Coming into Alek Manoah’s MLB debut, there were two ways to conceptualize his readiness for the level.
On one hand, the big right-hander had just 35 minor-league innings on his resume, and the Toronto Blue Jays’ dire need for a starter motivated his promotion. It would’ve been justifiable to assume he was a bit too green to tangle with the New York Yankees.
Alternatively, Manoah’s minor-league track record would look far different if 2020 hadn’t been wiped out by the pandemic — and he was simply too good for Triple-A in his three outings there, posting a 0.50 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 18 innings this year. He’s also a 23-year-old two years out of college, not an extremely young phenom with maturity concerns.
While a single start isn’t a definitive promise that one side is more correct than the other, Manoah put his thumb on the scale in a 2-0 win. The right-hander threw six innings of shutout ball where he struck out more hitters (7) than base runners allowed (4), and held the Bronx Bombers to a pitiful 80.1 mph average exit velocity when they did make contact.
The results weren’t the only thing impressive about the rookie, either. Early on it was apparent that his stuff was playing against MLB hitters. His four-seamer averaged an impressive 94.9 — which would rank 39th among qualified pitchers and its spin rate of 2475 would rank 25th in the same set of qualifiers. For reference, that’s approximately the velocity of Germán Márquez and the spin of Max Scherzer.
His heater wasn’t the only pitch that impressed, either. Just 1.1 innings into his career, he’d already struck out a hitter on three different pitches:
The changeup, in particular, was a pleasant surprise because the book on Manoah coming into the game was that it was behind his other offerings. It certainly didn’t look that way on Thursday as the pitch had serious fading movement and elicited three whiffs and one ball in play — which was a harmless flyout.
In Manoah’s six innings there was only one moment when he seemed out of his depth. That came when the first batter he faced, DJ LeMahieu, saw four consecutive balls on pitches well outside the strike zone:
From that point on he walked just one batter, and the only base hits he allowed were a pair of Miguel Andujar singles that averaged 73.6 mph off the bat. There were a few moments when his command could’ve been nitpicked, but whenever Manoah lost the zone he found it quickly, and his stuff was good enough that he didn’t need to constantly paint the corners.
This performance will generate plenty of enthusiasm, and rightly so. Manoah went up against a tough lineup, in a hitter’s park, and didn’t allow a single Yankee to reach scoring position. He allowed just one ball hit harder than 100 mph, and the farthest ball off him went 372 feet to straightaway centre — nowhere near a home run. There’s only so much you can learn about a pitcher from a single outing, but it’s tough to identify a box the 23-year-old didn’t check.
Not only is the performance encouraging for Manoah — and his now-famous cheering section — it’s significant to a Blue Jays team with two obvious holes in its starting rotation. The southpaw trio of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, and Steven Matz has been excellent. No one else has been able to provide quality innings, an issue that’s trickled down to a bloated yet overworked bullpen. If Manoah can plug one of the leaks, it will have a sizable positive effect on the whole staff — and have the Blue Jays feeling good about their chances in at least 80 percent of the games they play. It’s premature to say he’s going to take up that mantle and be a bastion of stability, but betting against him doesn’t seem wise either.
Prior to Thursday, there were questions about Manoah’s ability to get MLB hitters out. Now we know the righty can dominate them. In the weeks to come, we’ll find out if he’s capable of doing it consistently.
If what he showed in his debut is a reflection of what comes next, the Blue Jays have found themselves a game changer.
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