While the results weren’t disastrous in Manning’s first five starts, the underlying numbers were alarming. He only induced 21 swinging strikes on 361 pitches (6%) and gave up hard contact on 41% of the balls put in play against him. Batters drew eight walks in 22 innings while only striking out nine times.
Even though he only had one blowup over that span -- a nine-run ambush by the Cleveland Indians -- Manning’s metrics were very concerning, especially since he had also struggled against Triple-A hitters all season.
But Wednesday was a completely different story.
Manning lasted a career-high six innings against the Rangers, picking up his first quality start and allowing just two runs on four hits and two walks. He struck out four batters.
Unlike in previous outings, when a glance under the hood forecasted some ugly regression, this start was backed up by the underlying numbers.
Manning induced 11 whiffs on 77 pitches -- an excellent 14% swinging strike rate. He was especially effective using his fastball up in the zone, getting a half-dozen whiffs with that pitch in the fourth through sixth innings alone.
He mixed in 15 change-ups and 15 sliders. His only whiff with the change-up come on a beauty buried down and away from the powerful Joey Gallo in a 2-0 count. His slider was sharper than in past starts, particularly against right-handed hitters (and especially John Hicks).
Manning picked on Hicks with a fastball painted low and away, too, leaving him lunging on two separate occasions.
When the Rangers did put the ball in play, the contact wasn’t as hard as in Manning’s previous starts. Only four balls were hit 95 mph or harder, and more importantly, eight of 17 were struck at under 85 mph (weak contact).
Nine of the 17 batted balls against Manning had an expected batting average below .200, which means contact of that quality would rarely result in hits. Six had an xBA south of .100 -- essentially automatic outs.
If Manning isn’t going to rack up big strikeout totals like he used to in the minors, this is the type of contact we need to see for him to sustain success at the MLB level.
In this start, he was able to miss bats and also induce weak contact. That combination is the name of the game.
It’s worth mentioning that coming into Wednesday, the Rangers had scored just three total runs in 41 innings since the All-Star break. They have the worst offense in the American League, and only two National League teams have scored fewer runs this season (with pitchers batting).
Still, it felt like the type of start that Manning might be able to build on. His next outing figures to come against a Minnesota Twins lineup that’s much more capable. That’s a chance to validate this performance.
We still need to see much more from Manning to put him in a category with Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal as fixtures in the future starting rotation. But every turnaround starts with a positive first step, and Manning might have taken his Wednesday night.