Weekly Hit Ground Ball: ManaeaMania

We had seen a few no-hitter attempts early this season, not least a three-day run in the second/third week.

Shohei Ohtani was perfect through 6.1 innings on Sunday 8 April (more on that in a moment), the Royals’ Jake Junis then also took a no-no into the seventh inning on the Monday, before the Blue Jays’ Aaron Sanchez did the same on the Tuesday.

All attempts had ended as just that, an attempt rather than a celebration.

That was until last night and Sean Manaea’s no-hitter against the red-hot Red Sox.

Boston had won the series opener on Friday 7-3 and so this A’s fan wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I looked at MLB At Bat this morning. Manaea has been the lone bright spot in an otherwise faltering starting rotation, so if anyone was going to be able to give the A’s a chance to grab a victory it was going to be him. He more than lived up to that by no-hitting the best offence on the best team in MLB so far this season.

Let’s get this point out of the way: there were a couple of calls that looked to have ended the no-no but were turned around in Manaea’s favour.  Taking away Benintendi’s single due to running outside the baseline seemed fair enough when watching the highlights this morning.  Awarding an error on Marcus Semien rather than a hit in the fifth inning on a pop-up in shallow centre field was more debatable, to the point where Manaea admitted after the game that he assumed it was a hit and got a shock when looking at the scoreboard from the dug-out a couple of innings later.

However, given the way Manaea pitched the only people who could begrudge him that bit of good fortune would be Red Sox fans, and they’ve got plenty of good things coming their way this season to soon forget about it.

Most of the attention in the AL West during April has focused on another starting pitcher.

Shohei Ohtani’s scheduled start against the Royals last Sunday was postponed due to bad weather, moving his next appearance to a Tuesday night showdown against Boston.  Plenty of baseball writers rejoiced at the news, excited to see what Ohtani would do against a strong batting line-up after his two impressive appearances against the A’s.

It didn’t go well for Ohtani, not making his pitches and leaving early with a blister, so that would lend some credence to the point being made by the writers that it was just the A’s who were being carved up by Shohei’s splitter previously. Yet, those comments were more a reaction to simply looking at a win-loss record and failing to go any deeper.  If we look at some of the main MLB Team stat rankings this morning, they show the following:

Batting Average

1. Boston – .282

2. Oakland – .268

On-base

1. Boston – .350

2. Oakland – .346

Slugging

1. Boston – .478

2. NY Yankees – .443

3. Oakland – .442

Home runs

1 LA Angels – 41
…..
Jt4. Oakland – 27

…..
8. Boston – 26.

Going a bit more advanced we can see that Boston lead the way on Fangraphs with a 5.0 team batting WAR.  Who’s right there behind them in second on 4.9?  Yes, those Oakland A’s.

Now there’s a bit of me being a slightly precious A’s fan in all of this, but there’s a genuine point here that once you ignore the lack of big names you’ll find that Oakland not only have a good batting line-up this year but had a good one from the second half of last season onwards, when the likes of Matt Chapman and Matt Olson were called up to the Big League roster. The A’s team batting ranked 7th in the Majors on Fangraphs WAR for the second half of last season after being 27th in the first half.

The big issue the A’s have is with their starting pitching.  Coming into Spring Training they had a group of 8 or 9 guys battling for five spots and Manaea was the only one who you felt much confidence in not simply holding down a spot for a while but actually performing really well whilst doing so.

Depressingly, two of the candidates (Jharel Cotton and top prospect AJ Puk) have recently undergone Tommy John elbow surgery and Paul Blackburn is on the 60-day DL with a forearm strain, so the Opening Day roster rotation was largely determined by who the A’s had healthy, with former A’s Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson being brought in late in Spring Training on free agent deals as relatively inexpensive attempts to patch things up once they got up to speed.

The frustration with this as a fan was in looking at the A’s line-up and what could be a decent bullpen and seeing a potential outside challenge for the second AL Wild Card – a welcome step forward from the last three seasons – dissolving into another long 90-loss campaign.  The early signs were not good with starting pitchers failing to go far in games, the bullpen being overworked as a result and series being lost.

That was except for the starts of Sean Manaea and he’s showed perfectly over the past week how he might lead the way for the rest of the rotation.

Manaea started things off last Sunday by going seven innings in a 2-1 win against the Seattle Mariners, a day after the bullpen had to pick up from starter Kendall Graveman only going four innings. Then the Chicago White Sox came into Oakland for three games and the A’s took the first two on the back of Daniel Mengden going eight innings and Trevor Cahill pitching an excellent seven innings on his season debut.

Game three was a different affair, Andrew Triggs lasting just 1.1 innings and then seven relief pitchers having to cover the next 12.2 innings of a near six hour, 14 inning 12-11 victory. A merciful day off on Thursday led on to Graveman lasting five innings in Game One against Boston on Friday (pitching a bit better than his 6ER line suggested) and the bullpen once again needing to cover four innings of work through necessity rather than some optimal pitching strategy.

All of which brought things back around to Manaea last night.  The A’s needed him and he pitched a no-hitter against the best team in the Majors.

Would I call him an ace? At any given time there’s probably only 10 to 12 true aces in MLB and whilst he helped the A’s get the better of one of them, Chris Sale, last night, it would be fair to say he’s not yet quite in that bracket.

But he is a lot of fun to watch pitch, not least due to his excellent change-up, and if you want to define an ace purely in respect of what he means to his team as the leader of a pitching staff, Manaea looks like he’s stepping up into that role in his third Major League season.

There’s no doubt that Ohtani’s talent and story make him the star young pitcher in the AL West, but hopefully this no-hitter will make a few more people realise that Manaea’s worth watching too.

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