Another piece of the Tigers' puzzle locks into place.
No. 18 overall prospect Matt Manning will make his Major League debut on the mound for Detroit against the Angels on Thursday. He will join Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal -- fellow Top 100 prospects at the start of the year -- in the Tigers' rotation of both the future and, for now, the present.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander’s ascension comes out of necessity more than immediate merit at this stage of the season. Detroit is down two starting pitchers in the rehabbing Spencer Turnbull (right forearm strain) and the recently injured Matthew Boyd (left arm discomfort), and since the high-ceiling Manning was added to the 40-man roster last November, he was deemed by Tigers brass as the next-best option at Triple-A Toledo.
That’s important to note because Manning’s numbers at the Minors’ highest level have been rough to open 2021. His 8.07 ERA is the highest among all Triple-A qualifiers, in part because he has allowed 11 homers in 32 1/3 innings. That rate of 3.1 HR/9 is worst among all qualified Minor League pitchers.
Those scares aside, there are statistical reasons for hope here. Manning’s 6.9 percent walk rate is the lowest of his career with a full-season club. He has still managed 36 strikeouts in his 32 1/3 frames and has fanned 25 percent of the total batters he has faced. This is also a hurler who was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year in 2019, having posted a 2.56 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 148 strikeouts in 133 2/3 innings at Double-A Erie, so he has some previous upper-level success to fall back on.
Perhaps most importantly, Manning's most recent start on June 9 against Louisville was one of his best of the season. The 23-year-old scattered two earned runs on four hits and two walks while striking out a season-high eight over six innings. He threw 93 pitches, 54 for strikes. The outing gave the Tigers some optimism that they were getting Manning at the right time, despite his previous struggles.
When he’s on, there are many reasons why Manning can be considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.
He’ll hit the mid-90s regularly in his starts, though his velocity can be lower than that at times, and topped out at 97.1 mph during his time in Major League Spring Training camp this year. The pitch plays up because of Manning’s massive extension off the mound. He’ll average a little more than seven feet in the category, and that cuts down on the hitter’s reaction time as he gets even closer than most hurlers to the plate from the rubber.
His curveball can also earn plus grades at its peak because of its sharp vertical drop and ability to play off the heater, though the shape can waver. The changeup has been a point of emphasis since the Tigers took Manning ninth overall in 2016, and it’s developed to the point where it can be an above-average pitch.
Three above-average to plus pitches thrown from a massive frame will typically make for a good starting pitching prospect, and the improved control throughout Manning’s career has only helped that assessment. But in noting how hittable the right-hander has been this season, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said it might be throwing strikes with the curve that will determine just how good Manning can be at the top level.
“His velocity has ticked up a little bit towards the end of his outings, and we’ve got to get him into his outing with his best stuff,” Hinch said Tuesday, according to MLB.com’s Jason Beck. “He’s eased into it velocity-wise and execution-wise. The pitch that’s really a separator for him is his breaking ball. He’s always in between curveball and slider. He’s got to find the right mix and the right feel for when to throw it for a strike and when to throw a chase breaking ball as well.
“The velocity up top is a really good, effective pitch for him, but that all is predicated on throwing strikes with your other pitches. If you’re a high fastball pitcher, and there’s no other threat to throw a strike with another pitch, that puts you in a really tough spot against good hitters. So I think as the outing went on last time, he landed his breaking ball at a more effective rate and essentially made his 95-plus fastball be pretty good.”
Detroit had certainly hoped to make Manning part of its rotation at some time in 2021, even if the recent string of injuries pushed up that timeline. With Mize and Skubal already locked in, Manning can be the next pillar of the Tigers’ future set into the Major League rotation, if he shows his recent improvements are a true reflection of who he can be on the mound.