GREENSBORO — He was an outfielder. A good one, too. A left-handed contact hitter with the footspeed and instincts to cover ground in center field.
And no one ran on Alex Manasa’s strong right throwing arm.
It was that right arm that captured the imagination of Pittsburgh’s scouts, so when the third day of the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft started, the Pirates took a chance on Manasa with their first pick in the 11th round.
Now he’s an all-star.
Manasa was one of six Greensboro Grasshoppers picked to play for the Northern Division at next week’s South Atlantic League All-Star Game at West Virignia’s Appalachian Power Park.
Manasa, a 21-year-old starting pitcher, earned his spot with a breakthrough first half of the Sally League season. If the weather cooperates and the starting rotation holds true, Manasa will start Wednesday’s series finale against the Hickory Crawdads at First National Bank Field, the Hoppers last home game before the All-Star break.
“I’m excited about (being an all-star), it’s a great accomplishment,” Manasa said. “But I definitely couldn’t do it without my team. The way I pitch, I rely on my defense. My two catchers, Grant (Koch) and Zac (Susi), have done a great job behind the plate, making it easy for me. And Stan Kyles, our pitching coach, puts together the game plans before our starts.”
Manasa is still a work in progress. The 6-foot-4 right-hander is 6-1 with a 3.31 ERA in 12 starts this season, tied for second in the Sally League in victories and third with 70 2/3 innings pitched. He’s walked 14 and struck out 64.
All those numbers show steady improvement over his 2017 and 2018 seasons in Bristol and West Virginia of the short-season Appalachian and New York-Penn Leagues. Opposing hitters are batting .246 against him, 30 points lower than last year and 50 points lower than his debut season.
“Staying down in the zone has been a big factor for me this season,” Manasa said. “I’m trying not to leave any pitches up, and I’m trying to execute all three of my pitches, whether it’s throwing them for strikes or just off the plate, not giving in to batters.”
It’s actually four pitches, because Manasa throws both four- and two-seam fastballs to go along with a slider and developing changeup.
The two-seam fastball has been a revelation. Thrown with low-90s velocity, it’s a “heavy” ball that dives downward as it approaches the plate.
“It has a little arm-side run, but it mostly just sinks,” Manasa said. “It depends on the day, really. Sometimes it just sinks, and sometimes it’ll sink and move right. My first year, I was mainly a four-seam fastball guy. But I started throwing the two-seamer more last year because I really liked the way it was moving. It’s repetition. The more I work, the better it gets.
“It’s very valuable here in this (small) ballpark. Keeping the ball down gets a lot more ground balls, and that’s my bread-and-butter. I try to get ground balls.”
The pros call that “pitching to contact,” but that doesn’t simply mean throwing strikes. It means throwing pitches the batter can hit, but not hit hard.
“Alex has always been a strike-thrower,” Kyles said. “But now he’s understanding the quality that’s necessary when he’s throwing strikes. That’s been the thing that’s allowed him to keep improving. The consistency in his pitch execution has really helped him.”
And his days in the outfield, as well as his nights playing power forward for his Farmington High basketball team in Michigan, have helped him on the pitcher’s mound.
Manasa was a scorer and rebounder on the basketball court. And he excelled as the starting center fielder for Jackson (Mich.) Community College, where he batted .410 in 50 games with 56 RBIs and team-high 25 steals. He struck out just 14 times in 209 plate appearances.
“Because he’s a good athlete, the mechanics of pitching has come easier for him,” Kyles said. “The thing he’s worked really hard on is getting into a pitcher’s mindset. To not only be aggressive, but have some discipline, too.”
Manasa did pitch a little bit in college. The Jets would move him from center field to the mound to finish games, and he had five saves and a 1.27 ERA in 16 appearances. He walked three and struck out 31 in 21 innings.
“I miss hitting a lot. A lot,” Manasa said. “But we’re in the National League, so hopefully soon I’ll get a chance to swing the bat again. … I was an outfielder, but the Pirates liked my arm. So here I am, a starting pitcher, which is pretty awesome.”