DETROIT – Matt Manning’s first start of the season couldn’t have gone much better.
The 24-year-old retired 18 of the 19 Boston Red Sox hitters he faced, breezing through one of the most dangerous lineups in all of baseball. The only blemish: A 413-foot homer off the bat of former Tigers slugger J.D. Martinez.
READ: Javier Baez crushes first homer since signing with Tigers to deliver win over Red Sox
It doesn’t take a statistician to appreciate how effective Manning was Monday night. He held the Red Sox to just one run across six efficient innings, striking out two batters without issuing a walk. If not for the shortened spring buildup, he could have lasted seven or eight innings.
Last season, Manning posted a 5.80 ERA, 4.62 FIP and 1.512 WHIP, in part because he only struck out an average of six batters per nine innings. He was constantly tempting fate with a 7% swinging strike rate and 39.2% hard-hit rate across 18 starts.
While climbing the minor league ranks and becoming one of the top prospects in MLB, Manning dominated hitters with a power fastball and devastating curveball. But in the months leading up to his major-league debut, the strikeouts started to wane.
That trend burned him more often than not as a rookie, and while the first start of 2022 yielded excellent surface results, the underlying numbers were still a bit underwhelming.
Manning generated just six swings and misses on 68 pitches -- a swinging strike rate of 8.8%, which is still well below the MLB average of about 12%. He allowed six hard hits (balls impacted at 95 mph or harder) out of 17 balls in play -- a hard-hit rate of 35.3%.
The good news is that Manning’s most important underlying numbers were slightly improved in his first start. That’s encouraging, especially against a strong offense.
Another positive: Nine of the 17 balls put in play against Manning had an expected batting average of .220 or lower, meaning they had very little chance of turning into hits. Six of those nine were below a .100 xBA, making them de facto strikeouts in terms of expected production.
Manning will also be a major beneficiary of Detroit’s improved infield defense. He induced ground balls at a decent rate last season (44.5%), and with Javier Baez at shortstop, Jonathan Schoop at second base and Spencer Torkelson at first, those types of batted balls should turn into outs much more often than they did in 2021.
We’ve already seen a pair of dazzling plays from Baez in his first four games wearing the Old English D, and the double play combination is infinitely better with Baez and Schoop up the middle.
Manning isn’t missing many bats, so he’s going to need great defense and a bit of luck on balls in play. When those things fall into place, outings like Monday can happen.
There’s still plenty of time for Manning to rediscover his bat-missing ways, but until then, the Tigers are hoping for more outcomes even half as good as this one.