Thursday, December 9 2021

CHICAGO — The Detroit Tigers need Matt Manning.

The 23-year-old proved this fact Saturday — the final outing of his rookie season — by posting a dominant performance against the American League Central-leading Chicago White Sox.

Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada have carried Chicago’s offense to an ALDS bid, where they will square off with the Houston Astros to begin their journey to the World Series.

But facing Manning at his best, the White Sox were no match.

“We’re building a little bit of a rivalry with this team,” Manning said Saturday, after pitching five scoreless innings on two hits, one walk and a career-high seven strikeouts in a 5-4 loss. “Where we want to be, that’s where they’re at. That’s what we’re coming for.”

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Detroit Tigers starter Matt Manning pitches against the Chicago White Sox during the second inning at Comerica Park in Detroit, Sunday, July 4, 2021.Detroit Tigers starter Matt Manning pitches against the Chicago White Sox during the second inning at Comerica Park in Detroit, Sunday, July 4, 2021.

Detroit Tigers starter Matt Manning pitches against the Chicago White Sox during the second inning at Comerica Park in Detroit, Sunday, July 4, 2021.

The Tigers hope to dethrone the White Sox from their reign atop the division. To do so, they’ll need to consistently hush an offense that’s one swing away from injecting life into the entire lineup. Rookie pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal already planted the foundation for their statuses as frontline starters, but Manning’s development is crucial.

“We needed him to take a step forward, and we needed him a part of this team moving forward,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Saturday. “He’s a really good young pitcher. He learned a lot. It was trial by fire with when we called him up.

“He took the challenge head-on. He had some peaks, had some valleys. He learned a lot. He’s got a great opportunity to reflect back on a successful season, and I think he’s got a great chance to step forward next year.”

Because of injuries in June, the door opened to bring Manning to the big leagues for the first time. The Tigers drafted him No. 9 overall in 2016, and after cruising through the minor leagues, the right-hander crashed into a roadblock in Triple-A Toledo: 8.07 ERA, 10 walks and 36 strikeouts over 32⅓ innings in seven games.

“I think I always was able to pitch here,” Manning said. “I had to prove it to myself. I’ve worked my whole life to get to the big leagues and to pitch here, so that’s something I can check off my list. Now it’s just trying to be the best big-leaguer I can be.”

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From left, pitchers Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Casey Mize pose for a photo during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.From left, pitchers Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Casey Mize pose for a photo during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

From left, pitchers Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Casey Mize pose for a photo during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

Manning made his MLB debut in June 17, although some folks were adamant he wasn’t ready.

At times, those naysayers were correct. It’s easy to remember the tough moments, like when Manning gave up six-or-more runs in four of his starts, or when he would get so frustrated that he lost his composure and slammed his glove into the bench in the dugout. There were games he lacked command and velocity. He used to throw too many four-seam fastballs — seemingly uncompetitive at times — because he didn’t trust his secondary weapons.

“Everybody’s got a memory on what happened the last couple times (Manning pitched vs. the White Sox),” Hinch said. “Once they got in the batter’s box tonight, they realized they were facing a little bit of a different pitcher than they saw five days ago.

“I think it all started with his fastball conviction. When he’s got that, he’s a completely different pitcher. He was in attack mode tonight, and that was impressive. I love that he ended his season with arguably his best stuff and best start.”

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Manning discovered how to fill up the strike zone, even if that meant getting hit sometimes. He threw first-pitch strikes at a 64.2% rate, compared to Mize’s 55.6% and Skubal’s 57.5% during their first MLB seasons in 2020. He put his pitches in the strike zone 53.6% of the time, with Mize at 46.4% and Skubal at 47.7% last year.

As a result, Manning finished with an 8.6% walk rate — not far behind Mize (6.7%) and Skubal (7.4%) in 2021. His 14.8% strikeout rate isn’t where he wants it to be, but for a rookie pitcher, avoiding an overwhelming number of walks needed to be his first breakthrough.

“I think I’ve always been able to throw strikes,” Manning said. “It’s just been more pitch sequencing, getting the experience, getting out of situations where I put myself into. It was the first time I really had some hard adversity throughout a full season. I’ve dealt with it, and it’s made me better.”

He rediscovered his 98 mph fastball of old in August, a product of pitching coach Chris Fetter working with him to become “more violent” with his delivery. They focused on getting his front foot to the ground before he rotates, rather than rolling through his throwing motion.

“They’ve kind of just matured,” Manning said of his mechanics. “I’ve found what works and what doesn’t work, just being able to know when I’m off track and getting back to that.”

Manning also focused on separating his curveball and slider, working a revamped slider — harder and tighter than his slurve — into his arsenal for the first time since 2019. He brought it back July 4 against the White Sox.

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He hadn’t completed six innings until July 21 against the Texas Rangers, when he appeared confident in his slider. He then added a new two-seam fastball July 26 against the Minnesota Twins. It was a pitch he developed “a couple days” before, a promising sign of his adaptability.

In his final bout of 2021, Manning threw 49 of 69 pitches for strikes to the White Sox. He turned to 35 four-seam fastballs (51%), 13 two-seam fastballs (19%), eight changeups (12%), eight sliders (12%) and five curveballs (7%). He generated his eight swings and misses on three two-seamers, two four-seamers, one changeup, one slider and one curveball.

His fastball averaged 94.8 mph and maxed out at 97.9 mph.

“I like where I’m at right now,” Manning said. “Fett and I are going to sit down and see where my next step is going forward. I know I have a lot of stuff that I can do that I haven’t tapped into yet, so I’m really relying on him and myself and everyone around me to get me to where I can be.”

Manning finished his first MLB season with a 5.80 ERA, 33 walks and 57 strikeouts over 85⅓ innings in 18 starts, giving him 117⅔ innings through a nonlinear progression — which ended on a high note — for the Mud Hens and Tigers in 2021.

“A lot of what’s happened over the last two years is because of not pitching last year (because of the COVID-19 pandemic) coming into this year,” Manning said. “Just a lot of ups and downs. I think I’ve taken a lot of steps forward and tried to get better. That’s what I prided myself on this year.

“I’m just really looking forward to next year.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Detroit Tigers rookie Matt Manning could step up in 2022

Source: Yahoo Sports

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