The Eyeball Scout knows that eyes alone only tell you so much. The eye-bone is connected to the brain-bone and even the Eyeball Scout needs to add logic, inference, and common sense to the visual impression. In other words -- ones you can understand, even -- sometimes the hitters tell you what your fastball was like, what your slider is doing, how good your changeup is, regardless of how it looks at a glance.
For example, you won't see an Eyeball Scout report that says, "Noted for throwing his fastball with 2,250 RPMs of back spin, tonight his fastball really looked like it was topping out at 1,900 RPMs." Here's what the Eyeball Scout observed Friday night from Sean Manaea...
Manaea's fastball gets on the hitters quickly, suggesting that his slightly 3/4 delivery may hide the ball well out of his hand. Manaea topped out at 95 MPH last night but was mostly sitting at 92-93 MPH, which is solid but also not anything like the 97 MPH reported in other starts. Perhaps Manaea was making a conscious effort to focus on location and not being over-amped, or maybe he just didn't have his very best fastball that night. Regardless, it was plenty for the hitters to handle when he was able to locate it.
One minor concern would be that what did in Manaea, and soon after Sean Doolittle as well, was that the Astros fouled off so many two-strike pitches. It was surprising because of all teams Houston is prone to striking out, and yet they were extremely difficult to put away. Eyeballing it, I was inclined to give credit to the Astros hitters more than to worry that the stuff didn't play, but one would expect more "put away" going forward from Manaea's fastball and slider.
I will confess I was a bit underwhelmed by the slider last night and hope that with his big-league debut in the rear view mirror, perhaps we will see a better pitch next time out. Several times Manaea tried to throw it backdoor for a strike but it just looped vaguely near the outside corner. When he did execute it, mostly what he got was Houston hitters watching it for a ball and not chasing it.
A key element to any starting pitcher's long term success is the ability to deceive. You hope batters can't recognize the slider early enough to lay off of it as it flirts with the strike zone on its way to the back foot. Last night, too often the slider was an easy take.
I was very impressed with Manaea's changeup and wish he had thrown it a bit more. He fooled Carlos Correa badly to end the 1st inning (update: eyeball fail, that was actually a slider) and had George Springer way out on the front foot tapping it back to the mound to end the 3rd. In contrast to the slider, with the changeup Manaea appeared to get first-rate deception with batters reacting to a fastball only to have their swing break down midway.
Colby Rasmus was the only left-handed batter in the lineup against Manaea and so far this season Rasmus is just locked in. His OBP for the season is over .400 and his slugging over .600, but perhaps more impressively he is staying right on even quality pitches.
As a result, Rasmus had pretty good at bats against Manaea but regardless, what I saw last night was a pitcher who might be especially dominant against LHs. His release point should be very hard to pick up from the left side, the breaking ball will be a chase pitch and the fastball will tie up LHs inside as they protect against the slider. I could see Manaea being consistently great against LHs.
It was his major league debut, folks, and we got about what we all expected, or should have expected, and that includes some wobbling in Manaea's biggest area of concern: control and command. Four walks and HBP in 5+ IP pretty much tells the story.
There were times Manaea showed good command and times it just left him. This is consistent with his overall scouting profile, but as far as last night goes I would chalk it up more to the "big league debut" factor than to anything else.
What I would like to see Manaea change, as he settles in and hopefully gains more ability to execute his plan, is to bust the RH batters in more on the hands. He tried with Evan Gattis but didn't get the ball in enough and Gattis took him over the wall. Maybe that left Manaea gun shy about coming inside, I don't know, but it looks to me as if Manaea has the kind of fastball that if he gets it in on the hitter it will tie them up before they can adjust. That also opens up the changeup away to be even more devastating.
Mostly, I think with more effective work on the inner half, perhaps some of those fastballs fouled off might be swing-throughs. The Astros hitters were just too able to hold their own on the middle-to-outer part of the plate, but I think Manaea can change that and turn some of those foul balls into swinging strikes.
The other area where I could see improvement is in emulating Doolittle's game of elevating the fastball above the strike zone. Manaea's and Doolittle's fastball have a lot in common, coming at strong velocity from the left side with a reputation for being difficult to track (possibly a result of the high-RPM factor and/or release point).
Manaea threw a lot of high fastballs, but stayed in the zone instead of just above it. Again, some of those crucial two-strike fouls might have been swinging third strikes had the ball been elevated just a bit more. He had them swinging, just not missing.
Take away the debut-jitters and you might see a bit better command, though this will probably be an ongoing issue for a while. Move the fastball "in" and "up" better and throw the changeup more, and you might see fewer foul balls and more swinging strikes. The slider looks like a work-in-progress and it may be a while before batters can eliminate it rather than chasing it out of the zone.
I would give Manaea's debut itself a "B" but going forward? I think there's a lot to work with and that for a while, with just a few key adjustments even as primarily a "fastball-changeup" pitcher Manaea could be pretty successful. I'm excited, and also mindful we are witnessing raw talent that is as raw as it is talented. Patience, grasshopper; by the All-Star break we might really have something.