What on Earth Got Into Sean Manaea on Sunday?

Sean Manaea pitched the game of his life, and he may be here to stay.

On Sunday, Sean Manaea toed the rubber against the New York Yankees. I have yet to see much of any sort of positive response to this game, let alone any response, but it was perhaps the best game of Manaea’s life. At worst, it was a helluva game, surely up there as one of his best. This wasn’t a very typical game for him, though. Manaea did something unlike what he’s ever done before.

Here’s the list of pitches Manaea used to put away hitters on all 11 of his strikeouts:

  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker
  • Sinker

That’s eleven strikeouts, which by is impressive in and of itself. The other thing is that these strikeouts are all on sinkers, and just two of them were on called strikes. That might seem unheard of, which is probably because it is. Manaea threw more sinkers for strikeouts than any other pitcher has in a game in the Statcast era, and only David Price has bested Manaea since the pitch tracking era. Even if you consider four-seam fastballs, the list of pitchers who have thrown more fastballs for strikeouts than Manaea is limited. In many ways, his night was relatively unprecedented.

There’s also the fact that Manaea generated 37 called strikes and whiffs on Sunday. That’s not a career-best, but it’s close. What was a career-best was the number of whiffs he induced. He produced 24 of those. But where did they come from? It’s pretty obvious:

 

 

I mean, woah, right? There’s a blip in 2019, and you can see the sinker whiffs kind of trending up in 2021, but never before has Manaea whiffed hitters like this with his sinker. That’s 20 with his sinker alone. It’s all pretty reminiscent of a James Paxton article that Jeff Sullivan wrote for FanGraphs back in 2018. For Paxton, the whiffs came out of nowhere, because he decided to start elevating his fastball. That’s not necessarily the case for Manaea. He’s been elevating his sinker for a month now, and he’s toyed with it plenty before. It’s part of the answer for his insanely strong outing, but he needs a few things for his sinker to pop.

Here’s an elevated sinker, thrown to Aaron Judge in a 2-2 count:

 

 

It’s not like Judge is immune to the swing and miss. It’s a part of his game. But he’s hardly the worst in the whiff department, and this is a 96 mph sinker at the top of the zone. That’s not exactly something that you’d expect from Manaea, which is probably because it’s the hardest pitch that Manaea has ever thrown at the major league level. And that’s a big deal. Regardless of other traits, we know that fastball velocity is strongly correlated with whiffs. The other traits still matter though!

Something else that you may have noticed is that Manaea throws from a pretty low arm slot. Here’s a screengrab of him at his release point:

 

 

For reference, Manaea has ranked in the 16th percentile in vertical release point this year. Not exactly the lowest release point, but by definition one of the lower arm slots for starting pitchers. On Sunday, Manaea dropped down more than three inches from his previous start to his release point of old. That figure, 5.31 feet, would slot him in the fifth percentile. He was throwing out of an Andrew Heaney-like arm slot.

Like Andrew Heaney, Manaea throws a fastball, curveball, and changeup. He even throws them at similar velocities. Unlike Heaney, Manaea spins his fastball really poorly, while Heaney has flashed elite spin at times. Because of this, Heaney doesn’t have to throw his fastball as hard to generate plus ride on his fastball, whereas Manaea can get into trouble because his fastball spins so inefficiently. One way to circumvent this issue is to throw harder, which Manaea did. Another way, though, is to drop your release point to create a flatter vertical approach angle, which Manaea also did.

Prior to his last start, Manaea had thrown his sinker at an average of a -5.2° vertical approach angle (VAA). For reference, that’s like a Matthew Boyd fastball or a Marco Gonzales sinker. On Sunday, Manaea’s sinker was all the way down to a -4.5° VAA, which is in the vicinity of the fastballs of Gerrit Cole, Yusei Kikuchi, Walker Buehler, and Max Scherzer. Perhaps most pertinently, it’s akin to Heaney’s -4.4° VAA, which is in the top-20 of all starters. I shouldn’t need to tell you that all of these things are good. But if I do, all of these things are good!

One thing to note is that VAA is subject to the vertical location of the pitch. It’s important to consider that Manaea elevated his sinker about as high, on average, as ever. That surely has aided his recent improvement in VAA, but he’s been elevating his sinker for a while. He’s just paired his sinker elevation by getting down the mound (i.e., extension) and throwing from a low arm slot.

In many ways, Manaea’s metrics don’t have the look of someone with a good fastball, let alone an elite one. If you ignore the more nuanced metrics, he was still only hitting 93 mph, and his raw spin was still just over 2000 rpm. There are only a handful of pitchers who can do what Manaea is doing with the tools that he’s got. He still doesn’t spin his fastball well, but he spins it efficiently and pairs it with elite extension, a low arm slot, and improved velocity — all up in the zone. These are all traits that teams are increasingly chasing. The only thing that he doesn’t have is the raw spin that teams covet.

It seems that the stars aligned for Sean Manaea. He only had so much to work with in terms of his pitch characteristics. Whether intentional or not, he made a few changes that optimized his existing skillset. For now, it seems that he’s made the most of everything. It’s unclear that he’ll be able to keep it up, but it’s apparent what he needs to do to excel.

 

Photo by Daniel Gluskoter/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Michael Ajeto

Michael writes about the Mariners at Lookout Landing, as well as here at Pitcher List. You can follow Michael on Twitter @dysthymikey, or you can not.

One response to “What on Earth Got Into Sean Manaea on Sunday?”

  1. DB says:

    “I have yet to see much of any sort of positive response to this game, let alone any response, but it was perhaps the best game of Manaea’s life.”

    Ummm… you know he has a no-hitter against the 2018 Red Sox, right?

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