Can Alek Manoah Return To Form for the Blue Jays in 2024?

Where did things go wrong for Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah last season, and can the former All-Star figure things out in 2024?

Alek Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays delivers a pitch in the first inning during a MLB game against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre.
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 02: Alek Manoah #6 of the Toronto Blue Jays delivers a pitch in the first inning during a MLB game against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre on October 2, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

There’s no way to sugarcoat it… Alek Manoah’s 2023 season was a complete disaster on several fronts. The only solace is the Toronto Blue Jays hurler now has the chance to write the next chapter of his story, which everyone hopes will turn out better than the previous one.

Despite a flurry of trade rumors over the offseason, Manoah remains with the franchise following a horrific third year in the majors that resulted in a career-worst 5.87 ERA and a pair of minor-league demotions, with his second marking the end of his campaign.

He finished last season away from the team after not immediately reporting to Triple-A, instead receiving multiple injections in his right arm to reduce inflammation and discomfort.

Having the 26-year-old righty, who began 2023 as Toronto’s Opening Day starter, conclude the year on the temporary inactive list wasn’t the ending anyone had envisioned. Not the Blue Jays, and certainly not Manoah.

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So, the 2022 American League Cy Young finalist went to work over the winter, determined to arrive to spring training ready to prove himself again. And he’s off to an impressive start, saying all the right things to his teammates, the organization and the media while looking noticeably slimmer fresh off his offseason rejuvenation.

All these steps, of course, are crucial for Manoah’s redemption tour. But one pressing question, which serves as the biggest storyline at Blue Jays camp, has yet to be answered: Can he bounce back in 2024? More importantly, what might a resurgence look like?

Solving that mystery will undoubtedly be easier said than done. But before we take a run at that, let’s start with where things might have gone wrong a season ago.

What Went Wrong for Alek Manoah in 2023?

Attacking the strike zone was, by far, Manoah’s most troubling concern last season. Before his first of two minor-league assignments, the 2022 All-Star issued a major-league-high 42 walks over his first 13 starts of the season. In comparison, he only allowed 15 free passes during his first 13 starts to begin the ’22 campaign.

The walks continued to pile up even after Manoah returned from the minors in July. He ultimately finished with a 14.2% walk rate that ranked in the third percentile of the majors. That came just one season after his career-best 6.5% clip placed in the 70th percentile. That 7.7% increase from 2022-23 ranked fourth-highest among qualified pitchers.

As a result of his command, or lack thereof, the right-hander’s swing-and-miss ability declined considerably. While he wasn’t elite in that department to begin with, posting strikeout (19%), whiff (21.8%) and chase rates (26%) all in the 20th percentile was still a big step backward. It certainly didn’t help him to compensate for his high walk rate.

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Nor did losing his ability to miss barrels and limit hard contact, as he finished in the bottom third of the sport in each at 9% and 44.8%, respectively. The 13.3% year-to-year increase in his hard-hit rate was the second-highest jump in the majors, trailing only Cleveland’s Sam Hentges (13.9%).

Due to an increase in hard-hit balls, Manoah’s home run total also shifted, and not in a positive direction, leading to a career-worst 1.55 HR/9. Thanks to these factors, which led to the highest ERA of his career, he also struggled to a miserable 6.01 FIP in 87.1 innings across 19 starts with the Blue Jays, worth -0.4 fWAR.

Not only did his traditional metrics suffer, but so did his expected results, earning Manoah a 6.12 xERA and .372 xwOBA against; each ranked in the bottom four percent of the majors. Neither his xAVG (.266) nor his xSLG (.465) were much better, positioned in the 22nd and 15th percentiles, respectively.

Next to nothing went right for Manoah, who lasted five innings or more in only eight starts last season after reaching that benchmark in all 31 outings during his Cy Young-caliber 2022 performance.

