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Sean Manaea knows change-up holds key to success with Oakland A's

NASHVILLE -- According to reports, Sean Manaea will make his major-league debut on Friday. Josh Nelson spoke with Manaea this past weekend about what he thinks it will take to have success at the next level.

On Wednesday, San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Susan Slusser broke the news that top Oakland A’s pitching prospect Sean Manaea will be making his major-league debut on Friday at the Coliseum. While the news hasn’t been officially announced by the team, it has been confirmed by several sources. Well before Manaea knew of his impending promotion, I spoke with the left-hander about his development since joining the A’s organization. 

Manaea has been on a roll since being acquired by the A’s last July in a trade with the Kansas City Royals. Thus far, that deal has been a win-win for both organizations. The Royals received Ben Zobrist, who was instrumental in the team’s run to a World Series title. The A’s got back Manaea and pitcher Aaron Brooks, who has since been traded to the Chicago Cubs for major leaguer Chris Coghlan.

Manaea was highly regarded before he was traded to Oakland, but his game has reached a new level since that time. Before the trade, Manaea had a 3.69 ERA and a 39:11 K:BB in 31.2 innings at three different levels in the KC system. After the trade, Manaea had a 1.73 ERA and a 66:17 K:BB in 57.2 Double-A regular and post-season innings. He continued that success during the Arizona Fall League, when he struck-out 33, walked only six and had a 3.86 ERA in a traditionally hitter-friendly environment. Manaea was named to the AFL’s All-Prospect team.

After a strong showing during big league spring training, Manaea has dominated in his first three Pacific Coast League starts this season. In 18 innings, he has allowed three runs (exactly one per start) on 16 hits and four walks. He has struck-out 21 and has allowed only one homerun.

One of the biggest reasons for Manaea’s recent success has been the improvement of his command. Manaea has cut his walk rate by a full walk per nine innings from last year to this year. He says that commanding his pitches has been a major focus this season, and, for the most part, he has seen improvement.

“It's been good,” he said. “For the most part, I've been locating my pitches well – I've been able to throw my slider and change-up for strikes. There have been some times where I lose my control for a little bit and go 3-0 or 4-0 to a hitter real quick.”

One challenge Manaea continues to work on is figuring out why his command can disappear in small spurts.

“I don't know [why it happens],” Manaea said. “A loss of focus, maybe, for just a short amount of time. It's something I need to work on.”

His fastball and slider have always been plus pitches, but the change-up is a pitch that Manaea knows will take him to the next level. Manaea says the pitch has improved significantly over the past 12 months, although he says it is still a work-in-progress.

“I sort of had one in college – it was like a split-finger,” he said. “After I got done rehabbing [from 2013 hip surgery], they kind of scrapped that and they wanted more like a traditional change – like a circle change, so I really didn't know what I was doing. I was trying to go in games and was like, 'Oh, maybe this feels right,' so I'd throw it, but it wasn't really doing anything, so I'd get frustrated. I'd be switching grips like every two days, it seemed like.”

That frustration was alleviated last spring when Manaea connected with current A’s reliever Ryan Madson, who was a spring teammate of Manaea’s with Kansas City last year.

“He has a really, really good change-up, and so that was something I harped on when I was there,” Manaea said. “I just asked him how he threw it, what he thought about...and what he did to develop it. He gave me a whole bunch of pointers. He said, ‘You have to stick with one grip for a long time. It's going to be good and bad for a while, but eventually it will come.'”

Unfortunately, Manaea wasn’t able to put the new pitch to the test right away, as he injured his groin during spring training and had to miss the first half of last season. He said it took a little while for the feel of the change-up to come back. 

“After I was able to throw again, after two weeks, it just didn't seem like it was doing anything – it just looked like a fastball,” Manaea said.

A fat one, at that, he admitted.

“But after awhile, that grip started feeling really good in my hand,” Manaea said. “It sent positive messages to my head that it's what it should feel like, and then I was finally able to start throwing it, and then, when I got into games, it was bad – it was really bad – I probably threw one for a strike in the first four games. It was really frustrating, but I just stuck with it. 

“For some reason, when I got to Midland, I was throwing it for strikes, and I was able to get some weak contact – it was really awesome, but then it was about being able to repeat it every game for a strike out, like on 0-1 or 0-2. But it was a long process, and I'm still trying to develop it.”

One of Manaea’s biggest focuses moving forward will be using his change-up more often.

“I probably throw 10 or less a game, but I'm trying to get that number higher,” Manaea said. “I know it's going to help me out down-the-road. I feel like the stats are good, but I feel like developing pitches is better in the long run. People say I have good stuff, but [the change-up] is something I really need in the long run. It's something that everybody up in Oakland and the organization notices is I need to have a good change-up if I'm going to be successful.”

Manaea was 2-0 and his team won two-of-three games when he was with Nashville, but he admits that winning wasn’t his main focus at the Triple-A level.

“I wasn't really caring about stats or what happened during the games,” Manaea said. “It's just developing the change-up, because I know if I do get up [to the majors] it's going to be good for me. I know I'll have three pitches that I can throw for strikes.”

The leap from the minor leagues to the big stage is never easy, but Manaea has dealt with pressure since he signed an above-slot deal with the Royals after going in the compensation round in 2013. Manaea says his experience dealing with the “top prospect label” after being drafted has helped him cope with being anointed the A’s top pitching prospect this season.

“I kind of went through that process already,” he said. “After I got drafted, I already had a lot of hype around me. I was reading a whole bunch of articles – I was trying not to, but I eventually did – and I put all this unneeded pressure on me, and every time I would have a bad outing I would be sad for a day or two.

“My first pro season, it was just frustrating because that's not something I'm used to, but right now...I've already been through it, so I know how to deal with it. It's there. I know it's there, but I just try not to worry about it.”

The call to the big leagues has come sooner than many expected, but Manaea wasn’t spending his time with Nashville worrying about when that day would come.

“I just have to worry about stuff that I can do,” Manaea said. “I can only do what I can do; I can't worry about what the front office thinks about me or when they are going to call me up or whether they want to or not. I just have got to worry about the stuff I can do.”

Manaea will have plenty of familiar faces in the A’s clubhouse when he arrives on Friday. He spent all of spring training in big league camp. He says he learned a lot from the veteran A’s pitchers about how to prepare in-between starts and set his routine.

“Some of the guys did their routines, like Sonny Gray and Kendall Graveman and Rich Hill,” he said. “I talked to those guys a lot. I kind of had my own routine, but they showed me stuff that they do.

“I was talking to a lot of guys about tweaking [his routine], and I never really did it before. I thought about it, but I've never really done it before."

One example was how to handle bullpen sessions between starts.

“For me, it's always been like three fastballs, two change-ups, three fastballs, two change-ups,” Manaea said. “It was kind of like a set routine. But if you're working on something – like, for me, I wasn't throwing my change-up enough – but when I was talking to them, they said, 'If you're trying to work on something, you need to throw it more.'

“Or, if you have to tweak a pitch, just move the ball around just a little bit and maybe get that good feeling back. It was little things like that, and it was just awesome because I just hadn't really thought about it like that before.

“This whole time in pro ball, I've always wanted to develop a routine. I never really had one in college, but now I have one and I'm going to stick to it. I know in baseball you're not going to have your best stuff every time you go out; it's all about tweaking stuff, and that's what I learned from those guys.”

Come Friday, Manaea will put that routine to the ultimate test when he takes the hill against the Houston Astros at the Oakland Coliseum.

Melissa Lockard contributed to this report 

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