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The Baseball Space Jam: What Happened to Alek Manoah?

The Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays; Photo via Tim Gouw

I do not know the last time you saw the movie Space Jam, so here’s a quick refresher on the plot. These aliens come down to Earth and steal the talent from some of Earth’s greatest basketball players. An epic basketball showdown then pits those newly improved aliens against Looney Tunes characters. Sure, those Looney Tunes players just so happened to have the help of Michael Jordan, but let’s just focus on the first part about cartoon characters hooping. Anyways, I fear that the aliens might have made their way to the MLB, in hopes of a sequel (the remake is not a sequel). It seems they have found their first victim in Toronto.

Alek Manoah, the 6’6 right-hander from West Virginia University, placed 3rd in the Cy Young Voting in 2022, falling only behind Dylan Cease and the winner Justin Verlander. Manoah seemed like he was going to be the Blue Jays’ ace for many years to come. After all, he is only 24 years old and pitches to a young stud in catcher Alejandro Kirk, who is in the 93rd percentile for framing. Everything was going his way, and he even got the nod to be the Opening Day starter for the Blue Jays in 2023.

Manoah was sent back down to the minors on June 6th. Going from a Cy Young Award finalist and opening-day starter to a struggling pitcher sent back down to rookie camp is almost unheard of, especially in two months. For Blue Jays fans’ sake, I wish there is a clear reason for his shortcomings that is not Manoah’s fault. That is not the case. Looking at the numbers makes it clear where Alek Manoah’s struggles are coming from.

Let’s start with the basic stats:

Manoah, in 13 games started this year, has nearly triple his ERA from last year, an ERA+ nearly a third of what it was last season, and a WHIP that is closer to his 2022 ERA than his 2022 WHIP. He has almost matched his walk, home run, and earned run total from last year in less than half the games.

The short answer for what he is doing wrong: everything. He can not keep runners off base. The most revealing number is his WHIP. He is allowing nearly 2 baserunners per inning, which makes it almost impossible to win a game. Additionally, if you look at his per 9 stats, you can see the abysmal turn they have taken in the 2023 season. The only one that is close to what he did last year is his K/9, but in today’s game, that is probably the easiest one to maintain. While the 10.6 H/9 and 1.7 HR/9 are very, very bad, I want to focus on his BB/9 real quick. Looking back through his college and minor league stats, Manoah has never had a problem with control. In just 13 starts, he is 2nd in the league in walks allowed at 42. He sits behind only Jack Flaherty, who has 44 walks with 2 more starts and 22 more innings pitched than Manoah. Besides Brad Keller, Alek Manoah is the only pitcher in the top 30 for walks allowed with less than 60 innings pitched. Out of all the glaring problems, this is probably the worst.

Taking a look at the more advanced numbers does not paint a prettier picture. Here are Manoah’s Percentile Rankings in both 2022 and 2023:

For those who do not use Baseball Savant regularly, the higher the percentile, the better. In Alek Manoah’s All-Star 2022 season, we see almost all red. The middle-of-the-road K% and Whiff% tell us that he relies more on weak contact to get outs rather than strikeouts, which is in no way a bad thing. Manoah’s 92nd percentile Hard Hit Percentage and 80th percentile Barrel Percentage confirm that he was one of the best at limiting hard contact in 2022. So as long as his defenders behind him made routine plays, his success was almost guaranteed.

Fast forward to 2023, and Alek’s percentiles have plummeted. The things that once made him so great are now some of his biggest weaknesses. His Hard Hit Percentage has dipped down to the 26th percentile. I do not need to go through every single percentile in the images. The point is clear: he is not nearly as good this year as he was last year.

Some may think that maybe Manoah has just been getting unlucky. That is not unheard of. Some pitchers have had seasons where they do nothing wrong, but a slew of weak contact hits can make their numbers look terrible. I wish that was the case here, but it is not. It is hard to calculate “luck” accurately, but the best way to do it is to look at a player's expected stat versus his actual stats. Expected stats combine many things. They are far from an exact science and are all about probability. For example, the Apple TV+ broadcasts of MLB games show the hit probabilities in the bottom corner of the screen. That probability tells you the percent chance that the at-bat ends in a hit, and that percentage changes for every pitch that is thrown. Expected stats are just like that, except for an entire season. It is an educated guess that is made for a player’s final stat line, almost like a line of best fit, and it changes after every game played by the player. Alek Manoah’s xERA right now for 2023 is 6.84. His actual ERA is 6.36, suggesting that he is somehow overperforming right now, or getting “lucky”. Almost all of his other expected stats, xSLG, xWOBA, and xFIP, are higher than his actual stats. That is honestly rare because expected stats are so ambiguous. To make a short point long: no, Alek Manoah is not just getting unlucky.