The issue with trying to diagnose the 6-foot-6 hurler’s 2023 struggles is they can’t be pinpointed to just one culprit. There were several difficulties and likely even more than what’s already been documented. What’s even more challenging is they weren’t all physical problems. They were mental, too.

In saying that, there is a path for Manoah to follow that should help him turn things around in 2024.

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Perhaps part of the answer is potentially adding a new cutter to his repertoire. Okay, maybe not. But in all seriousness, the biggest step forward that must occur involves his strike-throwing, particularly with his top two offerings.

Improving His Arsenal

Manoah’s four-seamer, which earned a -10 run value last season after posting a plus +19 RV in 2022, missed over the heart of the plate far too much for a pitch that averaged 92.8 mph. The same was true of his two-seamer. Its velocity will be another element worth monitoring this season, as it was a full tick slower on average compared to ’22.

Source: Baseball Savant

Opposing hitters didn’t struggle when facing Manoah’s four-seam fastball, clubbing a .316 AVG and .592 SLG against his primary heater while posting a 54.5% hard-hit rate – that’s nearly a 15% year-to-year increase from ’22.

And it wasn’t just his four-seamer that got crushed. So, too, did his slider. One year after producing a +6 RV, that figure dropped to -9. The reduced quality of his breaking ball allowed opponents to fare much better against it, hitting .239 with a .432 SLG and a 32.2% hard-hit rate.

Source: Baseball Savant

For Manoah to regain his devasting breaking ball, he needs to make a dramatic improvement in its strike-to-ball location and significantly reduce the number of noncompetitive pitches thrown. The shape of the pitch must return to form, as well.

In 2022, the right-hander’s slider averaged 14.5 inches of horizontal movement, one inch fewer than his rookie 2021 campaign. Last season, however, it lost two inches of break compared to the previous year, averaging 12.5 inches.

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Executing in Pivotal Situations

Improving the quality of Manoah’s arsenal is only the first part of the equation, though. The second is executing those pitches in pivotal situations – like, for example, during two-strike counts.

Toronto’s 11th-overall selection from 2019 didn’t struggle to work himself into count leverage in 2023. That’s actually one of the few things he did well. But unlike in his first two seasons, he had difficulty putting away the opposition once he had recorded two strikes against them:

Source: FanGraphs

Manoah must be able to consistently locate his slider and each of his two heaters if he’s to improve in those spots this season. Otherwise, his woes tied to finishing off hitters will likely continue, leading to additional appearances that result in elevated pitch counts.

Adjusting to the Pitch Clock

Adjusting to Major League Baseball’s pitch clock will also be a point of emphasis for Manoah, who, after struggling to do so last season, should be better equipped to handle that obstacle this time around, given his improved physique.

The timer seemingly led to Manoah – dinged for three violations – rushing his delivery at times on the mound. Previously, he’d require roughly 20 seconds between receiving and releasing each ball without anyone on base and close to 25 seconds with somebody on. In 2023, the pitch clock only allowed for 15 and 20 seconds, respectively. The clock will drop to 18 seconds with runners on base in 2024.

Manoah had to speed up his timeline between pitches last season, evidently causing problems. But now that his body shouldn’t require as much recovery between pitches, fatigue may become easier to combat – both physical and mental.

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What the Blue Jays Need From Alek Manoah

Alek Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays leaves the game in the eighth inning during a MLB game against the Chicago White Sox at Rogers Centre.
TORONTO, ON – JUNE 02: Alek Manoah #6 of the Toronto Blue Jays leaves the game in the eighth inning during an MLB game against the Chicago White Sox at Rogers Centre on June 02, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

As for his team’s expectations, the Blue Jays don’t necessarily need Alek Manoah to re-emerge as the same dominant and intimidating pitcher he proved to be in 2022. If he finds that persona again, fantastic. If not, it won’t be the end of the world.

Right now, all this team needs is for Manoah to be their fifth-best starting pitcher, at least out of the gate. From there, the rest is up to the Homestead, Fla., native to decide.