A 30,000-foot view of the Toronto Blue Jays so far this season wouldn’t detect any huge problems. The offense, while maybe not tearing a hole in the Earth or indeed time as might have been predicted, is still 11th in MLB in runs. Bo Bichette is second in batting average, Vladito is bashing the shit out of the ball, Matt Chapman is actually hitting better than Guerrero Jr. Kevin Kiermaier is on the good side of some fiendish BABIP treachery, and though he’s missed a chunk through injury, Brandon Belt has taken to life away from San Francisco for the first time. Kevin Gausman is the clubhouse leader in the AL Cy Young race, the bullpen has been strengthened and pretty effective ahead of closer Jordan Romano. The rotation has remained remarkably healthy, with the original five starters on Opening Day taking all the turns.
So one might wonder what exactly they’re doing in fourth place, 9.5 games behind the Rays, and three games out of the last playoff spot. One answer is they play in by far the league’s toughest division. Another big one is that Alek Manoah is ennui dressed in blue these days.
Manoah might have pitched his way out of the Toronto rotation
Manoah got one Astro out last night, while also giving up six runs. He’s hearing his manager hint that a removal from the rotation is now on the table, and it certainly is quite the thud from a pitcher who was a Cy Young finalist last season. His ERA is a Bane-sized 6.36, and his FIP suggests there isn’t any air in that at all, as it stands at 6.52. His fWAR is -0.6. The Jays would have been better off putting out a wacky wavy-armed inflatable guy on the mound every fifth game.
So what’s the problem here? As with every walk of life, to know how you got where you are it’s best to start with where you came from. And while this kind of self-immolation was hard to see, Manoah’s numbers from last year did have a fair amount of air in them. Manoah was also on the good side of some fiendish BABIP treachery, with a .244 mark that was nearly 50 points below the league average. He has had a vicious market correction in that this year, rising 80 points to .324. That mark is closer to the league average, though a little swollen, and probably a better indication of the neighborhood that Manoah will keep for the rest of his career. Manoah also benefited from an 82 percent left-on-base percentage last year, which isn’t really a skill but is really about sequencing. League average is usually around 75. He’s sunk just as much below that this year as he was above it last year, with a 70 percent left-on-base. The hits are coming more bunched this year than they did last.
That’s because Manoah’s stuff has never been sparkling. He struck out just about the league-average number of hitters last year. What he did last year was generate a bunch of soft contact, with his 5.4 barrel rate being in the top 10 in the league. But it didn’t come with an abnormal amount of ground balls. That barrel rate has almost doubled this season.
Manoah is giving up the same amount of fly balls that he did last year (41.9 percent last year, 40 percent this year), he’s just seeing double the amount fly over the wall (7.1 HR/FB percentage to 14.9 this year). Maybe some of that is the baseball, and the league average on HR/FB has gone up, and Manoah is only slightly above it, but either way, he’s giving up far more homers this year.
Still, luck and the vagaries of the baseball can’t explain it all. Manoah’s slider last year was a real weapon. Hitters managed only a .190 average against it, and whiffed nearly a third of the time on it. The whiffs have only dropped about five percent, but suddenly hitters are tuning it up at a .328 average and .603 slugging. Left-handers have especially turned the offering into a seven-course meal (.385 average) and that might be because Manoah has struggled to get the pitch on their shoelaces as much this year as he did last year. It’s hanging around low and in in the strike zone more often, and most left-handers would describe that as their happy place.
Manoah’s release point on all his pitches has dropped and gotten a little more side-arm’y this year, though that hasn’t made a huge difference in the movement of his pitches. Still, it might be making everything easier to see.
Losing speed on his fastball
Manoah’s fastball has lost a full MPH from last year, and he’s leaving more of them over the plate and up instead of having it live on the hands of righties as it did last year. Combine that with the dropping arm angle and one might wonder if his shoulder isn’t a little crunchy this term. Manoah didn’t pitch in 2020 thanks to COVID shutting down the minors, and he threw 129 innings in the minors and MLB in 2021. His load jumped over 70 innings last year if you include his postseason start, and that’s quite a lot to add on someone who had only ever thrown 35 innings in the minors.
The Jays’ margin for error isn’t all that big. If the Texas Rangers are indeed serious about what they’ve done so far, that leaves the wildcard spots for whoever is the Texas team that doesn’t win the AL West, all of the AL East, and maybe if the Mariners or Angels clean up their act. The Jays have the offense to go on a binge for a month or so, but the rotation seems to be riding its luck even with Manoah complaining in the corner about the DJ. They’ve gotten a nice bounce-back season from Jose Berrios so far, but both Yusei Kikuchi and Chris Bassitt have FIP and BABIP numbers, along with some left-on-base luck, that suggests the second half of the season could be full of fire-extinguishers. The Jays can’t catch the rest with only one or two starters firing.
Maybe a trade will be the answer (bring Marcus Stroman back?), but the Jays’ plans before the season included Manoah being not just serviceable but a plus-starter. That still has to be the plan, Manoah is just going to have to fight the luck that has turned against him this time.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.