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Sean Manaea is succeeding despite lack of velocity

He’s barely averaging 90 mph on his fastball, but it’s working.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sean Manaea is back in action for the Oakland A’s after missing a full year to shoulder surgery. That news would be good enough on its own, as he was the team’s top starter when he got hurt, but it gets even more exciting: His results so far are some of the best we’ve ever seen from him.

The big left-hander has made three starts since his return, and they’ve each been excellent. He debuted with five scoreless innings while still working up his pitch count, then tossed seven sparkling frames his next time out, and then six scoreless yesterday.

  • 9/1 @ NYY: 5 ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 3 BB, 1 hit
  • 9/8 vs DET: 7 ip, 1 run, 10 Ks, 2 BB, 2 hits, 1 HR
  • 9/15 @ TEX: 6 ip, 0 runs, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 3 hits
  • Total: 0.50 ERA, 18 ip, 21 Ks, 6 BB, 6 hits, 1 HR, 2.77 FIP

For context, one of the starts came against the mighty Yankees, while the others were against a rebuilding Tigers squad and a struggling Rangers lineup — Detroit and Texas have been two of the three worst offenses in the majors in the second half of the season. That overall weak competition has probably helped Manaea’s fortunes, though he has at least faced one strong opponent. Plus, only one of his three outings came at home in the friendly Coliseum.

One way or other, though, these are still just small-sample results for now. They’re certainly encouraging, but 18 innings of work doesn’t tell us much of value, with all kinds of potential variables mixed in that can confound the data. Let’s take a look under the hood to see what else we can learn.

Perhaps the biggest question heading into Manaea’s return was his velocity. He was billed as throwing mid-90s as a prospect and averaged 92.9 mph in his rookie year, but as time went on he saw that number drop to 91.7 the next summer and then 90.4 in 2018. Granted, he was still able to succeed at those lower readings, as during his no-hitter last season he averaged 90.8 on his fastball and topped out at 92.5, but every extra tick helps. Would he recover some lost miles after his shoulder cleanup, stay around the same as we last saw him in 2018, or even lose some heat after an operation on the trickiest body part for a pitcher?

The answer has turned out to be in the middle. When he began his minor league rehab this year the reports were discouraging, pegging him in the mid-to-high-80s, but he moved back up beyond 90 as he racked up some Triple-A innings and built up his arm strength.

In Manaea’s first three innings against the Yankees he sat in the 91-93 range and topped at 94.4, but he ran out of gas in the next couple frames and was more like 90-91 in the 4th and 88-90 in the 5th. Against Detroit he tossed a couple 93s in the 1st inning again, then spent the next three innings around 89-91 and only hit 90 once in the final three frames. Against Texas he skipped the hard stuff entirely and topped out at 91.6 mph, fading back to 87-90 in the final two innings.

In other words, he appears to still be capable of dialing up as high as 94, but not for a whole outing. He seemed to pace himself better in his two latest starts, and finished them with averages of 89.8 and 89.4, respectively.

That’s not the velocity level that Athletics Nation was hoping to see from Manaea, but it’s sure working so far. And the results haven’t just been flukes of BABIP luck — he’s truly earning his outs, with lots of swinging strikes and weak contact. His Statcast xwOBA is a phenomenal .257, which would rank among the best starters in the majors over a full season (MLB starter average is .321).

Against the Tigers, Manaea induced a whopping 15 swinging strikes with his fastball, including the finishing pitch of seven of his 10 strikeouts. He didn’t get nearly that many whiffs in the other games but still picked up a few each time, and when batters did make contact they didn’t do much with it. The Yankees hit a couple loud grounders and a deep flyout, and the Tigers knocked a homer, but in each game the opponent only managed three hard-hit balls all day against the four-seamer (that’s 9-of-26 batted balls overall).

Even at an average of just 89.9 mph, Manaea’s fastball is working. It remains to be seen whether he can keep it up as the league makes its adjustments to him, but there’s no mirage in his early numbers, no laundry list of loud outs waiting to be exposed in a larger sample. He’s limited opponents to six hits in 18 innings because nobody has been able to put the barrel of the bat on his pitches — and in fact, two of those six hits were comebacker grounders that he deflected himself, and which would have otherwise been fielded routinely by his teammates if he’d just let them go past.

“Velo is what it is,” Manaea told me after his start against the Tigers. “I’m trying to throw hard again, but if it’s not there, I think it’s more about the conviction that I have with my pitches. Got a couple swings and misses with 89 [mph], and if that’s what it takes then that’s what I’ve got, so I can’t be greedy and be upset that I’m not throwing 95 or 97. I’m just working with what I’ve got.”

Of course, there’s more to pitching than just velocity. It’s probably the single most important trait, but there are many more pieces to the puzzle. A guy who throws 100 won’t get outs unless he can control it, and a guy who throws 95 can’t start without a couple good secondary offerings. Manaea brings a lot more to the table than just the number on the radar gun.

“For most guys [velocity is] important,” manager Bob Melvin told me after that same Tigers game. “For him it’s not as much, just because he’s so deceptive and he comes from an arm angle that guys aren’t used to seeing. And his changeup is a huge swing and miss pitch, so a lot of times they’re in front of the changeup and they’re behind the fastball. Whatever his velo is, it seems to play a little bit better, just because you’re not used to seeing that, and it kind of looks like it rises just a little bit and you see a lot of guys underneath it.”

Indeed, Manaea’s changeup and slider are both quality pitches that are working well so far. They’re each earning a whiff around 40% of the time that opponents swing at them, as they’ve done throughout his career. When opponents do make contact, nobody has hit the change even remotely hard, and only one of the seven batted balls against his slider was hit hard and in the air.

This clip does a good job showing what Melvin was talking about above. Six of the seven pitches seen here are either the slider or change, and all of them are delivered from his intimidating 6’5 frame and with his relatively unusual arm angle. My favorite pitch in this sequence is the one to Elvis Andrus, a backfoot slider that completely fools a right-handed hitter who is normally excellent at making contact. (Extra bonus for Manaea’s sweet no-look backhand play to field Ronald Guzman’s grounder.)

The one fastball in that clip is also worth noting, because of how high it was. I’ve noticed that Manaea is working mostly up in the zone with his fastball so far, though it remains to be seen if that’s intentional/permanent or just the way things have worked out so far in the small sample. It would make sense, though, both as a way to make the modest velocity play up, and as a way to change the hitter’s eyeline away from his lower offspeed/breaking stuff. You can see a few examples in this next clip against the Tigers:

Put it all together, and perhaps the original premise was flawed to begin with. We were worried about Manaea’s velocity even before he got hurt last year, but maybe he doesn’t need it after all, just as he didn’t in 2018, thanks to his two plus secondaries and his length and deception and command. Obviously any pitcher would become better if you added a couple miles to his heater, and Manaea could yet get gain more velo next year when he’s further removed from his surgery. But for now he’s succeeding, and even dominating at times, with an average of just around 90 mph on his fastball. Here’s hoping he can keep it up as the sample size increases, and as he faces tougher competition!