Alek Manoah's rough start to 2023 is almost unprecedented in recent history
The amazing season Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah had in 2022 was rare, but his struggles out of the gate in 2023 are even more unusual.
Alek Manoah's 2022 season was so strong that it seemed unfair to expect a repeat in 2023 — but the magnitude of his crash back to earth has been shocking.
Through nine starts the big right-hander has a 5.40 ERA, the second-highest walk rate among qualified pitchers (6.40/9), and an xERA (6.30) that suggests the quality of contact against him is so good that he should be giving up even more runs.
Manoah's struggles are explained by a variety of factors stemming from a basic lack of control, to a velocity dip and lack of horizontal movement on his trademark slider.
A brief glance at his Baseball Savant page doesn't leave much room for optimism.
This is all grim stuff for the Blue Jays, but we're still talking about a nine-start sample, and Manoah's combination of pedigree and track record make it tough to believe he's totally lost it.
In order to get a handle on the magnitude of the 25-year-old's issues, it's worth examining if pitchers who've put together special seasons have ever stumbled so badly to begin their follow-up campaigns — and whether they were able to right the ship.
Over the last 30 years, there have been 32 pitcher seasons with 150-plus innings and an ERA of 2.25 or better, including Manoah's 2022. If we exclude the Blue Jays right-hander, and Justin Verlander — who's managed just two starts in 2023 after his stellar 2022 — we have a solid peer group for Manoah.
Unsurprisingly, that sample tended to perform well after their outstanding campaigns. After all, 150 or more innings of 2.25 ERA ball is only within the possible range of outcomes for elite pitchers. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez account for a quarter of those seasons between the two of them.
To zero in on comparables for Manoah's 2023 early-season struggles, we looked at the first nine starts of each pitcher the next year. On average, the ERA for the group's first nine outings was 2.91. Regression to the mean came into play, but performance levels remained elite in most cases.
Of the 30 pitcher seasons in the sample, only three of them posted an ERA above 4.50 — at least doubling what they conceded the year before. Those are the most logical points of comparison for what's going on with Manoah now.
Performances most like Manoah's
1998 stats: 7.31 K/9, 1.61 BB/9 and 0.47 HR/9 in 251.1 IP — 2.22 ERA and 2.81 FIP.
First 9 starts of 1999: 4.87 K/9, 1.10 BB/9 and 1.10 HR/9 in 57.1 IP — 5.02 ERA and 4.11 FIP.
Rest of the 1999 season: 5.83 K/9, 1.67 BB/9 and 0.50 HR/9 in 162 IP — 3.06 ERA and 3.15 FIP
While Maddux's 1999 was arguably his worst season between 1988 and 2002, it would've been a career year for the majority of pitchers who make the big leagues.
Early in the season his strikeout rate was well below his career standard (6.06 K/9) and he was running an inflated .368 BABIP. We don't have Statcast data from that era, but it seems like his control was fine but his command might have wavered as high home run rates and BABIP often result from suboptimal ball placement.
Maddux was one of the best pitchers on Earth for years after his wobble early in the 1999 season, and his case offers some hope for Manoah. That said, his rough start to 1999 included fewer fundamental issues than what the Blue Jays right-hander is experiencing now, and it came during one of the strongest offensive environments in the history of the sport.
While Maddux had an ERA+ of 90 in his first nine starts of 1999, Manoah's 5.40 ERA in a less explosive era give his an ERA+ of 79 — a significant difference.
2015 stats: 8.08 K/9, 1.62 BB/9 and 0.57 HR/9 in 222.2 IP — 1.66 ERA and 2.76 FIP.
First 9 starts of 2016: 8.10 K/9, 1.91 BB/9 and 1.11 HR/9 in 56.2 IP — 5.08 ERA and 3.59 FIP.
Rest of the 2016 season: 7.32 K/9, 2.56 BB/9 and 1.41 HR/9 in 102 IP — 3.97 ERA and 4.41 FIP.
At the time of Greinke's rough start to 2016, it would've been easy to dismiss his struggles. His underlying numbers were almost identical to his sterling output the previous season.
The only issue that jumped out was a few more balls clearing the fence, but his average exit velocity against was a solid 87.5 mph. In his unbelievable 2015, that number sat at 87.3 mph.
As it turned out, the first nine starts of 2016 were a harbinger of things to come as Greinke's walk totals climbed and he continued to struggle with the long ball. His 4.37 ERA that year was the second-highest full-season total in a career that's now spanned two decades.
Greinke's 2016 wound up being a blip, though, as he was an All-Star in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
2022 stats: 11.10 K/9, 3.82 BB/9 and 0.78 HR/9 in 184 IP — 2.20 ERA and 3.10 FIP.
First 9 starts of 2023: 10.49 K/9, 4.27 BB/9 and 0.97 HR/9 in 46.1 IP — 4.86 ERA and 4.13 FIP.
Rest of the 2023 season: TBD
We don't know the rest of this story, but Cease appears to be in a better place than Manoah right now. The Chicago White Sox starter is still running a solid strikeout rate and his ERA is within range of similar slumps he's experienced in the past.
Meanwhile, Manoah's run-suppression issues are totally unprecedented.
Where does that leave Manoah?
While there's some recent historical precedent for pitchers struggling out of the gate after elite seasons, Manoah is in a class of his own.
Not only are his results an issue, there are underlying problems for him at almost every level.
The quality of his stuff isn't the same as it was in 2022, and it's not a surprise to see his production suffer as a result. He is not a guy who's gotten a few tough breaks early in the year. He is pitching far worse on almost every level.
At the very least, Manoah's control projects to improve. He has never had significant trouble with walks as a pro until now, and it seems safe to assume he'll throw more strikes from here on out.
Fewer free passes would be a good start, but whiffs and soft contact will remain elusive as long as his stuff isn't right. Manoah's struggles run deep and Blue Jays fans worried about where the right-hander goes from here are not overreacting.