Alek Manoah is balling.
The 24-year-old West Virginia product has been pitching one of the best seasons in Blue Jays history thus far. His play, his personality, and his punchies have made him an overnight baseball sensation, and he’s gaining fans even from outside Jays Nation.
However, he’s now pitched for more than a calendar year. Hitters all over the league are preparing for him. His low strikeout numbers leave something to be desired. Can he sustain this level of success?
There’s certainly no doubt that low strikeout pitchers can have immense success. Sandy Alcantara is pitching better than anyone in baseball right now, and he’s doing it with a K/9 of 8.29, only 0.09 higher than Alek Manoah’s. Perhaps more importantly, this isn’t Alcantara’s first time pitching to this level of success.
Assuming the Marlins righty doesn’t suffer a sudden drop in performance, 2022 will be his 3rd straight year with an ERA under 3.25, and his 2nd with an fWAR above 4.0. In 2022, he’s putting up a FIP of 2.78, and an xFIP of 3.27. While these numbers certainly aren’t as dazzling as that 1.81 ERA, both are significantly above league average. Alcantara has been sustaining his low strikeout success, and should continue to do so in the future. Because of the fact that Manoah is the same type of pitcher, it would be easy to think that the same is true of him. However, it’s important to note the differences between Sandy and Alek.
In baseball, there are many ways to achieve an out. However, not all ways are created equal. Some are higher risk and higher reward. Some are more efficient than others. Some are more difficult to achieve than others. Some are less consistently effective than others. But which ways are definitively the best? Here’s a list of xwOBA allowed, based on how the at-bat ends.
- Without a batted ball (walk or strikeout): .183 xwOBA
- Groundball: .222 xwOBA
- Flyball: .427 xwOBA
- Line Drive: .643 xwOBA
It then follows that pitchers should most often try to end each at-bat without a ball being put into play. Hitters, on average, produce the lowest xwOBA when a plate appearance ends in that manner. However, achieving strikeouts is difficult as well as inefficient. Some pitchers simply lack the capability to be strikeout machines. This may be due to poor control, or poor swing and miss stuff, as well as a variety of other reasons. For both Alcantara and Manoah, it’s due to just an inability to get both called strikes and whiffs. CSW% is a stat that’s taken over baseball recently, and the pitchers who find themselves topping the charts in CSW are also likely to find themselves topping the charts in strikeouts. Shane McClanahan, Corbin Burnes, and Dylan Cease lead qualified pitchers in CSW% thus far in 2022, and they’re also all top 5 in K/9. In 2022, the league average CSW% is 27.5%. Sandy Alcantara’s rate is exactly average, while Alek Manoah’s is 0.1% higher. Both are not big strikeout pitchers. So what is making Alcantara such a good pitcher, while also being so sustainable?
Since the groundball rate began to be tracked in 2002, there have been over 1500 qualified seasons from starting pitchers. Sandy Alcantara’s GB% in 2022 is 68th among those 1500+. Since 2019, only 3 qualified starters are inducing groundballs more often. Unfortunately, Alek Manoah is not the same type of pitcher as Sandy. His GB% ranks an unenviable 63rd among the 93 pitchers with 70+ IP in 2022 (Alcantara’s ranks 3rd). However, Alcantara was not always this way. As this graph shows, Sandy has raised his GB rate every year since 2019. But how did he do so?
To start, let’s look at the league average launch angle by pitch. Of course, a lower launch angle leads to more groundballs.
- 4-Seam Fastball: 18.7 deg
- Cutter: 13.5 deg
- Slider/Curveball: 13.5 deg
- Splitter/Changeup: 6.8 deg
- Sinker/2-Seam Fastball: 5.1 deg
Offspeed pitches (but not breaking balls) and fastballs that break down tend to produce a significantly higher rate of groundballs. So let’s look at the rate at which Sandy Alcantara uses those pitches, compared to his rate of induced grounders.
Left: Sinker Use% + Changeup Use% / Right: GB%
- 2022: 51.6%/56.5%
- 2021: 51.7%/53.3%
- 2020: 45.2%/49.1%
- 2019: 39.7%/44.6%
The correlation is impossibly clear. Alcantara’s GB% took a jump between 2019 and 2020. So did his usage of low LA° pitches. It took another jump between 2020 and 2021. Again, so did his usage. The jump in 2022 isn’t followed by more sinkers, however his Changeup% has jumped from 23.5% to 26.7%. Sandy Alcantara isn’t just one of the best pitchers in baseball, he’s one of the smartest. He and his coaches know that Alcantara will never be a high strikeout pitcher. He and his coaches know that groundballs are the next best thing, and they all know what pitches induce them most often. Sandy has worked on his sinker and his changeup, using them more and more each year, and to better effect. Here, again is where Alek Manoah comes in.
