Breaking down all 10 of Alek Manoah's strikeout pitches from Monday night
An appreciation of the best Blue Jays pitching performance of the season, which came in one of the biggest games of the season. Incredible stuff from the AL Rookie of the Year candidate.
Rookie starter Alek Manoah was an absolute beast for the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday night against the Rays, putting together a thoroughly dominating performance that ranks among the best in baseball in the 2021 season so far. Manoah’s game score for the eight inning, 10 strikeout, one hit effort was 90, per ESPN. In total, starting pitchers have taken the ball 4,308 times so far this season. Manoah’s 90 game score puts him in a tie for the 15th best performance of the year by that metric. According to FanGraphs, by Game Score Version 2.0, last night’s performance was even better than that, registering a 97.
Of course, we don’t really need abstract numbers to tell us that Manoah absolutely bulldozed the Rays all night. We can just take a look some of the absolute filth he was throwing. So let’s do exactly that!
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Manoah struck out 10 batters in this one, reaching 100+ strikeouts in just his 17th big league game — the fastest any Blue Jays pitcher has ever been able to do so. He became the seventh youngest pitcher to produce a game of 10+ strikeouts, now walks, and one hit or fewer allowed.
Only three batted balls against him left the infield.
He was, in other words, virtually untouchable. And this overlay of his slider and two-seamer (aka his sinker) from @PitchingNinja gives us some pretty good insight into why the Rays’ hitters were having such a tough time.
But that’s all a bit messy, isn’t it? So let’s actually get into some specifics here and take a look at 10 of his filthy, filthy strikeout pitches and how each of those at-bats played out.
The batter: Brett Phillips
The situation: Top 1, 0 outs, 0-2
The Rays' lead-off batter, Brett Phillips, set the tone for the evening, but not in the way that I’m sure he’d have wanted. Manoah dispatched him quickly by firing a four-seamer to the bottom third, following that up with a slider that would have caught the lower border of the zone for a strike had Phillips not swung over top of it. He then unleashed this wicked slider — a beast of a bender that not only broke downward, like the previous one, but ran in an additional three inches toward his back foot. Immediately you could tell the Rays might be in trouble.
The batter: Nelson Cruz
The situation: Top 1, 2 outs, 1-2
Manoah started the right-hand hitting Cruz with a slider that started out right at him, then broke toward the plate just enough to catch the inner black and avoid drifting out into the slugger's wheelhouse. Cruz watched it go by, then fouled off a sinker up an inside. He watched a sinker miss low and away, then got busted inside by this perfectly placed four-seamer — Manoah's only strikeout pitch of the night that wasn't a slider.
The batter: Kevin Kiermaier
The situation: Top 3, 1 out, 3-2
The Jays' bats hadn't awoken yet by the time Keirmaier stepped to the plate in the third inning with one out, and Manoah hadn't produced a strikeout since the first. All was still to play for, so this actually ended up being a crucial at-bat.
Manoah started the lefty Kiermaier with the sinker/two-seamer, which began inside but then ran to the pitcher’s arm side out over the plate. Keirmaier, however, could only foul it off. Manoah then missed with a fastball high, missed with a slider well below the zone, and then just barely missed the outside edge of the zone with another sinker/two-seamer that the veteran simply watched. They young hurler came back at 3-1 with a fastball over the middle of the plate, but Keirmaier could do nothing with it. With the count now 3-2, the Jays' delightfully beefy battery of Manoah and Alejandro Kirk went again to the slider that you see below — starting out over the plate, but then running inside to a spot where the hitter could do absolutely nothing with it.
It’s harder to tell from the GIF here than it is from the original video clip, but I’m pretty sure Keirmaier is saying “that’s filth.” He’s not wrong!
The batter: Francisco Meija
The situation: Top 3, 2 outs, 0-2
Francisco Meija doesn't tend to take walks very often, but he has enough bat control to make his approach work for him, as he currently sports an 18.4% strikeout rate on the year — well below the Rays' team rate of 25.1%, which is surprisingly the fifth highest in the majors.
Or, actually, I should probably say that Meija usually makes it work for him. Not here, as Manoah gave him three sliders: one to his back foot that he swung over, another toward the lower inside part of the zone that he fouled off, and the one below — a pitch that bounced off the plate (or very near to it), but that the Rays’ catcher feebly chased anyway.
The batter: Brett Phillips
The situation: Top 4, 0 outs, 2-2
Phillips was up again to start the top of the fourth, and the Jays still had yet to put any runs on the board. The Rays' right fielder would fare slightly better in this matchup, but only because he didn't swing the bat at any of the first four pitches he saw. There was a low sinker/two-seamer for a ball, a slider just outside for ball two, a sinker just barely on the outside edge of the zone for strike one, and then a sinker a little inside that was generously given to Manoah for strike two. Phillips had to swing now if something was in the zone, and I don’t know if he was looking for a different pitch or just straight-up missed this one, but the result was strikeout number five.
