By Matt Citak
For most people outside of Oakland, California, there’s a good chance that Saturday night was the first time you heard of Athletics starting pitcher Sean Manaea.
Manaea put himself in the record books on Saturday by tossing the first no-hitter of the season, leading the Athletics to victory over the league-leading Boston Red Sox. It took the 26-year-old just 108 pitches to get through nine innings, surrendering two walks while striking out 10 batters.
Throwing a no-hitter in Major League Baseball is impressive enough, but when you look at Boston’s statistics this year, you realize just how amazing Manaea was on Saturday.
Heading into the game, the Red Sox had an MLB-best 17-2 record. Boston was averaging 6.47 runs per game with an 81.6 percent contact rate as a team, both of which were the best marks in baseball by a significant margin.
Manaea completely baffled the Red Sox. The left-hander induced 15 swinging strikes, allowed only three baserunners (one of which came on an error), and did not let any Boston player to get past second base.
While Saturday’s amazing performance may have put him on the country’s radar, Manaea has actually been pitching like a bonafide ace throughout the first month of the season.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound lefty has made five starts on the season. He’s worked at least seven innings in four of those five starts, and allowed more than one run in only one outing (in which he allowed just two runs). He hasn’t walked more than two batters in any of his starts, and he’s given up more than four hits only once.
Manaea is 3-2 with a 1.23 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, 30 strikeouts, six walks, and only 16 hits allowed in 36.2 innings this year. He leads all of baseball in innings pitched while also pacing the American League with 3.9 hits per nine innings. While those numbers are a little skewed because of the no-hitter, Manaea was still holding hitters to a .168/.210/.305 line through his first four starts of the season.
And although he may not have been a household name prior to Saturday, Manaea is hardly a nobody.
He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals 34th overall in 2013 out of Indiana State. During his time in the minors, he reached as high as 45th in the prospect rankings by Baseball Prospectus. The Royals eventually traded him in a deal for Ben Zobrist during their 2015 World Series title run. Clearly Manaea is someone that has been highly-regarded by scouts throughout each step of his career.
Even in his first two seasons in the majors, Manaea found some success. The southpaw earned a 3.86 ERA in 144.2 innings during his rookie season in 2016 before pitching to a 4.37 ERA in 158.2 innings last year.
But in 2018, Manaea simply looks like a new and much improved pitcher.
His current 4.6 percent walk rate has him on pace to set a new single-season professional best. In fact, only once during all of last season did he endure a five-start span with a better walk rate. Manaea is throwing more of his overall pitches for strikes too, as his current 53 percent rate is a career-high.
One of the reasons for Manaea’s drastic improvements this year has been the effectiveness of his fastball. According to FanGraphs, the 26-year-old’s fastball has been worth 8.3 runs above average so far this season. To put that into perspective, his fastball was worth a combined minus-14.3 runs in 2016-2017.
It’s fair to assume that Manaea’s numbers will drop back down to earth a bit as the season goes on. As good as he has been, it will be extremely difficult for him to maintain his .135 batting average allowed on balls in play (second-best among ERA qualifiers) or his minus-2.28 ERA/FIP differential (fifth-biggest margin in that direction). And he isn’t going to keep his 1.23 ERA through October either…
But so far this season, the third-year pitcher has proven he has worked on his craft and has improved on his pitching skills. So although he may not turn into Clayton Kershaw overnight, there is plenty of reason to believe that Manaea can be a productive starting pitcher in the majors.
While he may have put his name on the map because of his no-hitter, Sean Manaea could be enjoying the start of a major breakout season.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.