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Rays Wildcard Preview: Sean Manaea Scouting Report

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Texas Rangers v. Oakland Athletics Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

While the Oakland Athletics have the unenviable task of facing Charlie Morton, one of the best starting pitchers in the league, the Rays will work against Oakland starter Sean Manaea, who, while not on the same level as CFM, is probably the best rotation option the Athletics have available.

Over his first three seasons in the majors Manaea was a slightly above average pitcher, with a career ERA nine percent better than the league average, and a FIP two percent better. In 29.2 innings after returning from arthroscopic shoulder surgery this year, he’s put up the best numbers of his career, with a 27.5% strikeout rate, an 6.4% walk rate, a 41.2% groundball rate, and a 1.21/3.42/3.98 ERA, FIP, and xFIP.

A left-handed pitcher, Manaea has carried a pretty normal lefty split (smaller if you look at wOBA, larger if you look at FIP or xFIP). His arm angle probably feeds into that split, while the quality of his changeup keeps it under control.

I don’t expect Oakland to let Manaea pitch far into the third time through the order, so Rays batters will mostly be exposed to his Plan A.

What is Plan A?

Against LHB: Funky Arm Angle, Two-Pitch Mix

The first thing you notice about Manaea is that he’s throwing from a three-quarters arm slot, which makes his low-90s fastball and low-80s slider effective against lefties.

Those two pitches are all he uses against the same-handed matchup, and with lefties whiffing against his slider on 40% of their swings, they’re all he needs.

He’ll spot the fastball against left-handed batters throughout the zone, both inside and out, but with a special focus on establishing the inner part of the plate.

The slider though, is almost always located down and away, diving off the plate.

It’s worth noting, though, that this isn’t the generic “set him up with the fastball, sit him down with the slider” combination. Manaea keeps hitters off balance by throwing his fastball and his slider in any count.

Against RHB: Three Pitches and the Bottom Falls Out

The Rays have stacked their lineup with opposite-handed hitters, though, and against righties, Manaea is a little bit more complex. He likes to get ahead with a first pitch fastball, and generally tries to keep it away, from hitters on the outside.

After that first pitch, all three of his pitches—fastball, slider, and changeup—are on the table. This is the biggest process change Manaea has shown in his brief 2019 campaign: he’s not doubling up on that fastball, and is instead getting to his secondary pitches early.

The slider is his least used pitch against righties (14% of the time in 2019), and he places it exclusively on the back foot of hitters, getting very good whiff results.

His bread-and-butter secondary pich against right-handed hitters is his changeup, which he’s thrown 21% of the time. It has decent velocity separation from the fastball, right around nine miles per hour slower, and it also has a ton of vertical drop (over two standard deviations more than the average, per Brooks).

He puts that drop to good use by working his changeup all along the bottom of the strike zone.

Going through the videos of his change, there’s a lot of this:

Because Manaea keeps his fastball in the mix, even when he’s ahead in the count, hitters have to stay ready to swing. If they end up swinging fastball at a changeup below the zone, there’s way too much separation for them to be able to be able to adjust.

My recommendation? Hit the fastball early. It’s there, and it’s hittable. Behind in the count against Manaea is a hard place to be.

Conclusion

Sean Manaea is a pretty good pitcher, but he’s far from an ace. He has above-average major league secondary pitches, and a fastball that I’d grade as below average, if not for that tricky arm angle. His command of those pitches is good.

Manaea has established a predictable approach during his time in the majors, in terms of locations or pitches, but he mixes his pitch types within those locations unpredictably. Rays hitters will know what to expect, but the question will be whether or not they can hit it while seeing Manaea live for the first time.

This is a do-or-die game, and the Athletics, like the Rays, understand the times-through-the order penalty, and have structured their bullpen to avoid it. I doubt many Rays hitters get three plate appearances against the Oakland starter. I won’t be shocked if they don’t all get two.