Late Friday night, after Sean Manaea’s major-league debut left the A’s commending the left-hander’s calm and poise, catcher Stephen Vogt singled out a moment when another side of the 24-year-old peeked through.
“I don’t think many people saw it,” Vogt said, “but right when he took the mound for his warmup pitches, he kind of looked around (at the stands) and took a deep breath. I thought that was really cool – like he loved the moment, he loved everything about it.”
Asked Saturday morning what he’d been looking for in that moment, Manaea grinned.
“I was just looking at the stadium, seeing all the people, taking it all in, trying to listen to all the sounds that were going on,” Manaea said. “I just thought I might as well. You’re never going to get a major-league debut again.”
In terms of results, Manaea’s debut in the A’s 7-4 win over the Houston Astros was messier than he would have liked. The A’s top pitching prospect allowed four runs and four hits in five innings, though the final two scored after he had been replaced in the sixth by Sean Doolittle. Manaea recorded three strikeouts and four walks, unusual for a pitcher with a career strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors better than 3-to-1.
Yet Manaea also displayed some of the qualities the A’s prized when they acquired him, somewhat surprisingly, last summer from the Kansas City Royals in a trade for infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound left-hander showed a big fastball that reached 95 mph and a complementary slider and changeup. He delivered them using an easy rocking motion and from an arm angle somewhere between three-quarters and sidearm.
Before and during his start, several teammates said, Manaea carried himself with the seeming unflappability they first noticed this spring in Arizona. This was maybe most evident in the fourth inning, when Manaea picked off Carlos Correa at first base, only to see Yonder Alonso make a high throw to second baseman Jed Lowrie that allowed Correa to slide safely into second.
As the crowd groaned, Manaea immediately clapped into his glove as if to encourage his defense. He pitched around the error and ended the inning by striking out two of the next four hitters: Evan Gattis, who homered in the second; and Carlos Gomez.
“I try not to get frustrated with those things because it will happen,” Manaea said. “I’m going to make mistakes a lot, and it’s something I’m not going to be mad about. I’ve just got to pick my teammates up, and they’re going to pick me (up). That’s just how I think.”
On the mound Manaea cuts a striking figure, with a big frame and big hair tucked under his cap. A’s manager Bob Melvin struggled when asked to name a pitcher Manaea could be compared to.
“I can’t remember having too many big-presence left-handers that throw that hard,” said Melvin. “I think he’s probably one of a kind as far as when you talk about young pitchers that I’ve had, especially from the left side.”
Manaea said he pays close attention to the Chicago White Sox’s Chris Sale, another tall left-hander with a deceptive arm angle – particularly how Sale uses his slider against right-handed hitters.
“His breaks like this much,” Manaea said, spreading his long arms wide apart, “and he’s got a different arm angle than me. But how he attacks right-handed hitters, being able to throw it to the back foot of a right-hander, that’s something I want to be able to do on a consistent basis.”
Vogt joked Friday that Manaea got all his major-league firsts out of the way within the first four batters he faced – first out, first hit allowed, first home run (to Gattis), first strikeout (Correa). After that, Manaea said he thought he tried to be too fine locating his fastball, missing off the corners as a result, and that his changeup was inconsistent. He emphasized pitching deeper into games and finishing hitters when he gets ahead.
He can focus on making those adjustments at the major-league level with the experience of his first outing secure in his memory.
“Running to the mound for the first time, seeing the stands filled with people and the whole place just going crazy, I can’t even put it into words,” Manaea said. “That was everything I dreamed it would be.”