Matt Manning's rocket ride has moved him to Erie, and to rare tributes

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Matt Manning

There was nothing left to do or see at Single A Lakeland. Matt Manning had passed his classes there.

An upgrade was ordered for one of the Tigers’ best power-pitching prospects, which came Friday when Manning was sent to Double A Erie for the minor-league season’s fading days.

Manning was the Tigers’ first-round pick in 2016 and has been brandishing the fire and two-pitch fury typical of rotation aces. His start Thursday night against Daytona convinced the Tigers it was time for new scenery.

Manning pitched six innings, allowed five hits, struck out 10 and walked two.

His combined work at two Single A stops, West Michigan and Lakeland, in 2018 have been worth a 3.20 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, with an opposing batting average of .204. He has 141 strikeouts in 107 innings. He has allowed 79 hits.

“I told my superiors,” said Mike Rabelo, the Lakeland Flying Tigers manager, “every fifth day he does something a little better, whether it’s fielding his position, holding runners, fastball command, or maybe pitching backwards the second or third time through a lineup.

“But it’s amazing how far he has come. I can’t stop raving about him.”

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In sports, the difference between good and great performers so often comes down to two basics: size and athleticism. Manning, who throws right-handed, is 6-foot-6, 190 pounds. He is the son of former NBA player Rich Manning and played basketball so well at Sheldon High in Sacramento, Calif., he had a scholarship waiting at Loyola Marymount.

Manning instead signed with the Tigers after they decided his flair for throwing a baseball matched, and in their minds exceeded, anything he might do in hoops. Manning opted for $3.5 million after the Tigers took him with the 2016 draft’s ninth overall pick.

His repertoire these days is that of a 20-year-old man who someday could head a rotation in Detroit.

Matt Manning

Manning has a four-seam fastball that has been topping out at 98. His showcase pitch is a curveball that scouts such as Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs have suggested could be 70 on an 80 scouting-scale.

“It’s a hammer,” Rabelo said. “It is nasty.”

Those who remember a Tigers prospect pitcher named Justin Verlander will recall that Verlander’s business card featured a high-90s fastball and a shin-splitting curveball.

Manning is 20 years old. Verlander was 21 when he was drafted out of college. Comparisons should be shunned, but Manning’s profile as Tigers scouts evaluated him was of a pitcher who might rise dramatically in a few short years.

The reasons were three-fold: existing talent, capacity to get bigger and stronger, and the fact that, as a basketball player more than a baseball pitcher, Manning had plenty of tread remaining on that right arm.

Rabelo saw it all merge during Manning’s seven weeks with Lakeland.

“I saw him right after he got drafted (2016), and it is unbelievable where he is right now,” Rabelo said. “His last start (Thursday) in Daytona, his velocity increased as the game went on. Remember, he’s still a kid, he’s still growing. But already he’s massive.

“I said to him the other day, ‘Dude, have you grown since last year?’ And he said, yeah, he had. Which is something because he is super-athletic. He’s everything you want for the front end of your rotation.”

Manning has a third pitch, a requisite change-up, which of course he isn’t throwing as often as he eventually must. But it’s a respectable change-up, Rabelo said, and will be more a part of Manning’s mix as he moves to Double A and beyond.

“You have to sit on him a little now to throw the change,” Rabelo acknowledged. “To to be a star you’ve got to have multiple pitches, and his change-up has made strides. But I’m telling you, everything this kid did during his time here was unbelievable.”

On any immediate to-do list, his bosses say, is to keep that body and arm in shape and to make next year as fruitful as these first two full seasons of professional baseball have been for a pitcher so young.

“I would say, he simply needs to put it all together,” Rabelo said. “But from what I saw of that stuff he ran out here in Lakeland, he was really good. You’d now like to see that from April till the end of the season.

“But he was really good here. And he’s a very calm, collected dude. The more you’re around him you realize this kid gets it.

"It’s the best starting pitching that’s come through here. The best stuff I’ve seen yet.”

Twitter @Lynn_Henning