For Oakland Athletics top pitching prospect Sean Manaea, it has been a long journey from Wanatah, Indiana to the big league mound at the center of the Oakland Coliseum.
At 18 years old, Manaea was seen as too weak to be a regular contributor on his college pitching staff, now the lefty is mere hours from a major league debut.
When he climbs that hill once inhabited by the likes of Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Vida Blue and Dave Stewart, Manaea (16-9, 2.82 ERA in 42 minor league starts) will look join an illustrious list of all-time great hurlers to call Oakland home.
And if you ask those who have bore witness to his journey, he has everything it will take to etch his own name on that list. In spite of especially humble beginnings.
Rick Heller, who was Manaea’s head coach at Indiana State University, recalled a recruit meeting he had with his then pitching coach Tyler Herbst regarding the hurler.
In a phone conversation with SFBay, he said:
“(Herbst told me) ‘this kid is really raw, but there’s something special there’… He came in and he wasn’t in the best of shape, wasn’t real strong, and had a hard time repeating his delivery… I said, ‘if he is a hard worker he could be a big leaguer.’”
With no intention of giving the freshman a spot on the roster unless it was earned, Heller saw almost immediately that the hard work would not be a problem.
The current University of Iowa head coach recalls the tall, but skinny lefty spending every waking moment working out, either in the gym or with Herbst. By the end of his freshman year, Manaea had taken his fastball velocity from 84 to 88 mph.
A significant weight gain – from 180 pounds to about 200 – along with the increased velocity caught the eye of Manaea’s head coach from Andrean High School, Dave Pishkur.
He told SFBay:
“I thought, this kid is going to be someone to be reckoned with.”
Pishkur first saw Manaea pitch at South Central Junior-Senior High School where, as the 37-year high school coach thought, he was “way too big a fish in way too small a pond.”
After having lanky left-hander transfer to Andrean, which has now won five of the past 11 Indiana State Baseball Championships, Pishkur had to wait as the Indiana High School Athletic Association delayed his eligibility. When he was finally granted his eligibility, what ensued was a performance Pishkur will not soon forget:
“We found out (he was eligible) 15 minutes before the game and told him, ’Sean you’re on the mound,’ and he went out there and struck out 15. … he threw a two-hitter. It was unbelievable.”
The starter proceeded to carry the Fighting ‘59ers to the state title.
Manaea didn’t feature world-class stuff in high school, though, as Pishkur recalls. Perhaps his featuring a mid-80s fastball and “OK” breaking ball explains why he didn’t wow scouts at a showcase during his senior season.
Despite what he thought was a successful showcase, Pishkur overheard several college scouts in attendance discussing the possibility of him “maybe (being) a good reliever.”
One scout at the event, though, did see potential – Herbst, who did not respond to SFBay’s interview requests.
His willingness to fight to give Manaea opportunity, and then work with him to reach max potential, bred a collegiate star. One whose numbers vastly improved with each season.
A 4.32 ERA in his freshman season dropped to 3.34 his sophomore year. His strikeouts per nine innings pitched also climbed, from less than nine to almost 10.
The improvements came from increased size and core strength as well as the increased velocity – now into the low-90s – along with improved mechanics and control. The lefty also began toying a bit more with a changeup.
In the midst of a dominant junior season, Manaea suffered a torn hip labrum in a start at the University of Minnesota. The injury, Heller felt, hurt his pitcher’s draft stock.
Despite being hobbled by an injury of which the team did not know the extent, Heller was amazed by Manaea’s ability to battle:
“He maybe didn’t have the year he wanted to, on the mound. But I think he showed the (Kansas City) Royals all the things a radar gun can’t show. He toughed it out for his team and found a way to win… He showed that edge, that toughness you’d expect from a top-level pro guy.”
The 2013 junior season he toughed it through was one many would only dream of. Now regularly firing in the low- to mid-90s, the 21 year-old finished with a 1.47 ERA and boosted his number of strikeouts per nine to nearly 12.
At a Cape Cod league game following that season, Pishkur overheard a new conversation from four MLB scouts in attendance.
This time, it wasn’t whether or not he might make an OK reliever, this time the scouts were comparing the Sycamore to Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale (5-0, 1.66 ERA in 2016). That thought is one shared by Heller, who said that comparisons can be drawn between the to pitchers’ deliveries and pitch quality.
That constant level of growth Heller has witnessed did not stop after Manaea was drafted No. 34 by the Royals in the 2013 draft.
Upon finding out his former student was headed for a major league debut, he watched video of the hurler with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds and quickly noticed further improved mechanics. Improvements were also made to his command and the overall nastyness of his slider, which has garnered “The Throwin’ Samoan” comparisons to Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson.
Manaea, who the A’s acquired in a trade that sent Ben Zobrist to Kansas City in 2015, has worked tirelessly throughout his amateur, and now professional career. And those who have watched him transform himself from a skinny teen to a 6-foot-5, 245-pound fireballer agree that he truly can be something special.
Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.