Let’s take an even deeper dive and look at the individual pitches themselves.

This chart shows how often Manoah throws each pitch, as well as the average MPH for each pitch. If we look at his successful 2022 season, Manoa’s pitch distribution was relatively even. He threw his 4-seam fastball the most, followed by his slider and sinker at around the same percent, and then his changeup only about 10% of the time. Most pitchers have a go-to pitch for strikes that they throw 40-50% of the time. Manoah’s even spread of pitches would seemingly indicate that he is confident in his entire arsenal. After all, every one of his pitches had a negative run value in 2022 (read this article to learn more about run value). This season, Alek’s entire arsenal, except for his sinker, has become ineffective. Here are his run values by pitch in 2022 and 2023:

As mentioned before, Manoah’s 2022 numbers were elite. However, fast forward to 2023, and Manoah has almost all positive run values. These are significant jumps, too. Alek’s slider went up 18, and his fastball, his best pitch last year, went up 25 points. Unless the entire league started to train on how to hit Alek Manoah specifically, he is doing something different or has changed his mechanics to lose the dominance of his pitches. In terms of what he is throwing, he is throwing his sinker a lot more and his fastball a lot less. That makes sense. His sinker is the only pitch this year that has a negative run value. All of his pitches have also experienced a slight drop in average velocity, but those decreases are insignificant and not the cause of Manoah’s abysmal 2023 performance.

If velocity is not the problem, maybe the movement of his pitches is. Here are the spin scores of his pitches over the last two years, as well as the inches of drop and break of each of his pitches:

Manoah’s spin rates and movement have not changed much from 2022 to 2023. A good bit of them have actually increased. The only real significant change is the 1.7-inch decrease in break on his slider from last season to this season. Getting less break on a breaking ball is certainly not ideal, and that has likely heavily contributed to the increase in his slider’s run value.

So when it comes to Alek Manoah’s actual stuff, nothing has changed too much. Everything that he can solely control has remained about the same from 2022 to 2023. Yes, you can see the slightest of decreases everywhere, but nothing seems too significant. All of Manoah’s horrendous stats are the result of people getting on base, which can be partially attributed to the hitter. Honestly, the answer could just be that batters are just simply figuring him out and hitting him better. There is another possibility, though


One last explanation is what has plagued a lot of great pitchers this year: the rule changes. Adjusting to the pitch clock has been difficult for a lot of pitchers. Limited pick-off moves and increased steals due to bigger bases have also made life difficult for MLB pitchers. Many players, such as Max Scherzer, have even blamed those exact things for their ailments.

One problem is that it is hard to keep up with this pace of play as a pitcher. There is much less time to take a breath and regain your composure. Combine that with the intense summer heat and the maximum effort that pitchers are throwing with, and the outcome is over-exhaustion. The fast pace does not have as much of an effect on the batters because they have one at bat every 2-3 innings. Pitchers are throwing about 20 pitches per inning. The faster the pace, the quicker they are going to burn out. This is just a theory from myself, but maybe Manoah was having trouble keeping up with this increased pace. In 8 of 13 starts, he gave up 2 runs or less in the first 3 innings. It was always afterward that he ran into trouble, which could suggest he is getting worn out quicker and comes unraveled due to exhaustion.

There is some sort of combination of things plaguing Alek Manoah, and I do not know how to fix it exactly. Maybe he just needs to wait until the monster from Space Jam gives him back his talent. All jokes aside, Alek Manoah has the skill, as he displayed in 2022. Baseball is an up-and-down sport, and Alek is in a slump, plain and simple. His career is not over and he is not washed. Blue Jays fans, I feel confident that he will figure out what he needs to do to get back to where he was, and who knows, he may come back better than ever.



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