As is, Alek Manoah’s success is not fully sustainable. All of his ERA indicators suggest imminent regression, due in huge to a low K%, which metrics like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA value incredibly heavily. However, this isn’t to say that you can’t overperform those metrics if you do the right things. The biggest way to do so consistently is by making efficient GB outs. This is what Sandy Alcantara does, and it should be what Alek Manoah does. Alcantara’s two best groundball pitches are also thrown by the Blue Jays big righty. Let’s talk about them.
I’m going to make the argument that Alek Manoah throws his best pitch (changeup) least often. In 2021, anyone who would have tried to make this argument would not have had any data on their side. The argument would have been silly. Here’s what’s changed. Last year, Alek Manoah’s changeup was fairly run of the mill, in terms of movement. It had marginally below average vertical and horizontal movement, according to Baseball Savant. However, in 2022, the pitch has been otherworldly different. It now drops 2.5 inches less than the average change, which you would certainly think bodes poorly. However, his horizontal movement is now an inch above average. That run results in some nasty swings such as this one.
It also results in some pretty terrific stats. The pitch is only being barrelled 4.8% of the time (league average is 6.6%), it’s allowing an xwOBA of .245 (league average is .315), and it has an RV/100 of -2.3 (26th out of 188 pitchers with at least 25 PA’s throwing a changeup). His GB% on the change is 45.2%, and while not exceptional, it’s a solid number which is a definite improvement on the overall numbers Alek puts up for GB%. All of this should come with a little bit of hesitancy. We’ve only seen Manoah throw 203 changeups this year. However, the pitch data is also excellent, which indicates that he shouldn’t have much trouble continuing to throw the pitch for success. It’s a pitch with good active spin, good observed movement, and good spin based movement. While I am not arguing that he should make it his primary pitch (it’s a changeup, it can’t be a primary), Alek Manoah would do well to throw his changeup more often. In fact, he has somewhat done so recently, even throwing the pitch to right handed hitters more.
After his last start in Boston, Manoah even commented (via FanGraphs) that he should throw more of the pitch.
It’s a pitch that can be nasty for Manoah at times, but it’s also a pitch that gets him the all-important groundball. Alek Manoah even has one more pitch in his arsenal that can do the same thing.
The sinker is the ultimate groundball pitch. As previously mentioned, it has the lowest average launch angle of any commonly thrown pitch in baseball. Its velocity paired with downward movement is what forces hitters to smack it into the ground. Alek Manoah’s sinker carries an elite 67.1% groundball rate. While it’s not quite the 74% GB rate that Sandy Alcantara’s sinker induces, 67% is certainly nothing you should sneeze at. To go along with that, it’s a chase machine. Hitters swing 37.5% of the time Manoah throws a sinker outside of the zone. That late movement makes some of those chases absolutely vicious, like this one against Aaron Judge.
Alcantara’s chase rate on the sinker? Only 35.5%. Because of the fantastic late movement that Manoah gets on the pitch, hitters only swing at the sinker 52.4% of the time when it’s INSIDE the zone. Nearly 50% of the time, they just let it go by for an easy strike. All of this in tandem is what makes Alek Manoah’s sinker deadly. Hitters consistently make extremely poor swing decisions against the pitch, and even if they make the right one, it’s going to result in the worst form of batted ball 2/3 times. The sinker is the exact pitch that Manoah needs to lead his arsenal, and become the elite GB pitcher that Alcantara is.
Of late, Manoah’s been pretty consistently better at producing grounders.
To go along with that, his GB% by game graph looks rather similar to his sinker usage graph. There’s a definite correlation between sinker usage, and ground balls.
One of the more quiet things about the secret to Sandy Alcantara’s success is his ability to mix pitches. His usage is incredibly spread out. Of late, Manoah’s been following in those footsteps.
So let’s answer the initial question… Can Alek Manoah sustain this level of success? The answer is a definitive maybe.
It’s extremely unlikely that he is able to maintain a sub 2.50 ERA with such a low groundball rate. Based on underlying numbers like xERA, the best he could realistically hope for is something like 3.00. However, if Manoah were able to transform his pitch usage (something he’s already showing signs of), he can become a groundball pitcher like Sandy Alcantara. Manoah throws much softer than Sandy does (about 5 MPH on each pitch on average).
However, he has precisely the same arsenal of pitches, a similar issue with strikeouts, and a shared ability to produce soft contact at will. It’s these similarities that provide the blueprint for sustainability, one that Manoah should follow if he wishes to pitch to this level for years to come.