Sometimes numbers just happen. Occasionally we see an unheralded player just go out and dominate the competition. When that happens, we have to figure out whether the player is better than we thought or whether luck is playing games with us. Either way, lefty reliever Chris Manno had an incredible season in 2011 and gets a spot on our 2011 South Atlantic League All-Star team.
Name: Chris Mammo
2011 Teams: Hagerstown Suns (SAL- WAS), Bakersfield Blaze (CAL- CIN)
Acquired: Traded by Washington Nationals with OF Bill Rhinehart to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for OF Jonny Gomes
Basic Pitching Stats: 1-3 record, 1.04 ERA, 69 strikeouts (14.3 K/9), 21 walks (3.1 BB/9), 1 homer allowed (0.1 HR/9), 12 saves, and 25 games finished in 34 appearances and 43.1 IP for Hagerstown, 0-1 record, 0.53 ERA, 31 strikeouts (16.4 K/9), 6 walks (3.2 BB/9), no homers allowed, 2 saves, and 8 games finished in 13 appearances and 17 IP
Chris Manno has gone through quite a roller coaster as a prospect. Coming out of high school, he was a projectable lefty hitting the mid-80’s on the mound, but he thought of himself as an outfielder and that killed his draft stock because scouts didn’t see him pitch very often. He went undrafted and instead attended Duke University. After appearing sparingly as a freshman and allowing 16 runs (10 ER) in 9.1 innings, Manno was pretty dominant as a sophomore, going 6-2 with a 3.37 ERA, posting a 12.3 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 (an excellent 2.33 FIP) in 12 starts and 58.2 IP. Over the summer, Manno pitched in the Cape Cod League, and he was the ace of the league champion Horwich Mariners, going 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA, a 9.6 K/9, a 4.5 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 (3.18 FIP) included tossing six one-run innings in the championship game. Despite his fastball hitting just the high-80’s and low 90’s Manno was pitching like a potential first five rounds pick, showing a plus changeup along with a slider. But he had to survive one more season and he simply could not do that.
In 2009 for the Blue Devils, Manno set career-highs with 14 starts and 73.2 IP, but he performed badly, posting a 4.89 ERA, an 8.8 K/9, a 4.3 BB/9, and a horrible 1.6 HR/9 (4.96 FIP). That caused him to fall all the way down to the 39th round to the Nationals, but Manno declined to sign, hoping to rebound with a nice senior season. However, he struggled all year and was eventually bounced from Duke’s rotation as he went just 2-2 with a 6.17 ERA, 10.6 K/9, 4.8 BB/9, and 1.4 HR/9 (4.40 FIP), although he did save 4 games in 13 starts, 3 relief appearances, and 46.2 IP. The Nationals still remembered the potential he had shown in 2008 as a sophomore, and drafted him once again, this time in the 26th round, and this time, he signed. He posted a 2.50 ERA, a 14.5 K/9, and a 5.0 BB/9 in 12 relief appearances and 18 IP with the Rookie-level GCL Nats in 2010 to set the stage for an even crazier 2011.
Sally Leagues hitters simply could not figure out Chris Manno’s changeup. According to Minor League Central, Manno led all SAL pitchers minimum 40 IP in K/9 (14.3), FIP (1.63), and SIERA 1.49. Hitters made contact on just 32.0% of their swings against Manno, far and away the best mark in the Sally (the next closest pitcher was at 41.9%). Even when hitters put the ball into play against Manno, something they did in just 45.3% of their plate appearances while Manno pitched for Hagerstown, they popped the ball up on 15.9% of their batted balls compared to the 7.2% league average.
The Cincinnati Reds had been scouting Manno, and when it turned out that they were going to trade Jonny Gomes to the Nationals, they wanted Manno in addition to power-hitting OF/1B Bill Rhinehart. Once Manno arrived in the Reds organization, they immediately sent him to High-A Bakersfield, and he was actually even better. He upped his K/9 to 16.4 while lowering his FIP to 1.14, his SIERA to 0.77, and hitters made contact on just 26.8% of their swings. They put the ball into play just 37.9% of their PA’s, and they popped the ball up in 26.9% of their batted balls. Even crazier, Manno allowed 26 batted balls in Bakersfield, but not a single line drive. It may have been somewhat fluky that he didn’t allow a home run, but hitters simply could not get the bat on the ball against him, let alone on the barrel. Both in Hagerstown and Bakersfield, Manno was simply unhittable.
Is Manno really anywhere near this good? The stats aren’t flukes- he dominated opposing hitters wherever he went in 2011. But if we want to conclude anything, we need to go back to his pitches (sorry, no Pitch F/X data this time, so this is pure scouting). Manno has a three-pitch arsenal as a left-hander, throwing a fastball, a breaking ball, and a changeup. His fastball often registers in the high-80’s but touches 92, and it features some nice movement in to righty batters. His breaking ball is kind of a loopy curveball with 1 to 7 break. It’s not a particularly good pitch, but it’s a complete change of pace from his fastball. Manno’s money pitch is his changeup. Manno has excellent arm action on his changeup, making it look exactly like his fastball, before a combination of its speed difference from his fastball as it registers in the high-70’s to low-80’s and excellent late sinking action forces swing and miss after swing and miss. Manno’s arsenal plays even better than it is because he has a very deceptive delivery, messing up the hitter’s view of the ball by blocking the ball for an instant with his glove just before he delivers the pitch.
Manno’s arsenal definitely fooled A-ball hitters more than it will fool hitters at higher levels. He has a plus pitch in his changeup, but his fastball is pretty hittable, and his slider isn’t a good pitch. His delivery could be described as more distracting than deceptive, and upper level hitters will not be fooled nearly as much. Also, Manno’s value is automatically higher by virtue of him being a lefty, but he really was much better against right-handed batters in 2011, posting a 4.03 FIP and 3.00 SIERA against lefties compared to a ridiculous 0.77 FIP and 0.83 SIERA against righties. However, that had a lot more to do with lefties having a little bit more luck against Manno in terms of batted balls going for home runs than anything else as lefties posted a .075/.255/.175 line compared to the .140/.234/.189 line righties put up. This could suggest that Manno doesn’t project as a true situational lefty, but rather a lefty middle reliever who’s just about as successful against hitters who bat from either side. Considering that Manno dominated nearly every hitter who came to the plate against him in 2011, not being a true situational lefty isn’t so much disdain but rather respect.
Chris Manno doesn’t have the typical power arm that you expect from an elite reliever, but because of his excellent changeup and deceptive delivery, he could still profile as a late inning pitcher. Manno’s fastball may not reach the mid-90’s but if he can just keep it in the low-90’s with the nice movement on it away from lefty batters that he has shown in the past, his changeup can make him a very effective reliever, possibly even in the late innings. Manno is going to be doubted everywhere he goes because of lack of elite velocity, but his outstanding changeup gives him a chance to be a nice big league reliever. I kind of see him as a lefty David Robertson. Robertson blew through the minors like Manno could be about to do, and that was despite the fact that his fastball was coming in around 90-92. Manno’s out pitch is a changeup as opposed to Robertson’s breaking ball, and the two have completely different builds (Robertson is 5’11”, 195), but Manno showed in 2011 that he has the ability to dominate opposing hitters like Robertson did his entire time in the minor leagues and then in 2011 for the Yankees. The big questions for Manno are whether he can keep his fastball in the low-90’s if not higher and whether his changeup is really a knockout plus pitch a la Robertson’s breaking ball. Manno will likely head to Double-A to begin in 2012, and if his domination continues, he’ll be in Triple-A and then the big leagues before long.