Manoah takes some positives from first spring start

February 27th, 2024

LAKELAND, Fla. -- If is going to write baseball’s great comeback story in 2024, Tuesday afternoon in Lakeland will have to be the rocky prologue that sets the stage.

Manoah’s first Grapefruit League start in Toronto's 6-4 loss against the Tigers at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium was his first game action since Aug. 10, 2023. It was his first shot at reintroducing the world to the Manoah who finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2022, the pitcher who looked like he could lead a rotation for a decade. The past 12 months have fractured that image, but the pieces are still there, waiting for Manoah to put them back together.

To call Tuesday an imperfect first step would be very kind. Manoah hit three batters and struggled with control over his 1 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on three hits, including two loud doubles. It’s dangerous to give much weight to February baseball, but in Manoah’s journey, every inning matters along the way.

“You definitely want to have starts where everything doesn’t feel the best now, instead of when it matters. Some of that inexpensive experience,” Manoah said. “I’m just continuing to attack each day. I’m separating each day from itself and attacking the goals I have each day. That’s a good way, without really thinking about it, for me to separate the results from the work.”

If any pitcher on this roster needs the eye test, it’s Manoah. His fastball velocity Tuesday was slightly above his 2023 average and even touched 95 mph twice, which is encouraging for February and tracks with positive reports out of camp, but Manoah needs to be living closer to the zone as spring rolls on. He’s taking positives from the fact that his velocity is already there, confident the control will follow.

“I’m not having to think about velocity and just feeling that natural flow, then being able to have pretty good velocity,” Manoah said. “That’s a good checkpoint. When that stuff’s on, the slider velocity usually plays, the changeup, the sinker, all of that. That’s a pretty good box to check this early. I’m not chasing velo, I’m chasing easier velo, so it was good to be in the mid-90s today naturally.”

Manoah’s greatness was never about being nasty. He doesn’t throw 99 mph or have the best slider in baseball. Manoah is at his best when he knows he’s better than the hitter standing at the plate and tries to show them just that, as quickly and aggressively as possible. That’s what turns a good pitch into a great pitch for Manoah, but he lost that edge at times in 2023.

That’s why seeing Manoah’s spark -- that loud voice bellowing through the complex, the personality that beams out of him in the clubhouse -- is just as important as a few decimal points on the radar gun. That’s what the veterans in this rotation point to when they discuss their optimism around Manoah, who could take an already-great rotation to the top of the league.

“The biggest thing is how effortless pitching is to him again,” Chris Bassitt said about Manoah. “I don’t want to speak for him, because I know he was going through a lot of stuff last year, but I would say that the biggest thing is he’s not thinking about mechanics.

"He’s just pitching. Just playing catch, I’m like, ‘Man, last year you were thinking about a slider, thinking about what he was doing with a sinker.’ Now? It’s just playing catch, having fun.”

The past year has been a harsh lesson for Manoah, but for a pitcher like Bassitt who has been around the league and seen how failure works, there’s nothing scary about it.

“So many people look at a negative season or getting kicked in the teeth as a bad thing. I think it’s a great thing,” Bassitt said. “How strong he is mentally [now], I don’t think he was that strong last year. He’s been through it now.

"What you say or what happens, I don’t think it’s going to faze him. The game has a beautiful way of humbling you and it has a beautiful way of making you even better than what you can be, as long as you view it as a positive. I think he has.”

The reviews hold weight coming from people like Bassitt and pitching coach Pete Walker, who aren’t ones for empty praise. Everyone involved still seems to believe the results will follow, and soon, which would make the comeback season Manoah has his sights set on easier to envision.