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Are You For Real? Surprising Fantasy Baseball Pitcher Starts From Matt Waldron and Alek Manoah

Alek Manoah - Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, MLB Injury News

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?", a weekly column where we take starting pitchers who had surprisingly good starts over the past week and put them under the microscope to determine whether they're legit or just smoke and mirrors.

This time we've got two interesting righthanders to look at. First, we'll dive into knuckleballer Matt Waldron's 10-strikeout day against the Braves. Then, we'll deep dive into Alek Manoah's resurgence.

Roster percentages are taken from Yahoo! and are accurate as of May 20.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Matt Waldron, San Diego Padres – 2% Rostered

2024 Stats (prior to this start): 39.1 IP, 5.49 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 11.4% K-BB%

05/17 @ ATL: 5.2 IP, 5 H, 1 ER 2 BB, 10 K

Waldron was electric Friday night, allowing just one run over 5.2 innings while fanning a career-high 10 Braves. It’s been a tough start to the year for Waldron, who lowered his ERA to 4.69 following this start. He has allowed just three earned runs combined over his last two outings. Is Waldron legit, or is there simply no way to spin him as a fantasy option?

Originally an 18th-round pick by Cleveland back in 2019, Waldron came over to the Padres in the blockbuster Mike Clevinger deal in 2020. Not having much to work with in terms of velocity, Waldron began throwing a knuckleball as a minor leaguer. Altogether, he works with a five-pitch mix consisting of a knuckleball, four-seam fastball, sweeper, sinker, and cutter.

Waldron may have a deep arsenal of pitches, but make no mistake, he lives and dies by the knuckleball. He used the pitch 44% of the time against Atlanta in this start, his highest knuckleball usage rate since the first game of the season. The Braves lineup struggled against the pitch, with Waldron notching six of his 13 whiffs with the knuckleball in this start.

A 76.7 mph offering, Waldron’s knuckleball is more of a power knuckleball; it doesn’t have some of the crazy arc, loops, or dance moves we’ve seen from knuckleballers past. Instead, it comes in rather straight albeit with extremely low spin. Here’s an example from this start.

Jarred Kelenic was totally fooled by that pitch, which had a spin rate of 236 rpm. Waldron’s knuckleball averages just 239 rpm, and he’s thrown pitches this season with less than 100 rpm. While it’s unique to see on his Baseball Savant page, does it translate into success?

Batters have really struggled against Waldron’s knuckleball this season, with opponents hitting just .224 with a .358 SLG and .278 wOBA. The key to Waldron’s knuckleball isn’t swing-and-miss, but weak contact. He had the strikeouts in this start, but with just an 11.1% swinging strike rate and a 22.3% chase rate with his knuckleball on the year, it’s safe to say this was an outlier. Batters have had a difficult time squaring up Waldron’s knuckleball, with just an 86.9 mph average exit velocity and a 31.3% infield flyball rate thus far. Waldron is able to consistently produce weak contact with the pitch, which should help him keep BABIP and batting average low against the pitch.

So, we know he’s able to keep hitters at bay with his knuckleball, but what about the rest of his arsenal? Unfortunately, there’s not much to like beyond the knuckleball for Waldron, which is probably a big reason why he became a knuckleballer in the first place. His four-seam fastball averages just 90.9 mph with below-average spin at 2,068 rpm. Opponents are hitting .262 against the pitch with a .476 SLG and .336 wOBA. Waldron does induce weak contact with his four-seamer. Opponents are averaging an 88.7 mph exit velocity and 20-degree average launch angle off the pitch this season, good for a .254 xBA and .319 xwOBA. Overall, Waldron’s fastball looks like a below-average offering that only serves to fool hitters by keeping them off balance, rather than blowing it past them directly.

What about the rest of his arsenal? Does Waldron supplement his knuckleball well? Not exactly. Waldron’s third most commonly used pitch is his sweeper, which he throws 18.2% of the time. Batters are hitting just .227 off the pitch, but they’re also slugging .500 with a .368 wOBA. The strikeout numbers on Waldron’s sweeper are pitiful, as Waldron has a 4.2% swinging strike rate and a 10.3% chase rate with the pitch. These are some of the worst swinging strike metrics I can recall seeing on a breaking ball, and we can’t count on this pitch for anything but opposing home runs. He has similarly underwhelming underlying metrics on his sinker and cutter. Outside of the knuckleball, Waldron throws a lot of junk.

This leads me to one of the core issues in rostering Waldron, which is the unpredictability of his game. Waldron will not consistently produce strikeouts with his arsenal, meaning he’s reliant on good outcomes for balls in play. Waldron has a .313 BABIP this season and has consistently had BABIPs above .320 in the minor leagues, so we can’t trust him to always have those good outcomes. So much is left up to chance with this approach, and a high-BABIP, pitch-to-contact, low-strikeout pitcher doesn’t sound all that appealing for fantasy purposes.

