Three singles spread across 7 scoreless innings is pretty thin coverage. That rarely covers the toast, and the pitching performance spearheaded a 5-1 win for the down-and-out San Francisco Giants. How surprising it was that it happened against the Los Angeles Dodgers, that it happened in LA, that the man responsible was Sean Manaea, who lugged a career 9.00 ERA against the Dodgers into Friday’s start.
It was Manaea’s third start and second win in September. He’s allowed only 4 earned runs over 18 innings pitched this month, and the 7-inning performance was the longest of the season by an inning as well as his first scoreless start. For the win-challenged Giants, Manaea has been at the helm for the team’s last two.
Freddie Freeman singled in the 1st inning to collect his 200th hit of the season and set a career high—the first baseman beamed from the bag, the stadium scoreboard flashed with lights and Dodger Stadium swelled with boisterous pride. It felt like the start of another dismal night for the Giants—the footnote in another team’s history book. But Manaea kept his head down and stayed the course. Will Smith flew out to end the 1st and he got Mookie Betts and Freeman on air-outs after Miguel Rojas in the 3rd. Smith’s single to lead off the 7th was erased on a double-play ball and the outing ended with a well-struck but non-threatening flyout.
Typically a power pitcher who hunts for the whiff and exposes himself to the walk, the game plan against the Dodgers may have been to not do too much with his pitches. Where Manaea and the Giants are at, there’s a temptation to “overplay”, to try to score 5 runs with a single swing or strike out the side on a single pitch. Desperation tactics: Back against the wall, desperate, close eyes and flail.
Instead composure reigned. Manaea’s fastball stayed in the zone 60% of the time while nibbling change-ups and sliders did well to cleanse the palate before returning to the fastball. He definitely got away with some center-cut heaters, but stuck to the game plan of just attacking the zone while not giving into the lineup’s reputation and playing into some aggressiveness at the plate. It’s an approach that won’t work out all the time—the make them beat you approach will certainly result in some beatings (especially against an offense like LA) but San Francisco has to think one game, or one inning at a time.
After 3 innings, Mike Yastrzemski gave the Giants a 2-run lead, and Thairo Estrada tacked a solo shot on in the 6th. With a crooked number lead, Manaea retired 9 batters in a row through innings 4 thru 6. He needed 4 pitches to retire the side in the 6th. The Dodgers never advanced into scoring position, and Manaea was never in a situation where he needed to pitch for the strikeout, which often encourages his bad habits.
Yaz lifts off in Dodger Stadium pic.twitter.com/XHzOQlSVVL— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 23, 2023
Only 3 at bats went to a 3-ball count, and all of them ended in outs. Manaea topped last Sunday’s 5.1 inning outing against Colorado as his longest without surrendering a walk. With just 2 strikeouts against LA, he’s only K’ed 10 in his last three starts, but a friendlier relationship with the base on balls (2 BB in last 18 IP) is more than copacetic and maybe reveals a more sober, mature presence on the mound. Trust the mix, trust the big delivery and extension—he doesn’t have to amp up the velocity at the cost of location to keep hitters on their heels.
After the Giants’ season long rotation woes and their sink in contention and good graces, the question is a more than fair one: Why wasn’t Manaea brought back into the rotation sooner? Not Keaton Winn, not Kyle Harrison, not Tristan Beck—was the solution (or at least part of it) right under Gabe Kapler’s nose?
Before his start on September 12th against Cleveland, his last start was on May 10th against the Nationals, in which he allowed 8 runs (4 earned) on 5 hits and 3 walks while striking out 4 over just 2.2 innings. It was his 6th start and his ERA was a fingernail from 8.00. He struggled with his release point—often seeming to lose feel for a pitch mid-at bat, and the long ball plagued him. A week later he made his first appearance out of the bullpen against Philadelphia and over his next 4 appearances he threw 10.2 innings allowing only 1 earned run—a homer against Philly. June and July were a often two-faced in long relief: a masterful 4.1 innings of 5 Ks, 0 BBs against Chicago would be sandwiched between rough outings against the Rockies and Dodgers. 5.2 innings against the Nationals resulted in 9 hits and 4 runs and the next appearance against Boston delivered a clutch 4.1 scoreless innings of 2 hit in a game the Giants won 3-2 with a walk-off homer from J.D. Davis after Camilo Doval blew a 2-run lead in the 9th.
