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A theory on Sean Manaea's tough start against the Sox

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A possible explanation to why Manaea's stuff looked so flat.

He might not have looked good, but at least he looked good.
He might not have looked good, but at least he looked good.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

There's been a lot of talk about Sean Manaea's stuff thus far. Obviously, the sample is small and he's in his rookie year, but the results have been brutal. More important than results, his stuff just hasn't looked all that impressive. His fastball seems flat, his slider doesn't break much, his change has been good but inconsistent. The results shouldn't mean much to anyone just yet, but the disappointing stuff is where we can draw some serious concern.

Sometimes, a change in stuff can be an indicator of something else going on. Maybe Manaea's nervous, maybe he's got something wrong mechanically, maybe he's changed his philosophy, or maybe all three.

As a prospect, Manaea was always thought to have plenty of ability. Where he lacked refinement was his control and command. Scouting reports repeatedly noted how he sometimes lost the zone and in his limited time in the minors, he did show some wildness. That lack of control is likely a reason he started the year in Nashville, although there's more to it than just that.

At any rate, you can bet the A's had a focus on Manaea's ability to find the strikezone. The team and scouts alike were wowed in Spring Training by Manaea, but the seven walks allowed in 14 innings were a cause for at least a bit of concern. In his three AAA starts, the walks weren't a problem (only two per nine innings) and the results were great. Thus, along with a rotation that severely needed a boost, the A's called up Manaea to the big league club.

The Red Sox start

Fast forward two mediocre starts to Tuesday night. Manaea pitched poorly, giving up two dingers and eight total runs in under three innings. He did this all in an astounding 41 pitches, 31 of which were strikes. That's....kind of insane. In the third inning, the frame where Manaea managed just two outs while giving up five runs, he only threw nine total pitches. Nine. Again, insane number indicating Manaea was shelled early and often.

For anyone that watched, this isn't exactly a surprise. It felt like every pitch was launched and for the most part, they were. Here's the counts in which at bats against Manaea ended on Tuesday night.

Pitch Count Result Notes
Fastball 0-0 Homerun
Slider 0-0 Double
Fastball 0-1 Lineout Ball was smoked
Change 0-1 Single
Slider 0-1 Groundout
Fastball 0-2 Single Lucky hit
Fastball 0-2 Strikeout
Fastball 1-0 Single Lucky hit
Change 1-0 Groundout
Fastball 1-1 Double
Fastball 1-1 GIDP
Slider 1-2 Groundout
Fastball 2-1 Single
Slider 2-2 Homerun

Not a single three ball count, and only one count beyond three pitches. That's pretty nuts.

Ok, so what's your point?

My theory here, and I don't have much to back this up other than just a hunch, is that Manaea's new ability to limit walks is actually hurting his him as he's sacrificing movement to find the strike zone, and in the process is throwing very hit-able pitches. Here's where Manaea's 41 pitches went on Tuesday.

Manaea red sox

Again, if you watched, no surprise here. Manaea lived in the middle of the zone, particularly early in the count and was punished dearly for doing so.

It strikes me as odd that a guy who has a reputation for having poor control basically couldn't miss the center of the zone. My thought is that Manaea sacrificed stuff for location in an attempt to steal early strikes. It would explain why his pitches looked straight and why he was able to throw the ball in the hitting zone with such ease. A guy who has poor control typically would have problems doing so, unless he made a conscious effort and change in the process.

This might work in AAA and maybe even sometimes in the bigs. Pitchers do it on a daily basis, some hitters will take even the meatiest pitches down the middle early in the count. The Red Sox philosphy clearly was to jump on early strikes, and they did so with great results.

Is there much to back this up?

Unfortunately, not a ton. It's a small sample within a small sample of course, so no matter what, take caution with any of this analysis.

Per PitchF/X, Manaea's stuff was fairly consistent throughout the day. He had a few fastballs with lots of rise, but most looked like the 0-0 he threw to Hanley Ramirez that ended in a long, long dinger. He did throw a few gems, like the 0-2 fastball that struck out Dustin Pedroia but he wasn't wildly inconsistent.

It's possible he just hung everything, like that 2-2 pitch Mookie Betts took over the monster. It just doesn't strike me as quite right that a guy who had a problem with walks before can suddenly find the center of the zone while looking fairly unimpressive. Maybe Manaea just didn't have it and was throwing hanger after hanger, or maybe he was taking something off to try and cut down on walks.

At any rate, it's at least in part fixable. Manaea pitched like a rookie on Tuesday. Hitters routinely jumped on early pitches, yet Manaea kept feeding the middle of the plate with no variation. Some of that is on Stephen Vogt, some on Curt Young. Hopefully his next time out, we'll see more movement from Manaea to varied locations which will keep opposing hitters' on their toes.