MINNEAPOLIS -- An excessive heat warning went into effect in the Twin Cities Tuesday night. There was no such message when Matt Manning was on the mound Monday.
Manning got the message from pitching coach Chris Fetter and manager A.J. Hinch about his reliance on his power four-seam fastball at times over his first six Major League starts. So he made a couple of tweaks last week.
First, he made a slight change to the grip on his curveball -- a very effective pitch for him on his way up the Tigers' system -- but a secondary pitch for him behind his slider in his previous few starts.
"I just closed my fingers up a little bit so I can kind of spin it a little better," Manning said.
That little adjustment made a big difference. Manning’s curveballs averaged 2,347 rpm in spin rate Monday and accounted for three of his four strikeouts, though he also hung one for Brent Rooker’s home run that sailed 460 feet in the sixth inning. By comparison, his curves are averaging 2,230 rpm this season, according to Statcast. He also had five more inches of vertical break on the curve compared to his season average.
“It’s just another thing I can use when something doesn’t feel as good and just have more weapons at my disposal,” Manning said.
The second adjustment was a new pitch -- a sinker that Manning had just started working on between starts.
“Yeah, I learned a two-seam,” Manning said, almost matter-of-factly. “I worked on it a couple days ago, so I broke it out [Monday].”
And did he ever. According to Statcast, Manning threw 21 sinkers, more than anything else in his widening arsenal.
“He’s been working on it a little bit to try to find a way to get the ball into righties,” Hinch said. “He’s got a tendency to yank the ball glove side to righties with his four-seamer, so [Fetter] and him in these last couple 'pens, he’s been trying to implement it. …
“It’s been a work in progress. We’re trying to form a well-rounded pitch mix for him and how to use his weapons against different styles. He may not use his two-seamer next weekend against Baltimore. It just kind of depends on the lineup. But with [Minnesota’s] predominantly right-handed lineup, it was going to be a big pitch for him, and he stepped up and used it.”
Manning’s ability to work in both the sinker and the retinkered curveball so quickly and effectively, Hinch said, speaks to his athleticism and work ethic. It's partly the product of being the son of a former NBA center, and the same traits that allowed him to transition from being primarily a basketball player for much of high school to a more polished pitcher by the time he made it to the Majors.
They’re traits that have the Tigers confident Manning is a much better pitcher than the numbers suggest in a small simple size.
“He can do a lot of things when asked,” Hinch said. “The curveball was the best he’s had since he’s been a big leaguer. That’s progress. The slider is coming. The changeup, he’s got a ton of confidence in. So that’s a true four-pitch pitcher with room to grow and get better. So we’re excited with where he’s headed, and the fact that he’s willing to adapt along the way tells me a lot about him.”