There had been concerns. Red flags. Worrisome radar-gun readings. Alarming reports of a first-round draft pick’s dipping stock.
To which the Tigers are essentially laughing.
Matt Manning, they insist, is fine. The Wilmington Blue Rocks might agree after Manning, in last Wednesday’s start for Single A Connecticut, threw four innings, allowing one hit and one run, while walking one and striking out six.
It was the kind of outing that details why a man 19 years old, in his first full season of professional baseball, has a 1.77 ERA in five starts, with a 1.08 WHIP.
“No, there’s nothing wrong,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development, offering an overview of a 6-foot-6, right-handed prospect who early this year was generally considered the top talent in Detroit’s system.
Manning’s fastball has been running 90-92, occasionally hitting 93. It’s not the higher-90s heater he was displaying even last year. The Tigers say it’s simply part of this year’s process.
“He’s basically a young, lanky, pitcher who’s working hard to command that fastball, and trying to learn how to pitch,” Littlefield said. “I think what happens frequently with younger guys that aren’t as physical at this stage of their development, they get into a routine of throwing every fifth day, dealing with the length of a first full season, and they start working on throwing strikes.
“He’s got plenty of fastball. He’s healthy, and he’s got that good extra hop at the end of his fastball. There’s no issues whatsoever.”
Connecticut manager Gerald Laird, who worked three seasons as a Tigers catcher during Jim Leyland’s dugout command, has pretty much the same view.
“Sometimes, his velocity drops because he’s so focused on the zone and pitching ahead in the count,” Laird said. “But he’s 90-93, and when he wants to, he can get up to 94, 95, 96. What he’s doing is learning that staying inside himself within the game is better than always exerting maximum effort. That helps him. And yet I know it’s in the tank (higher velocity) when he wants to use it.”
Manning has thrown 20.1 innings and only one of those innings has been a clunker: a one-inning stint at Brooklyn in which he was popped for two hits, two walks, and three runs. He’s otherwise allowed a single run in 19.1 innings, on 13 hits, with five walks and 23 strikeouts.
“The secondary stuff is still coming along,” Laird said. “His curveball is still a work in progress, but I think that’s going to end up being his second-best pitch. It can be a power curveball. The change-up is coming along, but it’s definitely a third pitch right now.
“But from where he’s come when I saw him in spring training, it’s impressive. On the mound, he’s a competitor, gives you that little fist-bump at the right time.
“But I think he’s starting to grow as a pitcher,” Laird added. “It’s like, last week, he hadn’t pitched in a while because of all the rain we’ve had. He’d gone a week without throwing in a game. I just think the kid’s going to be pretty special if he keeps on this track.”
The Tigers grabbed Manning early in the 2016 draft, taking him ninth overall. The Tigers loved his overall athleticism as a two-sport star who had basketball as well as baseball offers from major universities, including Loyola Marymount, to which he committed ahead of last June’s draft.
The Tigers believed his size would be a steady dividend, as would the fact Manning, who had played basketball as seriously as baseball, was entering professional baseball minus the wear-and-tear most teen pitching stars already have heaped on their arms.
Manning was treated carefully after he signed last June for $3.5 million. He pitched in only 10 games in the Gulf Coast League but showed why the Tigers were sold on his upside. He struck out 46 batters in 29 innings.
This spring, he was held in extended spring training rather than assigned immediately to Single A West Michigan. Because of his youth and relative inexperience, the Tigers said Manning would benefit from extra time with Lakeland’s youngsters ahead of what always figured to be relocation to the short-season outpost at Connecticut.
The Tigers say Manning’s flight plan is smooth and his timeline’s intact as he grooms at Connecticut. Next year, minus injury, he’ll likely be at West Michigan. Where his progress, and his radar-gun readings, are at that point can only be imagined. For now, the team insists Manning’s following orders and disappointing no one. Except, perhaps, opposing hitters.