He actually deserves way more credit for his performance in June. He struck out 20 while only walking 3 over 15.2 innings. His WHIP over 6 appearances was 0.89 and 9 of the 11 hits he allowed came in two games: one at Coors Field and the other against the Dodgers. Both games the Giants won but were defined by their late-inning resilience on offense despite the team’s pitching. Manaea wore that—and his next 3 appearances were just 1 inning jobs to match-up against prominent lefties. In an overall successful and immensely entertaining June, there was no rush to get Manaea back in the rotation.
It’s been inconsistency that’s kept Manaea relegated to the bullpen and his punishment, akin to Dante’s vision of Hell, fits the crime. He’s been a tandem arm, along reliever, a short bridge in the middle innings from a starter to the more established bullpen arms, a closer (first career save on August 1st), a match-up play in high leverage situations, an innings eater. The lack of clarity in terms of role has played on the man’s psyche. It doesn’t feel great for a 31 year old veteran with 156 starts over 7 season prior to this one to not only lose a starting job but also be sent to the bullpen to wander aimlessly, buffeted by the slightest breeze in terms of game situation and coach’s whim. Every time the bullpen phone rings, he’s triggered into wondering if this one’s for me. Through all of that Manaea should be lauded for his grace and team-first outlook, and this September “call-up” is his reward to reclaim his spot in the rotation next year whether that be with the Giants or another club if he executes his option.
But again why not sooner? Were the Giants really in a position to keep him at bay as Anthony DeSclafani struggled and then succumbed to injury, or Alex Wood, or Ross Stripling? Or an inexperienced rookie arm? Or could we simply say it’s silly to bemoan the fact that Manaea was not starting sooner because he served significantly elsewhere—a starter, just not in name. 13 of his appearances out of the bullpen lasted at least 3 innings. 10 of those he entered the game in the 3rd inning or earlier. Despite the inconsistency of performance, Manaea has been pretty darn durable. His 111.2 IP rank third on the team behind Logan Webb and Alex Cobb. Yes, the hybrid role might be less interesting (or boooorrrrrringgggg) and is ruining the wholesome and traditional starting rotation that will bring about the demise of baseball—but it has worked pretty okay. As a team, San Francisco is 19-17 when Manaea has pitched—and only 3-6 in games that he’s started with 2 of those wins coming this past week. I think the narrative surrounding his arm is one of the more interesting and vexing narratives of the season.
Still with the wallpaper starting to peel, the drywall crumbling and the studs starting to show in the House of Relief, it is reasonable to think that Manaea’s return to the rotation could’ve come sooner. His IP mark might be third highest on the team but it’s the second lowest in his career after an injury shortened 2019 and an abbreviated 2020. The lefty appears hungry and ready to eat, it feels like Kapler could’ve heaped more on his plate starting a month ago. But as far as I’m aware, there was no contingent of Manaea Maniacs dawning black wigs of oily luscious locks with temporary sleeve tattoos picketing 24 Willie Mays Plaza demanding his return to starter-status. He had served well in his role in August with a 3.15 ERA over 20 IP but a wild-hair got up his nose with 13 BB to 25 K’s (his 3.39 BB/9 is well below the middle of the pack) with an uptick of home runs after 20 straight appearances without one (for the season: 1.05 HR/9). Besides that I’m not sure fans have ever recovered from his early season starts. His failures have often caused more alarm than his successes have brought comfort.
But onto a 12-15 August after a 12-13 July, was it not time for adaptability? The bullpen games worked to start the year, but it was clear the usage would be unsustainable, so rather than running a tired and thirsty horse into the ground why not pivot? Whether deserved or not, it will be heaved as another knock against the perceived boop-beep-bop-boop, robot computer coaching-style that is attracting more and more flack as San Francisco struggles to keep their head above .500.
Arguments and counter-arguments. The benefit of hindsight. You can’t predict the future and you can’t change the past. There’s no clear answer to whether Sean Manaea should’ve been brought back into the rotation sooner. Given the position the team is in now, it doesn’t matter that we can’t know the answer, it’s the fact that we’re asking the question that’s frustrating.