The batter: Taylor Walls
The situation: Top 5, 2 outs, 3-2
Finally the Jays had given Manoah some runs, but the game was definitely still winnable for the Rays at this stage. And here they were buoyed by their first hit of the night when Taylor Walls stepped in to follow Joey Wendle — the man standing on first base.
Manoah began with a sinker/two-seamer that started out coming toward Walls then ran out to catch the top of the zone for strike one. His next sinker missed low, then he caught a little too much of the plate with a slider, though Walls could only foul it off. Manoah tried to get him to chase an elevated fastball but missed too high. He followed that up with a slider in the dirt that was much more straight up and down than the others he threw, getting just eight inches of horizontal break compared to his average on the night of 15. Still, obviously Manoah and Kirk felt like his slider was really working, so at 3-2 he went back to it again. Walls was not ready.
The batter: Francisco Meija
The situation: Top 6, 1 out, 2-2
It's now the top of the sixth, and the Jays and Manoah are cruising. He started Meija off in this at-bat with a back-foot slider, but the Rays’ catcher was able to lay off. The next pitch, also a slider, started out outside of the zone to the lefty but ran back in for a called strike. Manoah then tried a changeup — one of just nine he'd throw on the night — and missed badly outside. He then launched a four-seamer just up and in, which Meija fought off, bringing us once again to slider time — and Meija once again to making a truly awkward swing.
The batter: Brett Phillips
The situation: Top 6, 2 outs, 1-2
Ahh, Brett Phillips, this was not your day. Manoah was clearly very confident by this stage, starting off this at-bat with a fastball out over the heart of the plate that Phillips could only foul off. A second four-seamer was up and in and called a ball, at which point Manoah went to the ever-deadly slider, back-dooring it for a called strike, then giving Phillips one he could only swing over top of. Make that three Ks on the night for the Rays' lead-off man!
The batter: Yandy Díaz
The situation: Top 8, 0 outs, 1-2
Finally it was Yandy Díaz's turn. A solid hitter who nearly walks as often as he strikes out, Díaz had avoided being rung up by Manoah in this one, but couldn’t do so forever. A sinker/two-seamer ran up and in on him for strike one, but Manoah quickly followed it up with three straight sliders. The first dropped 50 inches — eight better than Manoah's average on the year, and five better than his average on the night — and Díaz swung over top of it. The second started out coming toward the batter but ran back in and caught the edge of the zone for a called strike two. The third looked all the way like it was going to be a strike, forcing Díaz to take a cut. Except it wasn't, staying inside but diving out of the zone at the last second, and Manoah was off to the races in what would be his final inning of work.
The batter: Kevin Kiermaier
The situation: Top 8, 2 outs, 3-2
More trouble for Kiermaier, who would see the kitchen sink in this at-bat — the last one of the night for Manoah. The youngster started the veteran off with a sinker that was just barely below the zone for ball one. He fell behind 0-2 on a changeup that missed well outside. Then it was the four-seamer, which he managed to just barely catch the inside of the zone with for a called strike. A sinker was next, starting out inside but running out a little too much over the plate, allowing Kiermaier to foul it off. Manoah then wen back to the slider, missing one just outside to run the count full, then firing one last beauty to finish his night of work.
The Jays certainly have a pretty good problem on their hands when it comes to thinking about how they might setup a potential playoff rotation, don’t they? And it comes at a time when such thoughts don’t seem nearly as far fetched as they did even a couple weeks ago. Manoah hasn’t been consistently this good, but it’s in there, and I think he’s already become someone who is a lock for a rotation spot in 2022. He also, quite importantly, is not going to be on any sort of innings limit this year — thanks largely to the fall he suffered around the All-Star break that caused him to miss a few starts (as Gregor Chisholm of the Toronto Star points out in a piece this week).
Robbie Ray and José Berríos are obviously going to be the Jays’ one-two heading into October, with Hyun Jin Ryu struggling somewhat this season and now having firmly become the club’s ace-in-name-only. Do you put Manoah your hypothetical playoff rotation at this point? How about Steven Matz, who has been excellent in his own right of late? Manoah is better suited than Ryu and Matz as a weapon out of the bullpen, but if he’s going to keep on pitching like this it would be foolish not to include him in the Jays’ playoff plans.
It’s not going to be an easy call for the club, but fortunately it’s not one they need to make this minute anyway. And however it shakes out, it’s going to be fun to watch, I think. Especially if they can keep on having incredible nights like they did on Monday against the Rays — and if Manoah can keep on bringing the filth.