Alek Manoah’s stunning 2023 season took another unexpected turn Tuesday in his first game in the Florida Complex League.
Pitching in a Minor League game for the first time since the Blue Jays optioned him to their complex in Dunedin, Fla., following a rough start to the season, Manoah allowed 11 runs on 10 hits (including two home runs) over just 2 2/3 innings in Tampa against the Yankees' FCL affiliate.
“The things that we were talking about, in terms of strike throwing, delivery, tempo, velocity, was all positive,” said manager John Schneider. “The rest of the stuff, you can take it with a grain of salt. You factor today into it, but we’re very pleased with the work that he’s put in. Results aside today, the stuff that we’ve been talking about, he’s going in the right direction.”
Until Tuesday, Manoah had primarily been pitching in simulated games against Blue Jays prospects or in the club’s pitching lab, a high-tech corner of the organization’s new complex outfitted with advanced cameras, computers and other resources while Toronto's staff watched. It’s a toy factory for player development people and the analytics crew, and it should be the perfect place to rebuild Manoah.
Numbers from the FCL can’t be taken too literally, of course, particularly in a development case like Manoah's. The Blue Jays are trying to help their Opening Day starter find himself again, and on this field at the Yankees’ complex, Manoah could have been working on any number of specific things. These outings are typically done with very specific goals that go beyond “get guys out," leaving the box score to be a secondary consideration, but numbers like these can’t be ignored entirely.
“Yeah, you want the results to be great, but I think you’re also just focusing on things that he’s been working on the last couple of weeks,” Schneider said. “Hopefully, in the next one, he can build a little bit of momentum. But we’re pleased with the stuff he’s been working on that he did in the game today.”
The FCL is the first taste of pro ball for many young players, particularly international prospects who have spent a year or two at their club’s complex or in the Dominican Summer League (DSL), for example. The hitters Manoah faced Tuesday ranged from 17-20 years old, with most falling in that 18-19 range. The same goes for Manoah’s defenders, of course, so he didn’t exactly have Matt Chapman playing behind him. But part of his path back to the Majors needs to include onfield success and a resurrection of the confidence that made him one of baseball’s best.
Just a year ago, Manoah finished third in voting for the American League Cy Young Award with a 2.24 ERA over 196 2/3 innings.
This season has been quite different, though, as the big right-hander posted a 6.36 ERA over 13 starts. Manoah was being too fine at times, trying to throw the perfect pitch at the perfect time instead of hammering away aggressively. Walks were suddenly an issue, too, with 42 in just 58 innings, nearly tripling his walk rate from a year ago. He looked completely unlike himself on the mound, making the move to the complex a sensible one, regardless of how rare a blueprint this is.
Manoah’s return -- a successful one, that is -- might be the biggest factor for the Blue Jays’ success in 2023. Toronto’s thin pitching depth has left it leaning on bullpen days in his absence, riding the group of Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi harder than the club would like. Hyun Jin Ryu is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and could be an option for the stretch run, but this whole thing was supposed to work with Manoah at the front, leading the pack like the modern workhorse he was last year.
From here, Manoah will clearly need some more outings to get back on track and build momentum. That next start is expected to come in either the FCL or with the Dunedin Blue Jays, the club’s Single-A affiliate which would represent a step up in competition from whom Manoah competed with and against Tuesday.
Hitting the “reset” button was a difficult decision for both Manoah and the organization, but now they’re in the place where it still has to work. Tuesday’s box score can’t be given too much weight here, but it’s clear that there is still a long way to go in this comeback story.