Verdict:

Knuckleballers are always a treat to watch, but they’re more akin to sideshow attractions than a bona fida fantasy asset. Waldron has produced good results on his knuckleball thanks to a penchant for inducing weak contact and infield flyballs, but outside of that, there’s not a whole lot to like. His fastball is below average in just about every sense of the term, and the rest of his arsenal is painfully mediocre. So much is left up to chance with a pitcher like Waldron, and unless you’re in a deep league, he’s not worth the headache. Keep him on waivers.

 

Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays – 36% Rostered

2024 Stats (prior to this start): 11 IP, 4.91 ERA, 6.15 FIP, 14% K-BB%

05/19 vs. TB: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

Manoah was dominant on Sunday, limiting the Rays to just one hit over seven innings en route to his first victory of the season. It’s been a winding road for Manoah, who has experienced high peaks and low valleys over the past three seasons. With an 82 GSv2, this was his best start by Game Score since October 2, 2021. Fantasy managers have a complicated relationship with Manoah at this point, but he’s shown us so much in the past that it’s hard not to be a little intrigued by his recent performance. Is Manoah back, or was this just another fleeting success?

Originally the 11th overall pick by Toronto back in 2019, Manoah was a big-time pitching prospect who was expected to be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter at the major league level. Manoah looked to be surpassing expectations following his promotion. His peak came in 2022 when Manoah finished third in Cy Young voting after putting up a 2.24 ERA in 196.2 innings. He came crashing down the next year, with Manoah posting a hideous 5.87 ERA and 6.01 FIP in 87.1 innings in 2023, a season that saw him get demoted to the minors. Manoah works with a four-pitch mix, consisting of a sinker, slider, four-seam fastball, and changeup.

When Manoah is at his best it means his fastball and slider are working for him, and that was certainly the case in this start. Manoah’s most used pitch was his slider, which he threw 31% of the time. He also earned five of his 11 whiffs with his slider in this start. A slower 81.8 mph offering, Manoah’s slider is best characterized by its plus horizontal movement. Manoah’s slider has had a 67% greater break than average this season, which is a step up from last year when it was just 44% above average. It’s still not as good as his 2021 and 2022 seasons, but it’s a step in the right direction. The spin rate on his slider is also trending upwards; he averaged 2,238 RPM with his slider in his most recent start, which is close to his spin rate during his peak of 2021-22.

The pitch has been his best strikeout option too, with a 15% swinging strike rate and a 25% chase rate thus far. On the year batters are hitting .238 off Manoah’s slider, but have a .524 SLG and xSLG and a .362 xwOBA. It would be nice to see better expected stats on this pitch, but then again it’s only been three starts for Manoah so we’re working with a very small sample size. The improvements in movement and spin rate are a positive sign for Manoah, even if results have been mixed. The slider isn’t quite back to peak levels, but it’s a definite improvement over last year.

Manoah’s next most used pitch in this start was his sinker, which he’s throwing a career-high 29.3% of the time. The increased sinker usage has served him well thus far, as batters are hitting just .105 against the pitch with a .105 SLG and .200 wOBA. The expected stats suggest the outcomes were earned as Manoah has a .158 xBA, .199 xSLG, and .249 xwOBA with his sinker this season. What’s made it so good? Weak contact. Batters have a meager 85 mph average exit velocity against Manoah’s sinker this season, along with a 20-degree launch angle. Sinkers are usually thought of as groundball pitches, but not for Manoah, who had a 45.5% flyball rate and a 40% infield flyball rate with his sinker this season.

Flyballs are the least likely batted ball type to land for a hit, so this isn’t a bad approach, though he may run into trouble pitching in the AL East with these tendencies. Home runs were a major problem for Manoah last season, and he’s already surrendered three in his three starts, a concerning trend even if he didn’t allow a homer against Tampa Bay. Manoah is allowing a 40.4% flyball rate overall with just a 5.3% infield flyball rate, so home runs could continue to be an issue for him.

Something else that was a major problem for Manoah last season was walks, and Manoah has shown some improvement through three starts. He walked four in his first outing but has walked just two batters since and has increased his zone rate by 2.6% this season, going from 38.8% last year to 41.4% this year. The 41.4% is more in line with 2021-2022, so if Manoah can sustain this he may be able to keep his walk rate below 10%.

Verdict:

So, is Manoah back? It may be too early to say, but it’s also unlikely that he’ll ever replicate his 2021-2022 run. He relied on a .245 BABIP and 8.3% HR/FB ratio to put up a 2.60 ERA over that stretch. That doesn’t mean Manoah can’t be useful in fantasy, and he’s made enough small improvements to intrigue this writer, such as his increased zone rate and regained slider movement. Even though he has a 25.3% strikeout rate through his first three starts, he might not be a reliable source of strikeouts going forward. His slider is his only good strikeout pitch, and a 25% chase rate just isn’t that impressive. One positive aspect about Manoah is that Toronto has no qualms about working him deep into games, and the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder has proven to be a workhorse in the past. He might be a good source of quality starts and wins in addition to volume due to his propensity to work deep into games. He’s a fringe add in 12-team leagues, depending on team need.

 



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