Back in July, I wrote
about the similarities between Alek Manoah and Sandy Alcantara and how Manoah can use that blueprint to improve in the future. Now, nearly four full months later, Manoah’s first full season in MLB has come to a close. How did Manoah do in the last few months of the year, and where does he stand moving forward? Strap in. It’s time for a deep dive.
We’re not going to start with baseball. They say talk is cheap, but Alek sure gets his money’s worth. During his appearance on former Raptor Serge Ibaka’s show, “How Hungry Are You?”, Manoah called AL East rival Gerrit Cole the “worst cheater in baseball”, then went on to briefly discuss illegal substances, which he says Cole uses. His comments definitely didn’t go unnoticed by Yankees fans, who brought out their Twitter fingers to let Manoah know what they thought about him as a pitcher.
It’s the offseason though, so Manoah had time for some Twitter fingers of his own, firing back with some emojis…
Talk may be cheap. But despite what Yankee fans may think, Alek Manoah’s next contract won’t be. Let’s get into the pitching, and take a look at Alek Manoah’s season by month.
With an ERA of 2.24 before I wrote my previous piece, and a 2.25 mark afterwards, Manoah was nearly exactly as good before and after. He certainly wasn’t on Sandy Alcantara’s Cy Young level, but he played incredibly well. His Fielding Independent Pitching, which takes defence out of the equation, hung higher than his ERA, but even taking it at face value, a 3.35 mark is nothing to sneeze at. What perhaps bodes even better for Manoah is his ability to absolutely stifle hard contact.
Statcast defines a hard-hit ball as one with an exit velocity of 95 miles per hour or more. When looking at qualified pitchers, Dylan Cease of the Chi Sox was the only American League pitcher who allowed a lower HardHit% than Alek Manoah.
visual from MLB explains what a barrelled ball is. If you’d like me to save you a click, the short story is that a barrel is defined as a ball hit at 98 miles per hour or more inside a certain region of angles. This time, Rangers ace Martin Perez was the only American Leaguer to rank ahead of Manoah. Looking at average exit velocity, Manoah allowed the 5th lowest mark in the AL. No matter what way you slice it, the Jays ace is an elite contact manager, and it’s what gets him such good results. The question moving forward is the sustainability of those results. Recently, Justin Choi of FanGraphs wrote a piece about Alek Manoah’s projections.
As discussed in the piece, Steamer, a projection system based on past performance and expected regression to the mean, predicts a 4.09 ERA for Manoah in 2023. Naturally, that’s been one of the more discussed projections, as it’s hard to see a Cy Young winner having his ERA inflate by nearly two runs for no particular reason. Steamer cares most about a player’s recent performance, which makes the prediction even more confusing. However, here’s what Choi had to say.
One of the central arguments of those who predict Manoah’s regression is those that look at his BABIP and view it as luck. I, however, am here to tell you, that BABIP is a teachable skill. In early August, Tieran Alexander of Prospects Live wrote a piece
about how BABIP is teachable, highlighting three core concepts that contribute to controlling your BABIP. Let’s look at a couple of them, as they apply to Alek Manoah.
First of all, let’s talk about what BABIP is. It stands for “batting average on balls in play”, and is exactly what you’d expect. If you hit 3 balls into the field of play and only one is a hit, it results in a .333 BABIP. 1-4 on balls in play translates to a .250 BABIP, and so on. The league average BABIP usually sits around roughly .290. Baseball fans typically view averages significantly higher than that as lucky, and significantly lower as unlucky. However, there is significantly more to it than luck. Let’s get into it, first by looking at the relationship between exit velocity and BABIP.
Hitting the ball harder results in an increase in BABIP, period. It’s that simple. The harder you hit the ball, the less time a fielder has to react. The less time a fielder has to react, the less time they have to make a play, and the more likely it falls for a hit, leading to an increase in BABIP. 87.5
In 2022, the average exit velocity was 88.6 MPH. However, Alek Manoah’s average EV was more than a full MPH lower, at 87.5 MPH. While it might not seem like a lot, that’s a rather big gap. Only 11 qualified pitchers had lower average EVs in 2022.
There’s also the matter of the type of batted ball. Let’s look at another chart.
So, you can see which kinds of batted balls are best at inducing outs. Popups are basically guaranteed outs, and flyballs aren’t great either. Grounders are a bit below league average, while liners are more than double it. So where does Manoah sit when it comes to getting these bad types of contact? Among pitchers with 400 pitches or more, the Jays young right-hander is 9th in popup rate, which is fairly stable year to year.
