Alek Manoah strives for consistency as a person and evolution as a pitcher
Journey back to Blue Jays relevancy is a long and grinding road
Much can be revealed about a young athlete by observing the way he celebrates the emotional highs of early-career success. Far more can be learned about character of that same athlete by the way he handles sudden, inexplicable and inevitable failure. Such has been the case with 25-year-old Alek Manoah and his current journey back to a position of trust in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation.
Thus far, with the Jays, it’s been a nose-bleed journey for the Homestead (FL) native, starting with the highs of his surprising first two MLB seasons, now to the lows of this year, when expectations entering 2023 were likely too-high, too-soon.
Manoah is back in the Blue Jays rotation, having made his third post-demotion start on Sunday after a month in baseball purgatory, hunkered down at the Player Development Complex in Dunedin (FL) looking to re-discover what others thought he had become, as a pitcher, while trying to remain what he knew he was as a person. It’s not been totally smooth sailing, but the waters around him have calmed immensely.
“You can get caught up in a few bad starts, but for me it’s looking, more, big picture,” Manoah explained recently. “I’ve been in love with this game since I’ve been three years old. It’s the only thing that I’ve ever wanted to do.
“I plan on playing this game for a long time, so there’s going to be times where there are ups; there’s going to times where there are downs. For me, it’s looking at the big picture. I know there’s a lot more in the tank; a lot more to grow from and learn from, so I’m just going to take this (minor-league) experience and use it as a tool to try and get better.”
How far can one man’s star plummet in a year? Twelve months ago, Manoah was trending positive. He was the toast of the major-league all-star game in Los Angeles, wired for sound and high on performance, exchanging peer-to-peer banter with Hall-of-Fame pitcher and current broadcaster John Smoltz, as the sophomore Jays’ sensation struck out three National League hitters and danced off the mound, celebrating “three punchies” with Smoltz and a national TV audience. He had seemingly arrived and, from that point, everyone wanted a piece of the big man.
That success continued through the 2022-23 off-season on what was seen as the sure road to Manoah stardom. Four months after that all-star game break-out, the larger-than-life Floridian joined Justin Verlander of the Astros and Dylan Cease of the White Sox on the final ballot as three finalists for the 2022 AL Cy Young, announced live on MLB Network. The fact Manoah finished third did little to take away from the fact his star was ascending and that, after just two huge seasons of personal and professional progress at warp speed, the best of Manoah was yet to come.
Then came opening day and Manoah’s rockstar status began to crumble. Doubt seeped in from inside, outside, all sides. Honoured to be 2023 lead dog in the Jays’ rotation ahead of Kevin Gausman at the top of a deep and experienced group, the first-round draft pick, 11th overall, in 2019, suffered a setback on Opening Day then struggled through April, falling off the performance cliff in May.
Manoah posted two good starts among his first 13 outings, each comprising seven shutout innings, with one other outing that was solid. In his 10 other assignments, Manoah was 0-7, 9.16 ERA, allowing 59 hits and 36 walks in 38.1 innings.
Finally, a day after allowing six runs vs. the Astros, while recording just one out, on June 6, the axe fell on Manoah’s season. A deeply considered decision was made to send the puzzling righthander to the lowest level of the minor-league system, the Florida Complex League, not as punishment but as the best chance to rebuild his delivery and polish his mechanics. It was a lesson in building that the Jays had learned by taking advantage and then trusting a 21st Century route for development, that began with the Alternate Site in Rochester (NY) during the pandemic year, 2020. His head seemed lost in space, so maybe take a step back to return to where he was without using the traditional options to Buffalo or New Hampshire.
“The biggest thing is it’s not really re-inventing,” Manoah reasoned. “It’s getting back to what makes me really good. Just throughout some of the season I created a little bit of some bad habits, mechanically. Just being able to put a pause on the season. It’s never something you want to do. I was able to do that and just focus on the mechanics, not the competing part. Just really get comfortable with that, then be able to get in a good rhythm and get going.”
Manoah’s “got-nowhere-to-go-but-up” moment arrived on a blazing hot June afternoon on a lonely diamond at the Yankees’ minor-league complex in Tampa, observed by about two dozen front office, development types, poking and prodding his contra-performance with a variety of high-tech gadgets that probably would have pushed Greg Maddux to throw harder.
Facing a lineup of teens and 20-somethings, all salivating at the thought of taking their best rips at a bonafide major-leaguer so they could call their parents later and brag about crushing a Manoah fastball, he stumbled that day and fell to the bottom of his personal well of tears. He had finally reached rock-bottom. He could not compete for seven outs that day. The question was, how would he react?
“I pitched in the lab before and I felt like it’s good, especially for things like this,” Manoah shrugged off that lone Complex result. “When things need to be tweaked you kind of go back to what you were when you were at your best. I think that was the big part for me, was being able to compare where I was in ’21 and ’22, mechanically, to where I was at the beginning of the year and being able to see some of those adjustments that I needed to make.”
