3 ways Blue Jays can try to get Alek Manoah back on track

Through 13 starts, the Blue Jays right-hander owns a 6.36 ERA and leads MLB with 42 walks.

TORONTO – Alek Manoah is in a deep rut.

Through 13 starts, the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander owns a 6.36 ERA and leads MLB with 42 walks. After 2022, a season where he finished third in AL Cy Young voting, this level of regression is unfathomable. The fastball can’t hit the zone; the slider lacks bite, and, perhaps worst of all, the conviction on the mound isn’t there. The fire has given way to hesitation.

His struggles reached a new low in Monday's outing against the Houston Astros, where he couldn't make it out of the first inning and surrendered six earned runs.

That disastrous performance followed a May 31 appearance that left the typically unflappable Manoah emotional.

“It’s been tough,” he said after working four innings on 89 pitches. “Obviously, not doing what I’m meant to be doing. Just gotta keep fighting; keep finding positives and building off them.”

Manoah is rattled, and while that doesn’t mean his season is toast, it indicates more drastic measures are necessary. The club needs to lend a helping hand as its former ace trudges through some serious adversity.

Blue Jays manager John Schneider says "everything's on the table" for what comes next, so here are three ways the team can try to get Manoah back on track.

Skip a start

This isn’t a long-term fix, but with how vulnerable Manoah seems right now, some time to breathe couldn’t hurt. By skipping his turn in the rotation and opting for a bullpen day, the Blue Jays can give Manoah extra time to work with pitching coach Pete Walker to iron things out. During this week off, the big righty can regroup mentally, throw a couple side sessions, and return feeling fresh.

There could also be an element of exhaustion contributing to Manoah’s struggles. He was among the Blue Jays’ slowest-working pitchers a season ago, and the pitch clock has forced him to pick up the pace. On top of that, it’s equally possible Manoah has been overworked from an innings perspective. Remember that he only pitched one complete season as a starter at West Virginia and that he threw just 35 innings in Toronto's farm system before ascending to MLB.

However, the Blue Jays need Manoah’s innings, which poses a strong argument against this tactic. Even during the bleakest days of 2022, when Yusei Kikuchi and José Berríos struggled simultaneously, the Blue Jays never skipped a start.

So, what else can the Jays do?

Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah has been roughed up far too often in 2023. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)
Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah has been roughed up far too often in 2023. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)

Transition to a six-man rotation

This strategy, it appears, has been considered. Schneider told reporters that Triple-A arms Bowden Francis and Zach Thompson could act as sixth starters, or the club could use Trevor Richards as a primary opener in a bullpen day.

A six-man rotation would keep Manoah active (unlike the skip-a-start idea), but just give him extra time to recover. In his MLB career, the 25-year-old has been excellent (2.34 ERA, 10.1 K/9) when pitching on six or more days of rest. There’s no doubt the Jays recognize those splits and how they could impact team success.

But a six-man rotation, especially on a long-term basis, could get murky. Unlike the skip-a-start strategy, which isolates Manoah, a six-man rotation impacts all Blue Jays starting pitchers. What if Kevin Gausman or Chris Bassitt hate waiting around to pitch? Berríos has been so successful lately, how can you mess with his schedule? Also, is there anyone in Triple-A who’d be better than Manoah at this point?

There’s certainly a happy medium where Toronto implements a six-man grouping once or twice through the rotation just to see what happens, but beyond that, we might be looking at the issue backward. If Manoah is the sore spot in this starting five right now, perhaps it’s best not to inconvenience the other arms around him.

Option Manoah to Triple-A or create a phantom IL stint

This has to be Toronto’s last-ditch, pull-the-parachute move. Based on his most recent outing against the Astros, it’s not impossible Manoah gets optioned to Triple-A in the near future. I can’t say for certain if the Blue Jays would be more inclined to slide him to the bullpen before demoting him, but either way, this is a disastrous hypothetical outcome for player and club.

Manoah motivates himself well; however, a trip to Buffalo, especially after a near Cy Young effort one season ago, might just nuke his confidence. I understand there’s precedent — the Jays famously demoted Roy Halladay in 2001 after a 10.64 ERA the year prior — but this is a slippery slope.

There are similarities to the Halladay situation. “Doc,” like Manoah, struggled with command in 2000, walking 5.6 batters per nine compared to just 5.9 K/9. Still, roster construction makes the Manoah-Halladay scenarios very different. The 2001 Blue Jays were not built to succeed. Carlos Delgado carried the offence, but Toronto’s MLB pitching staff stunk, and the club finished 80-82, 16 games back of the AL East-champion New York Yankees. The 2023 Blue Jays face much more desperation as they have playoff aspirations.

An alternative to a straight-up demotion that would lead to the same result would be to use the "Phantom IL" strategy. Like they did with Kikuchi last season, the Blue Jays could say Manoah has developed a "neck strain" or some other physical issue and place him on the injured list for an indefinite period of time. This would open up a roster spot and allow Manoah to pitch in the minors on a rehab stint whenever they deem he's ready.