The New (and Improved?) Sean Manaea

Sean Manaea's pitch mix looks as different as his new haircut.

In the biblical tail of Samson, the titular character gains his power through his hair, long and luscious curls that have not been cut since his birth. Searching for a way to diminish the strength of the powerful Samson, the enemy Philistines bribe his lover, Delilah, to find out the secret to his strength. Samson relents, telling her that it is his hair where his power is stored. As Samson sleeps, Delilah chops off his hair, leaving him without his strength, and in his diminished form he gets captured by the Philistines.

Clearly, Sean Manaea is not familiar with this tale, as the Mets’ free agent addition decided to cut his prodigious locks and bushy beard prior to the start of the 2024 season. In starting a new chapter with a new team, the nearly unrecognizable Manaea was looking for a clean slate and a new start, eschewing any biblical warning about the dangers of haircuts. Perhaps he was hoping to take a page out of former Mets ace Jacob DeGrom’s book; the 2014 rookie of the year winner began his career with shoulder-length hair, but after trimming his doo before the 2018 season he hit another gear, taking home that season’s Cy Young Award.


While perhaps not as dramatic as his change in appearance, Manaea has also changed the way he’s pitched since arriving in Queens. Last season with the Giants, Manaea was a three-pitch pitcher, rolling with a four-seamer as his primary option (throwing it 56% of the time) and complimenting it with a changeup in a slider; he occasionally sprinkled in a developing sweeper to the mix. The southpaw was used in a swingman role after, but he made the majority of his appearances out of the bullpen, though often as a “follower” or to pitch a bulk of innings. In September, Manaea took the rubber for four starts late-season starts, and the results were promising. The Indiana State product posted a 2.25 ERA and 3.21 FIP during that stretch while averaging six innings per start. The secret sauce behind Manaea’s strong month was generating a ton of ground balls (52.1% of the contact he was allowed was on the ground) to go along with some generous batted ball luck (he had a very low .254 BABIP against him). To do so, he heavily leaned on his four-seamer and used his slider and changeup as his off-speed weapons.

Yet despite his late-season success in 2023, Manaea has changed his plan of attack significantly in 2024. Through three early season starts this year, Manaea made the sweeper a key component of his arsenal, throwing it about 15%, while also adding a cutter that he tosses with the same frequency. His once prominently featured slider has barely been present.

 Sean Manaea’s Changing Pitch Mix (2023-2024)

Year Four-Seamer Cutter Sweeper  Changeup Slider
2023 56.4% 0.6 5.1% 16.9% 20.2%
2024 53.2 14.9 14.9 13.4% 3.7%

Manaea opened the season with two excellent starts, allowing just one run through 11 innings. His most recent start against the Royals, however, was a clunker, with the Kansas City offense tattooing him for eight runs (six earned) in just 3.2 innings. Currently, Manaea’s ERA stands at 4.30 and his FIP is at 3.52. Those numbers are in line with his production in past seasons; Manaea has had an ERA and FIP higher than 3.50 and lower than 5.00 every year of his career. At a cursory glance, it might seem like the same old Sean Manaea, eating innings with roughly average performance.

That being said, it’s a little too early in the year for those results-based metrics to have an adequate sample size to tell us anything too meaningful. After all, Manaea had a 0.82 ERA after his first two starts, but his unreasonably favorable .190 BABIP and 90 LOB% indicated that a ton of luck played into his success – and low and behold, that the law of averages reared its ugly head at him in his subsequent appearance. So while on the surface it might look like a pretty standard Sean Manaea start to the season, the change in his pitch distribution tells a different story, and he’s the way he’s getting to those numbers is not the same as how he did so in the past.

One sea change in Manaea’s profile this year is a sudden inability to generate ground balls. His 27.0 GB% is the third lowest in the majors among qualified starters, despite his career number being at 42.7%. For context, 43.0% is the 2024 league average. This change in GB% can be somewhat attributed to shifting away from his slider, which hitters had a 42.0 GB% against in 2023, and bringing in the cutter, which has just a 20.0 GB% in the early goings this season (of which we should not the sample size is quite small for). But beyond this shift, all of Manaea’s pitches are not generating ground balls in the same way they were last year – his fastball has dipped from 48.3% to 16.7% in that regard and his changeup has similarly gone from 50.8% to 28.6%. There’s a chance that this is all small sample noise, but another factor could be that he seems to be locating both pitches lower in the zone (or in some cases not in the zone), perhaps causing batters to swing under the ball rather than on top of it.

So far Manaea has had good home run luck, with just 5.9% of his fly balls going over the fence, but if his GB% stays near the bottom of the leaderboards, he might be making himself considerably more susceptible to the long ball.

However, more notable than the lack of grounders has been the stark uptick in strikeouts. Throughout his career, the 6’5” southpaw has never been a big-time strikeout artist, with just a 22.1 K% for his career before this season. So far this season, that number has jumped to 27.7%. Much of the credit can be due to the integration of his sweeper, which has given Manaea a strikeout weapon unlike any he’s ever utilized before. Last season, in limited usage, Manaea was good for a 34.6% CSW on the pitch. This year, as he’s gotten more comfortable throwing it, the pitch has gotten even better. Its CSW has jumped to 45.0%, in the 98th percentile among starters’ sweepers. Also in the 98th percentile is his 30.0 swinging strike%, and he is getting hitters to swing and miss on a robust 50.0% of his pitches outside of the strike zone. These are elite strikeout indicators and make a plate appearance against Manaea a much scarier prospect than it has been in the past.

Year Fastball CSW% Secondary CSW%
2023 29.1% 26.2%
2024 25.9 30.2%
Diff -3.2% +4.0%

Manaea really had the pitch going in his start against the Reds. He had the Cincinnati hitters off-balance, and they struggled to make contact as the pitch moved in on their hands. He looked in command the whole start, flustering the young Reds lineup.

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There has been somewhat of a tradeoff with Manaea’s increase in strikeouts, as his BB% currently stands at a career-high 10.8%. As a notoriously low-walk pitcher, I think it’s fair to assume that Manaea’s command will improve as the season wears on and he fully harnesses command of his new weapons. If his sudden inability to induce grounders is here to stay and he can’t keep the walks in check, I think it’s hard to say that this new version of Manaea is definitively better than the old model even with the early success of the sweeper. Even so, it’s hard not to view his newfound ability to strike batters out as anything other than a major positive that absolutely raises his ceiling. If he can improve his command and get his ground ball numbers to regress back to where they’ve been the past few years, Manaea could be on track for a career year and further proof of the DeGromian anti-Samson principle. If not, we might be in for another year of the usual, just a bunch of solid but unspectacular mid-rotation innings, even if the path taken to those results looks a little different.

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