Lakeland, Fla. -- Finally, his performances can be tracked, game by game, rather than by developmental reports or by the occasional scout’s notepad.
Matt Manning will begin his formal 2017 Tigers competitive journey at 7:05 p.m. Monday when the Single A Connecticut Tigers play a home game against the Tri-City ValleyCats at Dodd Stadium, in Norwich, Conn.
Most who follow the Tigers will remember Manning from a year ago when he was scooped by the Tigers with the ninth overall pick in the 2016 big-league draft’s first round.
He was something of a surprise in that he was a prep right-hander, 6-foot-6, 190 pounds, perhaps known more for his basketball than as a potential rotation-heading professional baseball pitcher.
The Tigers liked that duality. It meant he was an athlete who had a low-mileage arm, which might better endure stresses coming his way.
But there was a flip-side to his profile. Manning was also raw. And that reality played into Detroit’s judgment in March when Manning stuck with the kids at Tigertown in Lakeland, Fla., rather than be shipped immediately to Single A West Michigan when its schedule began in April.
“I feel very good about that,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development, as he sized up Manning and other prospects during a conversation at the Tigers’ administrative offices. “The outing he had here the other day might be the best I’ve seen him thrown since we got him.”
What the Tigers saw, increasingly, as April and May gave way to a stronger June, were smoother mechanics and a better handle on Manning’s fastball, which tends to run 92-95 and sometimes hits 96. They saw more depth to his overhand curveball. And they definitely saw progress with the pitch that seems always to mature last for a pitcher, high school or college: the change-up.
“We feel very good about where he is in his professional plan,” Littlefield said. “There’s upside there. There’s upside to his pitches.
“He’s everything we drafted. When you take a high school player in the draft, there’s always a challenge that first year.”
Everything, of course, is in flux when a prep player leaves home and family and routines sculpted during his youth and adolescence dissolve. Now, boom, he is living on his own, working – working – at a profession that, in Manning’s case, is expected during the next two decades to become a career.
Manning began with flash when he pitched in 10 games last summer for the rookie Gulf Coast League Tigers. He struck out 46 batters in 29.1 innings and walked only seven. He allowed 27 hits and had a 3.99 ERA.
A good entrance examination, overall. But he was 18 then, is 19 now, and the Tigers saw no benefit to a conventional early farm assignment. It was a 10-week delay that ends Monday night.
Anyone guessing at Manning’s disappointment has it right.
“Yeah, I thought I’d be ready to go, but I also knew they had a plan for me and they knew what they were doing,” Manning said during a Saturday phone conversation, a day after he arrived at Norwich.
His assessment of those spring months known in baseball circles at “extended spring training” is that he did indeed benefit.
“I thought it was good, a really good time,” said Manning, who would have been off to Loyola Marymount on a basketball/baseball scholarship had he not signed with the Tigers last June for $3.5 million. “I was able to pitch and work on my pitches, just kind of mature as a pitcher. I had time to learn and to get better.”
He says the improvement was tangible, and not only a matter of psychology or abstract gains.
“I think I’ve got more command overall,” said Manning, whose father, Rich, played two seasons in the NBA, and whose older brother, Ryan, is a basketball player at Air Force Academy. “I’ve got more command and more confidence with my curveball in different counts. My fastball command I worked on a lot and think I really improved, particularly working on both sides of the plate.”
And, of course, there was new awareness, and grasp, of that pitch known as the caboose on a player’s train-track through the minors.
He got some help there from Jake Brigham, a former Braves reliever who pitched in Japan before signing a minor-league contract with the Tigers ahead of Brigham’s decision this year to pitch in Korea.
“I worked with his in spring, before he went to Korea, on speeds and movements,” Manning said. “And I think my curve, and my change, now are plus pitches for me. I’ve got into throwing that change-up on any count.
“I can use it in places I need to, and get ’em off my fastball.”
Manning agrees it isn’t only those backfield-pitching mounds where a teenager is obliged to build mettle.
It is life, overall, that changes. In every way. The days are long and can be tedious. Lakeland is a pleasant town, very much so, as retirees and others will testify. But it is not to be confused with Los Angeles when it comes to a young man’s entertainment options.
So, you adjust. With a little help along the way.
Manning’s dad, Rich, dropped by for a few days at check-in last summer. This spring, his girlfriend, Gigi Garcia, a California native who now plays basketball at the University of Washington, was able to visit, as well as a few of his back-home buddies.
“The last year for me has been really big,” Manning said as he prepared to transfer from a Norwich hotel to the host family, where he’ll reside for the next 10 weeks. “I feel like I’m a different guy -- more mature as a pitcher and as a person.
“The strides I’ve made are more personal strides,” he said. “Just getting older, getting better.”
Monday night, it begins – this year’s version. He has a manager at Connecticut, Gerald Laird, a one-time Tigers catcher and long-time big-leaguer who will be working as a skipper, as well as an additional pitching coach.
But mostly, as he knows, this season, in step with all baseball seasons ahead, will be up to Manning.
It’s daunting. Unless, of course, talent that led the Tigers to invest so heavily at the start is still there, in quantity. The Tigers and Manning seem to have found agreement there, as well.
A process of progression continues.