DETROIT – In his masterpiece against the Houston Astros this weekend, Tarik Skubal showed the Detroit Tigers that he has the potential to be an MLB ace. Matt Manning, on the other hand, has some major red flags.
Skubal, Manning and Casey Mize will be compared and grouped together for their entire Tigers careers. As top 50 prospects, they’ve been touted as the face of the rebuild -- and for good reason.
All three were dominant in the minor leagues -- Mize and Manning with the fanfare befitting first-round picks and Skubal through sheer dominance after being selected in the ninth round.
On Sunday, Skubal showed he has the highest ceiling of the three.
A casual fan could look at Sunday’s box score and be impressed by Skubal’s performance. He got through a career-high seven innings while allowing just one run on one hit and three walks. He struck out nine batters and lowered his ERA to 4.06 -- the best it’s been since his first start of the season.
But this start goes beyond that tremendous stat line. It’s more about HOW Skubal did it, and WHO he did it to.
Let’s start with the “who.” Houston isn’t just the best team in the American League. It also has by far the best offense on the planet.
To date, the Astros have scored 442 runs in 78 games. That’s an average of 5.67 runs per game and 46 runs better than the second-best offense in baseball: the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In 19 games heading into the weekend, Houston had scored 145 runs in its last 19 games -- an average of 7.6 per game. The Astros were on an 11-game winning streak during which they had scored double-digit runs four times and been held below six runs just twice.
It’s a lineup loaded with power, on-base skills and the ability to put the bat on the ball. Few teams swing and miss as infrequently as the Astros.
Sunday was an exception.
When you look under the hood of Skubal’s start, it’s pretty clear this was the best of his MLB career.
Skubal generated 21 whiffs in 102 pitches, including multiple on each of his five pitches. For someone who mostly stuck to two pitches early in the season, that progression is special.
Skubal got six swings and misses on his fastball, six on his slider, four on his sinker, three on his change-up and two on his knuckle curve. He threw four different pitches at least 18 times. His fastball hit 97.7 mph, and his slider touched 89.5.
Simply put, Skubal was dominant with his entire arsenal, and the best offense in baseball was completely overmatched.
It’s not like Skubal hasn’t already been dominant. Since the end of April, he owns a 3.23 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP and has struck out 76 batters in 55.2 innings. His swinging strike rate is an elite 14%, while opponents have a .700 OPS against him.
The only knock on Skubal is the walk rate -- 22 free passes during that 55.2-inning stretch.
But as good as he’s been overall, Sunday was different. He gave the Tigers great length while elevating his dominance against a lineup that’s been tearing up the rest of the league.
Tigers fans are already pretty excited about Skubal. I’m arguing they should be even *more* fired up about this lefty’s potential.
I can’t offer a similar endorsement for Manning, however. At least not right now.
This won’t be a popular argument because people are riding the high of not only the team’s success, but the development of Mize and Skubal. Since Manning has only allowed four runs in 10.2 innings, it’s natural to want to lump him in with everything that’s going right for the rest of the team.
But if we’re going to tout Skubal’s underlying numbers as reason for optimism, we can’t ignore some glaring red flags in Manning’s profile.
Let’s start back before Manning even got the call to the major-league level. In 2019, Manning was named the Tigers’ Minor League Player of the Year. He posted a 2.83 ERA, 0.980 WHIP and struck out 148 over 133.2 innings. Sounds pretty awesome, right?
There was one little nagging concern in the back of my mind: Manning was nowhere near as dominant in terms of missing bats. His strikeout rate fell to a career-low 10 K’s per nine in 2019, and his swinging strike rate was a solid, but unremarkable, 12%.
For reference, Manning averaged 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings across three levels in 2018, including a 14% swinging strike rate. Those might not sound like major differences on the surface, but trust me, it matters.
I’ll admit those concerns had me on alert during the last two spring trainings. I was on the lookout for red flags, and Manning did little to reassure me. He was clearly a step behind Mize and Skubal at the alternate training site in 2020, and then, after the minor-league season was canceled, came back looking less dominant than ever in 2021.
He struck out eight batters in nine innings this spring, but allowed 11 hits, five walks and five earned runs along the way. His fastball velocity was down and his curveball didn’t generate as many whiffs.
“It’s only spring training.” That’s probably what most people told themselves. After all, Manning was ranked among the top 30 prospects in baseball by both MLB.com and Baseball America.
But his Triple-A season was off to a dreadful start before Manning’s long-awaited promotion. He allowed 29 earned runs in 32.1 innings (8.07 ERA) with a 1.546 WHIP and 36 strikeouts in 32.1 innings. Not only was Manning getting hit hard -- his swinging strike rate dipped to 11%.
That carried over into his first two MLB starts. In 10.2 innings, Manning has allowed 16 batted balls of at least 95 mph. Meanwhile, he’s struck out just four batters.
While throwing 157 pitches, Manning has induced just 11 swings and misses. That’s a swinging strike rate of 7% -- a rate that would make it difficult for even the most extreme ground ball pitchers to survive.
In his debut, Manning threw 69% fastballs, pretty much ditching the rest of his arsenal. On 23 combined sliders, curveballs and change-ups -- traditionally the best swing-and-miss pitches -- Manning got just one whiff. He wasn’t fooling Angels batters at all, despite such a fastball-heavy approach that should have made breaking pitches even more unexpected.
Five days later, Manning got his first MLB win against a St. Louis Cardinals lineup that, to put it lightly, stinks. Other than Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill, the lineup is very, very pitchable.
Again, Manning’s results were positive. He survived 5.2 innings and allowed just two runs. He absolutely deserves to enjoy that outing, and fans should, too.
But in terms of sustainability, something will need to change. Manning got just four whiffs on 80 pitches -- ZERO from his slider or curveball. His pitch mix was a little more diverse, but his fastball still got hit hard and he simply couldn’t miss bats.
Manning’s strikeout potential was what made him an elite prospect. In his first two MLB starts, it’s hard to attribute his success to anything other than good fortune -- and in baseball, regression is the name of the game. Nobody dodges the underlying numbers for long.
Now, let’s be clear: Just because Manning hasn’t been dominant so far doesn’t mean he can’t be in the future. We’re talking about a former first-round pick who was an elite minor-league pitcher up until last year. He’s only 23 years old, too.
Mize and Skubal didn’t hit the ground running at the MLB level, either. Both struggled last season and got off to shaky starts in 2021. Remember the team’s 9-24 start? A lot of that was because Mize and Skubal weren’t getting the job done.
Fast forward to today, and those are probably the team’s two most reliable players. A.J. Hinch, Chris Fetter and the staff will work to put Manning on that same development path.
Giving up on Manning after two starts would be immensely foolish. But trust these early results at your own risk.