more whiffs than he’s ever had before. Manaea’s 12.6 SwStr% is the highest of his career and his 27.5% whiff rate is the second-highest of his career if you include 2019. So even when accounting for an increase in swing% from 2019, Manaea is missing a lot of bats. That’s driven his career-high 24.4% strikeout rate.
As Jai mentioned in his article, Manaea changed the grip on his changeup back in 2016, and he may have done it again. His changeup is registering less drop on it than in years past but also has more run on it than before. Something that caught my eye as well was that Manaea is getting 10% more spin efficiency on the pitch this year versus 2020. He changed the spin direction as well and now the total movement on the pitch went from eight inches to 14 inches of movement. The swinging strike rate on the pitch went from 16.67% in 2020 to 21% in 2021. That change has worked for him. Pun intended.
Moving to Manaea’s breaking ball, which he calls curveball, the pitch is tough to define. The spin direction and efficiency point to a slow slider like Chris Sale. However, the way pitch moves, it doesn’t get the sharp break of a slider.
It almost floats through the zone from left to right. It’s different, it’s unique, and that makes it fun. It can also make it effective. He only has a 13% swinging strike rate on the pitch and a 29% CSW but the pitch has the best xwOBA out of any of his pitches. The pitch moves in below-average ways but given his success with the pitch, it clearly works within his overall arsenal. Sometimes, the individual pitch doesn’t have to jump off the page, but if the pitch can work well within your arsenal then it can be considered a good pitch. Manaea shouldn’t change anything with the pitch. Nor should he change anything with his complete arsenal.
Manaea’s change in his changeup has fueled his increase in whiffs from years past, but it’s also helped manage the contact he’s given up this year.
Controlling the Quality of Contact
Manaea’s main flaw as a pitcher was he would give up a lot of hard contact. His highest percentile ranking in hard-hit rate was 14th percentile in 2020. He paired that with a career-high ground ball rate that year, so he was able to limit the damage by at least keeping the ball on the ground. However, that screamed anomaly and Manaea has fallen back in with a ground ball rate closer to his career norms. Yet, his hard-hit rate at 39.4% is the second-lowest of his career if you once again include 2019. He has a 41% hard-hit rate against his changeup but of the 22 hard-hit balls against the pitch, almost half have been on the ground and he hasn’t given up one that left the ballpark.
Another way he’s achieved this is in part because his curveball has given up just six hard-hit rate balls on 23 potential batted ball events. He’s also given up only one home run this year on the pitch. That’s a big key to success for starting pitchers. Being able to avoid the long ball with your off-speed/secondary pitches will help make you successful. Manaea’s seven home runs are middle of the pack but his xHR is a value lower. Once again pointing to the sign that Manaea is limiting the contact against him more.
Manaea’s off-speed creates uncomfortable at-bats that create uncomfortable swings. If he hangs pitches, hitters should hit it. He’s thrown 34 first-pitch off-speed pitches inside the heart of the plate. If hitters aren’t sitting on it early, then they’re only going to see an off-speed pitch over the heart of the plate about 10% of the time. Hitters will look for the sinker over the heart of the plate instead and Manaea does leave a lot of sinkers over the heart of the plate and hitters have taken 162 swings at 200 sinkers over the plate. They’ve racked up 25 hits on 69 batted ball events which are good for a .362 BABIP. That’s probably not the mark you’d hope for when you get hittable sinkers over the middle of the plate. In comparison, Manaea has generated 27 swings and misses on sinkers over the middle of the plate. That’s going to help you pitch well if you’re able to get more swings and misses than hits allowed in the heart of the plate.
Controlling the contact you allow while generating more whiffs has turned Sean Manaea into one of the American League’s best pitchers.
One of the AL’s Best
The Oakland A’s are currently in first place in the AL West and the A’s starting pitching staff can keep them in enough games with a sold offense has fueled that success. Manaea’s progress into one of the American League’s best starters. Here a few of his rankings in the American League
Ranking close to the top among qualified pitchers in a few metrics that could indicate success will help you feel good about Manaea’s sustainability of his performance. Of the 11 pitchers ahead of Manaea in BB%, only three of them have a lower SIERA value than Manaea does. If you’re a fan of ERA estimators or ERA in general, then don’t worry Manaea grades out well there too.
He also has an xERA of 3.45 after his start on Wednesday night, so there shouldn’t be any regression for Manaea if he continues to throw the ball the way he has been. That’s turned him into one of the best starters in the American League this year. Playing in Oakland might be a part of his success but his adjusted FIP and xFIP values are right around his adjusted ERA value as well.
The Oakland ace has become one of the best pitchers in the American League through his increase in whiffs and better-handled contact against him. If Manaea can continue that trend, he could become one of the best fantasy buys in baseball. He also has hidden value in that he’s able to work deep into games. He’s thrown two shutouts but only one of them was a nine-inning shutout. In seven of his 12 starts this year, he’s worked at least 6 innings. Having a pitcher who can take the ball every 5th day and work into the 6th or 7th inning consistently not only helps your team but also helps his fantasy value. His 5.67 IP/GS is well above the league average and is comparable to pitchers like Lucas Giolito, Nathan Eovaldi, and Jose Berrios.
Sean Manaea has been a spark for the Oakland A’s so far this year. As the team looks to roll into the summer months with good play, Manaea is going to a big part of that success. If he can continue to get whiffs on his changeup and keep hitters befuddled by his unusual breaking ball and continue to keep hitters off balance and middle-of-the-road quality of contact. Manaea will deliver a great season for fantasy managers everywhere while leading the A’s back to the postseason.
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