How Blue Jays ace Alek Manoah can get even better in 2023

Alek Manoah was an All-Star and Cy Young finalist last season but there's still room for improvement in his game.

Blue Jays right-hander Alek Manoah was an All-Star in 2022 and finished third in AL Cy Young voting.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Less than two years ago, right-hander Alek Manoah forced his way onto the scene with the Toronto Blue Jays, making his MLB debut on the road against one of sports' most iconic franchises, the New York Yankees.

It was the first of many milestones he’d reach during his rookie season with the franchise that drafted him 11th overall in 2019. The 25-year-old didn’t lose any steam in his first full major-league campaign, becoming the club’s ace starter and finishing third in AL Cy Young voting in 2022.

Now entering Year 3 with the Blue Jays, Manoah can add another accomplishment to his resume when he takes the hill Thursday in St. Louis, becoming the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in franchise history. He will also be the 11th different Blue Jays pitcher to kick off the regular season since 2003.

Manoah’s rise to stardom has come fast and furious. But when he faces off against the Cardinals during his 52nd career big-league start, he’ll be looking to build off an impressive 2022 performance, where he finished third in ERA (2.24) and fourth in innings pitched (196.2) among AL starters.

Toronto is counting on Manoah to lead a starting rotation that includes Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi. And there is no reason to think he can’t deliver on that high expectation, especially since he did precisely that a season ago.

Given that the 2022 All-Star is entering just his third major-league campaign, though, it isn’t unrealistic to think he could reach another level of dominance this season. But what area of his game requires improvement?

As any professional athlete will tell you, there is always room for growth, no matter how well you performed the previous season. While Manoah already excels at pitching deep into games, inducing weak contact and limiting walks, he could benefit from a boost in swing-and-miss.

Piling up strikeouts — or punchies, as Manoah refers to them — came fairly easy as a rookie, as his strikeout (27.7 percent) and whiff rates (29.7 percent) ranked in the 79th and 75th percentiles, respectively. But that wasn’t the case last season, with both percentages falling by almost five points.

What caused this to happen? It certainly wasn’t his performance versus right-handed hitters, who slashed just .159/.211/.249 against him with a 28.0 percent strikeout rate. Lefties, however, fared much better — just as they did in 2021 — as they hit .237/.313/.367 with an 18.9 percent strikeout rate.

One pitch left-handers created the most damage against was Manoah’s four-seamer, which allowed a .301 AVG and .441 SLG across 114 batted-ball events. The underlying metrics were even worse.

While it is easily his most effective weapon versus righties, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same effect on lefties, as evidenced by last season’s poor results. His two-seamer/sinker, however, proved to be a much better offering, registering a .215 AVG, .200 xAVG, .252 SLG, .282 xSLG and a 32.9 percent hard-hit rate against.

The only problem was Manoah’s four-seamer featured a considerably higher usage (37.8 percent) than any of his other pitches, with his two-seamer sitting second (24.0 percent), followed by his slider (19.8 percent) and changeup (18.5 percent).

To his credit, Manoah incorporated more two-seamers and sliders during two-strike counts, as each of their usages surpassed 25 percent in those situations. Still, neither outdrew his four-seamer despite producing higher strikeout rates against left-handed batters.

If the towering 6-foot-6 right-hander hopes to increase his swing-and-miss total in 2023, altering his pitch sequencing will need to become a major point of emphasis over these next six months.

But, of course, this is something that Manoah has already started working on, as he threw 33 combined sliders and two-seamers to lefties during two-strike counts this spring, compared to just five four-seamers. And it made him virtually unhittable.

The process is always more important than the results during spring training, but you can’t dismiss that his slider-two-seamer combo induced 10 combined punchies, either. Together, they should help the Blue Jays’ ace become a better all-around hurler against left-handers, particularly when it comes to missing bats.

That notion also applies to Manoah’s changeup, a pitch he has worked diligently to improve since his arrival in the majors. It didn’t have much of an impact in 2021, featuring a plus-two run value, though it took a massive step forward last year, recording a negative-four run value.

Though it has been an afterthought versus righties, the opposite is true against lefties, as Manoah threw it 18.5 percent of the time, up 2.6 percent from 2021. With its late-breaking movements, translating into a 22.6 percent whiff rate, it is easy to understand how it has become more trustworthy.

The emergence of Manoah’s changeup provides him with an effective game plan when facing left-handers: attack the top half of the strike zone with fastballs and the bottom half with sliders and changeups. But we might see some subtle changes to his north-south approach in 2023.

Considering the Homestead, Fla., native threw 37 off-speed pitches to lefties this spring, tied for second-most amongst his arsenal, enticing hitters to chase below the zone could become a much larger aspect of his strategy, especially if his changeup’s development makes another positive stride.

Manoah’s refined approach will receive its first test on Thursday as he’ll be up against a talented Cardinals lineup, which features potent lefties like Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman. It may also include switch-hitters Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman.

In a season where the Blue Jays’ sights are set on their first AL East Division title since 2015, receiving an improved version of Manoah would go a long way in helping turn that goal into a reality.