Manoah himself sustained him fairly well year to year, with an 8.7% popup rate in his rookie campaign, and a 9.5% rate this year. That’s a byproduct of Manoah’s stuff, which is hard to barrel up, and often induced weird contact, even if it’s not missing as many bats as some of the league’s other biggest names. So, going back to FanGraphs’ piece, we know that Steamer is going to project pitchers to regress to the mean in terms of BABIP, either positively or negatively. It projects Alek Manoah for a .288 BABIP, but that’s just not going to happen. Of course, the shift ban may hurt some pitchers, and lead to a higher BABIP. However, for Manoah, his BABIP was .250 when the Jays’ infield wasn’t shifted, and .242 when it was. That’s a rather insignificant difference, and so it’s hard to see the shift ban having much of an effect on Manoah. The article wraps up by stating that Steamer has good reason for its skepticism of Alek Manoah due to data suggesting that he’s a good, not great pitcher.
Of course, the data that’s being referred to is the past years of pitchers who “overperformed” high BABIPs and low strikeout rates, things of the sort. The issue lies in the fact that the group of pitchers that Manoah’s being lumped into is too large. He’s not just a player with a high BABIP and low strikeouts, he’s also a player who gets popups and soft contact. What prevents projection systems from being perfectly effective is that they are simply trying to identify key trends, and project based on those trends. This is logical, as it’s the best way to not be wrong, which is the ultimate goal of projections. However, no matter what you’re trying to project, there will always be things that consistently avoid trends. Manoah is one of those things.
That’s not to say that there still aren’t things which Manoah can do better. Last time, we talked about increasing the ground ball rate as a way to suppress runs. We talked about increasing the sinker as the manner in which he can do so. Ultimately, that actually did come to fruition, as Alek threw more sinkers than any other pitch in September. He then proceeded to pitch the best month of his season in September, with a mere 0.88 ERA. However, it actually didn’t seem to do much for his ground ball rate, which remained relatively unchanged throughout the month. As a matter of fact, his flyball percentage actually went up. So let’s talk about fly balls.
Theoretically, of the three big kinds of batted balls (line drives, fly balls, grounders), grounders are the best for pitchers. Even when they lead to a hit, they’re not often going to be more than a single. It then follows that fly balls are the next best, as they are usually outs. However, when they become hits, they’re usually good for extra bases. On the surface though, a pitcher would rather induce ground balls than fly balls. However, that’s once again too simple. Exit velocity is as important as always.
Fly balls hit at 95 MPH or softer led to a wOBA, or weighted on-base average, of .119 in 2022. Fly balls hit at 95 MPH or harder leading to a wOBA of .846. A stat that’s also meant to help predict future performance is HR/FB%, which compares a pitcher’s home run rate to his fly ball rate. In theory, a low HR/FB% is unsustainable, as fly balls will translate to homers eventually. The issue is that depends massively on how hard the fly balls are hit. Last year, 35% of the fly balls hit at 95 MPH or greater were homers. However, only 0.5% of the fly balls hit softer than that cleared the fence. Those two average out to be 15%, the league’s average HR/FB rate, but when kept separate, they are very different numbers.
Much has been made of Alek Manoah’s mere 7.1% HR/FB%, which is less than HALF of the league average, suggesting regression. However, when we separate it out by exit velocity, you’ll see that his regression might not be so bad.
- League HR/FB on 0-95 MPH fly balls: 0.5%
- Alek Manoah HR/FB on 0-95 MPH fly balls: 1.1%
- League HR/FB on 95+ MPH fly balls: 35%
- Alek Manoah HR/FB on 95+ MPH fly balls: 25%
So…yes. Manoah’s probably getting a bit lucky with some good defence or park factors (wind, wall height, elevation, etc) when the ball gets hit hard in the air hard. However, his ratio of hard-hit fly balls, as opposed to soft-hit ones, differs drastically. Around the league, about 43% of fly balls are hit hard, at 95+. However, only 38% of Manoah’s fly balls are as such, so it follows that his HR/FB is going to be a bit under the league average, and is unlikely to regress all the way to the mean. Just like with BABIP, a predictor of luck is a little bit too simple, and thus, using it to project future performance might be flawed, and certainly is in the case of Manoah. It’s time for final thoughts.
One day soon, we might talk about what makes Manoah so hard to barrel up. But this is a long post already. For now, suffice it to say that rumours of Alek’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. While the Jays’ ace righty might not be doing it in the most conventional way, while he might not be racking up the strikeouts and groundballs, Manoah finds a way to get outs. Even if the projection systems don’t think so, he’s going to be doing it year after year. You can get used to his name in the Cy Young conversations, and in the mouths of Yankee fans. My only regret is that despite what RyanGarciaESM tells you, his ERA likely won’t be over 3.50, and thus, will not be feeding families. None that is, except his own.