In his first seven starts of 2023, Alek Manoah has been unable to give the Toronto Blue Jays the type of quality innings he produced last year.
The 25-year-old has averaged just over five frames per start, with an ERA of 4.71, a FIP of 5.50 and an xERA of 6.92. He's in the midst of a rough patch by any standard, producing his worst seven-game stretch by fWAR.
Manoah's problems don't stem from a single issue. He's allowing harder contact than normal, his velocity has fluctuated, and his slider's movement hasn't looked as dynamic in 2023.
However, his start Wednesday threw a spotlight on a problem that's affecting his numbers across the board. At the moment, Manoah is able to get ahead of hitters, but putting them away is another matter.
In his start against the Red Sox, he threw 22 pitches with two strikes but earned just three strikeouts. While three unearned runs ultimately undid him, Manoah is making his margin for error small by allowing balls in play to determine his fate.
While his K/9 (7.68) isn't that much lower than what he produced in his excellent 2022 season (8.24), that doesn't tell the whole story. Manoah has been able to inflate his current strikeout total because he's facing more hitters per inning this year due to the walks he's allowing and the hits against him.
On a per-hitter basis, his K-rate has plunged.
There's a significant cost to striking out so many fewer hitters, as it opens the door to many of the negative outcomes Manoah is currently experiencing.
What's interesting about this issue for Manoah is that it really seems to centre on what he's doing once he gets to two strikes. The big right-hander is getting one pitch away from a strikeout approximately as often as he ever has.
When we're dealing with an issue such as this, the best metric to look at is putaway percentage, which is simply the rate at which a pitcher converts two-strike situations into strikeouts with each of the pitches in his arsenal.
Looking at Manoah's putaway percentage with each offering, and it's pretty clear where the culprits lie:
The four-seamer number is consistent with his previous work despite a velocity dip, and the changeup has improved significantly. Manoah has never recorded more than seven strikeouts via the change in a season in his career, but he's already up to five in 2023.
Unfortunately for Manoah, the other two pitches have been an issue.
With his sinker, command seems like the most likely issue. Here's a heatmap of where Manoah's 65 sinkers that went for strikeouts in 2021 and 2022 landed:
Here's where Manoah has thrown his two-strike sinkers this year:
Unless he's successfully hugging the glove-side edge of the plate, strikeouts with this pitch are hard to come by. Right now, he doesn't seem to have a great handle on it.
Finally, the slider is clearly the biggest problem for Manoah. In his first two seasons, that pitch accounted for 117 strikeouts — 38.1% of his total. In 2023, he has just six punchouts with that breaking ball.
Manoah's slider hasn't been the same for a couple of reasons. The first is movement; its vertical movement and horizontal movement have both declined from 2022. The horizontal movement is particularly notable, as it went from 74% above average to 415.
Even with that decline, the movement on Manoah's slider is still impressive enough that whiffs should be coming in two-strike situations. But once again, command is an issue. In 2021 and '22, Manoah was extremely consistent at placing the pitch low and on the gloveside corner.
This year, more of his sliders are leaking up over the plate in two-strike situations:
The good news for Manoah is that the location issues here are correctable, and he has a track record of solid control. His walk rate is almost twice as high in 2023 (12.3%) as it was last year (6.5%), but he's likely to harness his arsenal better as the season goes on.
Issues such as the velocity dip on his fastballs and the diminished movement on his slider are more difficult to project. Both problems could theoretically be a mechanical tweak away from a fix, or they could linger all season.
There are a lot of things going wrong for Manoah right now, and if he's unable to finish off more hitters, it will make it extremely difficult for him to look like his old self again.