The pitching line was unfortunate and had the Twitter-verse all atwitter. But because of his previous success in the majors, he was able to handle it. Adjustments!
Back in ’21, following the final Jays game of his rookie season, as Manoah was leaving the clubhouse headed to the airport, he was encouraged by a co-worker what a pleasure it was to work with him. The request was to remain that same kid, no matter where he went as his career unfolded. However change and evolution are not the same and although he feels he is the same person, he needed to evolve as a pitcher.
“That’s the name of the game, especially in baseball,” Manoah shrugged. “Having the ability to make adjustments. You look at some of the greats. Greg Maddux, when he first started, he was throwing hard. He evolved throughout his career. You look at CC Sabathia when he was in his prime. He had to make adjustments to continue to stay in the game longer. I just think everybody has to make adjustments in this game. I feel like who I am as a person isn’t going to change and that’s not results based, that’s not performance based, that’s just who I am.”
There was plenty of head scratching and fan angst when he was sent down to the Complex. Reflecting the Complex part of the new league’s name, there was nothing simple about Manoah’s problems.
Some speculated about perhaps some lingering trouble Manoah may have had adjusting to the new MLB rules, especially the pressure of the accelerated pitch clock for a guy that liked to step off the mound and stare down hitters as he rubbed up a new baseball. Clearly, from the first games at spring training, he was not comfortable being on the clock. You need to focus on executing and not the peripherals.
“Where the pitch clock kind of gets in the way is sometimes just a natural reaction,” Manoah said. “They’re waiting till nine seconds and the catcher’s waiting until he gets in the box, so sometimes it’s kind of when you’re trying not to worry about the pitch clock, that’s when you can get caught up in it. The biggest thing is forget about the clock, forget about the hitter, forget about everything else. Sometimes you try not to think about the clock, but you’re shaking to a certain pitch and, all of a sudden, it’s four seconds. Now you’ve got to speed it up. The biggest thing is getting the ball early and being ready early and the catcher giving the sign early and then whenever the hitter gets in the box, at least we’re ready to go.”
Now when Manoah feels the urge to stonily stare down an opponent, he does it from high ground atop the mound. A simple example of his personal evolution.
Three starts have gone by, first in Detroit, then vs. the Padres and Sunday in Seattle. Three starts and less than 300 pitches do not a comeback make. Yes, his start at the Tigers, a week after the Complex League debacle, was encouraging. Then came the Padres game with no strikeouts, even though rookie umpire Malachi Moore stole a pair of strike threes that finally prompted Pete Walker to choose ejection. Most recently came the Sunday start in Seattle, a game the Jays desperately needed to win after losing the first two and six in a row in the Pacific Northwest. They won 4-3, with Manoah going 5.1 innings with no decision.
Is that progress? Yes. Earlier in the season, if he had allowed a two-run homer in the second inning like he did on Sunday, he may have crumbled, but in front of a full house of Jays fans, he held it together and worked into the sixth, competing on the majority of his pitches, with numerous swings and misses. Nothing is guaranteed, but the task of turning it around, bad to good within the same season, is far tougher than what Jose Berrios and to a lesser extent, Yusei Kikuchi accomplished from 2022 to ’23.
“What people say on the outside, for me is just outside noise,” Manoah said. “Everyone in my support system and around the clubhouse knows I’m doing everything to be, not only the best pitcher that I can be, but the best person that I can be, the best teammate, the best family member. That, to me, means more than what outside people are saying.”
Manoah has needed a short memory when it comes to recovering from failure. He remembers that one time when he was at an all-time low after the wild-card loss to the M’s last October. He remembers sitting with his head down at his locker, then sensing the approach of three-year old Sadie Gausman, who saw him sad and went to wrap her arms around him. He immediately snapped out of it. Those are the moments that he feels allow him to leave bad starts behind before he leaves the clubhouse.
“That was amazing and sometimes moments like that, or going home to my fiancée or talking to my parents. They understand that baseball is what I do, it’s not who I am,” Manoah added. “A bad day is not going to shape who I am as a person. I’ve just got to continue to adjust from it, to learn from it, try not to get too high, try not to get too low. Just stay consistent.”
The Jays are not completely sold on Manoah’s eventual comeback to where he was as a rookie and sophomore. For the final two months, they have a variety of plans that don’t necessarily 100-percent rely on Manoah success. Veteran Hyun Jin Ryu is set to return to action in August, after a year off, which will leave manager John Schneider with six viable starters.
Option one: he can ride the six-man rotation and give much-needed extra rest to everyone. Option two: He can drop one of either Manoah or Ryu and still be at the standard five-men, if either starter stumbles. Option three: The Jays may go out and get another starter by the deadline, which is the least likely option.
No matter what the outcome on the stat sheet, it’s been good to see Manoah choose to grab the lifeline that was thrown him and do his best to drag himself out of a career quicksand that, in many instances, has swallowed other young pitchers that similarly had it all early in their careers and then failed.
This is a situation, where over the last 60 games and how the Jays handle the rotation, it will ultimately determine whether they will be playing deep into October.