Recent struggles have Manaea, Melvin muddled

The anointed Oakland A’s ace, Sean Manaea has now dropped a deuce in three consecutive starts.

After going 7-2 with a 3.23 ERA over a 13-start stretch from May 20 to July 27, Manaea looked every bit the type of top-of-the-rotation guy Oakland needed to withstand the departure lone rotation veteran Sonny Gray.

Since then, the big lefty has gone 0-2 with a 17.55 ERA — 13 earned runs (18 total) in 6-2/3 innings.

The first of those three terrible starts came on Aug. 1, the day after Gray was traded to the New York Yankees. And, sure, this is likely no more than a strange coincidence, not even worth the energy of thought. But that is the most troubling thing, even more so than the struggles themself: Neither Manaea or manager Bob Melvin¬†appear to have answers to the questions revolving around the second-year starter’s scuffle.

Worse yet, they don’t seem to know the question. Said Manaea:

“Honestly, I have no idea. Trying a whole bunch of different things. Hopefully … I can try to figure out how to get out of this rut.”

Added Melvin:

“Concerned, he’s going through a rough stretch, yeah (we’re concerned).”

The problems could be coming from anywhere. The slider, his most inconsistent pitch, has been consistently uncontrollable. And the changeup, perhaps his best pitch, has endured more hang time through 174 total throws this month than it had in the previous four months.

Most troubling, though, his velocity has been down — normally near 94 mph, his fastball has spent much of August around 90, often below.

Following the worst outing of Manaea’s young career — six runs allowed in 1/3 inning — Melvin allowed the term “dead arm” to escape his lips before quickly back-pedaling:

“(His velocity has) been down for a while, here. Maybe it’s a dead-arm stage — I don’t know dead arm. It’s August, he’s got 100-plus innings. … He’s got an extra day this time (through the rotation), but he’s going to have to figure it out in the bullpen.”

Dead arm is a possibility. He has thrown just under 2,000 pitches in 119-2/3 innings this season after throwing fewer than 2,200 in 144-2/3 big league innings a season ago. He has also walked more batters — 41 to 37 — in 2017, forcing longer counts and more high-stress throws.

But there are certainly other possibilities.

Much like Randy Johnson — another tall, hard-throwing lefty — his mechanics are unique and thus difficult to master. His front leg lands on the first-base side of the rubber, forcing his throwing motion to come across his body, and he has a lower arm angle — not quite sidearm, like Johnson, but definitely not over the top like Oakland’s last Cy Young winner Barry Zito.

Harnessed, this motion can be very deceiving, thus difficulty on the hitter. Equal difficulty, though, lies is harnessing it.

Even the best pitchers go through slumps — much like hitters — suffering temporary lapses in the mastery of their mechanics. In Zito’s dominant, Cy Young-winning campaign of 2002, he had a six-start stint in which he went 1-2 with a 6.43 ERA. Struggles that don’t measure up to those Manaea has been forced through of late, but struggles nonetheless.

And, as was Zito’s mantra throughout his career, Manaea remains focused on whatever pluses he can muster:

“Just trying to think about the positive things.

“Physically, I feel great. No problems at all.”

Positivity and continued hard work will be a key for Melvin, pitching coach Scott Emerson and most importantly Manaea — things for which he has shown an affinity — for the new ace to navigate his way out of pitching purgatory. And, unless the decision is made to skip him in the rotation (for rest), the 25-year-old will have nine more starts with which to return to the ace-like form he has shown so often, and escape this August funk.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.