Lakeland, Fla. — Notice those innings logs from Matt Manning’s 2017 baseball season.
Inspect all 14 of his starts, from June 20 against the Tri-City Valley Cats, when he struck out six of his first seven batters, to Sept. 2, at West Michigan, when he pitched five innings against the Fort Wayne TinCaps, allowing a pair of hits while striking out nine and walking two.
What you see are flashes of a first-round draft pick’s sheer talent. What you also note is how little he has pitched. He threw only 51 innings last season and in only two of his starts did he pitch six innings.
The cameos had nothing to do with injuries. They had everything to do with the fact a man who last month turned 20 remains essentially a newcomer to competitive baseball.
Manning will work a good deal more in 2018, assuming his right arm, and 6-foot-6, 200-pound frame remain in the pink during a long season that for Manning probably will at least begin at West Michigan, the Tigers’ first-stage, full-season Single-A stop.
But he might not be at Comstock Park for long. He is expected to add crust and be ready, maybe by June or July, for shipment to Single-A Lakeland, not that the Tigers are hurrying him.
They took him ninth overall two years ago when his power arm, big body, and athleticism, which was broad enough to have earned a full-ride basketball ticket to Loyola Marymount, sold the Tigers on his potential as a top-of-the-rotation warrior.
They in fact loved the idea that his arm hadn’t already been showcased to death during his teen years. There was meager wear and tear. It spurred them to spend $3.5 million steering him to baseball and away from his Marymount scholarship.
The Tigers wagered there was room to work on finesse and on a future when Manning, a Californian and son of former NBA player, Rich Manning, had upside that to Detroit’s scouts seemed almost endless.
He sat in a conference room earlier this week at the Tigers’ year-old office complex at TigerTown, just beyond the right-field fence from Joker Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field, and conceded this has been, and probably will remain, a longer process than it sometimes is for most early-round picks.
But it doesn’t bother him. Not publicly, anyway. Because he learned a year ago how a deliberate path, with his pitching interests at heart, were the reason why he began the year at extended spring training in Lakeland, Florida, and not at West Michigan.
“Definitely,” said Manning, who is conversational but not overly verbose. “I think a lot of people thought it would be West Michigan. But it was my first full season of professional baseball. And it allowed me to work with people like Ace Adams (Connecticut pitching coach).”
What you learn during a chat with Manning is that he is business-like and polite. Serious about his craft. Careful with his self-assessments.
He acknowledged at one point last summer that he was a bit bruised in sticking at the minor-league complex as other, more developed farm stars headed north. But he came to understand it.
His overall numbers from last season at Single-A Connecticut, where he was assigned in June, and for the Whitecaps confirm why, apart from being careful with his innings, so much development lay ahead: 3.18 ERA, 1.29 WHIP. He had a 1.89 in nine starts at Connecticut and a 5.60 ERA in his five games for West Michigan.
He walked 25 batters in 51 innings. He struck out 62.
His fastball, with pure intent, sometimes moved in the lower 90s rather than at the high 90s, velocity he can reach pretty much any time he prefers. But that ever-pursued level of proficiency known as “command” benefits when you’re focusing more on location than on the radar gun.
It was one of last season’s lessons, he said, along with instructions on how to throw a sinking two-seam heater that has begun to creep into his repertoire.
He will work this year on the two-seamer, but more on throwing his four-seam fastball to specific spots. He’ll also be buffing his curveball, which, he says, is more of a”1 to 7” breaking pitch, meaning he releases it and rotates it a tick to the side of a conventional 12-to-6 curve.
“The curveball was one of my biggest improvements last year,” Manning said. “I could throw it more early in counts, and late.”
Then there is that all-vital third pitch: his change-up.
“First live bullpen yesterday and I used it quite a bit,” he said. “The action was good. I want to get it down for strikes more often, but there’s been good action on it.”
It seemed fitting that Manning was sitting this week in a room that looked like every college-course class space devised by America’s educators.
This is an education, this big-league pitching pursuit. You take it one class year at a time. Manning isn’t yet thinking graduation. But his talent is talking. Comerica Park’s cap and gown await.