Manning scrutinizing arsenal after three tough starts

August 6th, 2023

DETROIT -- Tigers manager A.J. Hinch stood on the podium in the interview room at Comerica Park four weeks ago and talked about what a combined no-hitter against the Blue Jays could do for and a career that has had its share of stops and starts.

“He can hold his head up pretty high based on how he pitched against a really good offense,” Hinch said after that performance. “What a great outing.”

It feels more like last week than a month ago. And yet, the way Manning has pitched since then, it somehow also feels longer.

Manning’s 6 2/3 hitless innings on July 8 came as part of a string of 27 homerless innings over a seven-start stretch. When Brandon Lowe crushed Manning’s first-pitch curveball 429 feet to straightaway center field in the fourth inning of Sunday’s 10-6 loss to the Rays at Comerica Park, it marked the sixth homer Manning has allowed over his past three starts. By the time his line was finished Sunday, he had allowed eight runs (six earned), one less than his career high. His nine hits allowed marked his highest total since last August against the White Sox.

The hits generally weren’t cheap, either. Tampa Bay put 10 balls in play off Manning with exit velocities of 100 mph or higher, led by Yandy Díaz’s second-inning homer to left-center at 108.6 mph. The Rays’ average exit velocity of 94.5 mph off Manning was 2 mph harder than his average fastball velocity of 92.5 mph.

For someone who was unhittable not so long ago, Manning has become surprisingly hittable, and he’s trying to figure out how to correct it.

“I just thought my mechanics were a little out of whack today, didn’t feel like I had my best stuff overall,” Manning said. “And I just think maybe some of these lineups are making adjustments to me, and I have to look at it and make an adjustment and get back at it.”

Part of what made Manning so effective in the no-hitter was his ability to mix all his pitches. He threw a near-equal rate of fastballs, sliders and curveballs, playing the latter two off each other. The combination didn’t generate many swings and misses, but it kept Toronto’s dangerous hitters from squaring him up. Just three balls in play reached exit velocities of 100+ mph, and two were on the ground.

After the All-Star break, Manning came back and threw 5 2/3 solid innings in Kansas City with a similar mix, utilizing slightly more fastballs. He threw two scoreless innings against the Padres next time out before rain ended his outing prematurely.

Since then, though, Manning has given up 17 earned runs on 24 hits over 16 2/3 innings in three starts. He has racked up 14 strikeouts against just two walks in that stretch, but while he has pounded the strike zone, opposing hitters have in turn pounded his strikes, many of those pitches closer to the middle of the plate than the corners.

Shohei Ohtani crushed two Manning fastballs for homers on July 27, a game in which Angels hitters averaged a 101.5 mph exit velocity off his fastball. His four other homers over that stretch have come on breaking pitches, part of a larger trend.

Pirates hitters averaged a 95.5 mph exit velocity off Manning’s slider in his last start on Aug. 1, even though more than half of his pitches that night were fastballs. On Sunday, he threw a heavy dose of sliders early, and utilized 42 percent sliders over the course of the game. Díaz hit sliders for his leadoff double in the first inning and his two-run homer in the second, and hit them exactly the same distance -- 410 feet, according to Statcast.

“I made adjustments coming in,” Manning said. “People knew I was a heavy fastball guy coming into this, so I tried to make an adjustment and had some success. And it looks like they’re adjusting to me and the way I’m pitching, so I have to fine-tune that and make an adjustment on my own.”

Manning said he might need to throw in more fastballs and curveballs to counter opponents’ adjustments. The Rays took more of his fastballs for strikes (12) than they swung at (11), but they still averaged a 95.9 mph exit velocity against the pitch.

Manning’s task gets no easier; he’s in line to make his next start in Boston next weekend as the Tigers try to shake their struggles against the AL East, having fallen to 4-18 against the division.