Blue Jays: Alek Manoah’s attitude is as impressive as his huge talent

TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 26: A MLB baseball rests on the mound prior the spring training game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals at Steinbrenner Field on February 26, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 26: A MLB baseball rests on the mound prior the spring training game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals at Steinbrenner Field on February 26, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

The Blue Jays have a special prospect in Alek Manoah, a first-round draft pick from 2019 with eye-popping talent, but an even more impressive attitude.

I’ve been excited about the talent in the Blue Jays minor league system for quite a while now, but after getting the chance to speak with Alek Manoah last week, I’m looking forward to a future homegrown rotation even more.

I’ve yet to have the chance to see him in person, but Manoah’s talents are more than obvious from the videos that have circulated the internet, and the performances he’s put up along the way. However, his talent became secondary to me after speaking with him for a while because I realized that I wasn’t just talking to a top prospect, I was speaking with a really good human being.

If I were to have scripted some of the answers for him, I’m not sure I could have come up with better responses than I received from the big right-hander. That can be fairly common with well-trained athletes who learn how to speak to the media, but Manoah’s sincerity was as obvious as it is encouraging. He’s a confident young man who is focused on improving himself as a baseball player, as a person, and on improving the world around him. That’s the kind of player you want to have around, and I feel like the Blue Jays have a special player on their hands.

Without further adieu, the following is a transcript of our conversation from May 28, 2020.

Chris Henderson: Well, I wish we were chatting under different circumstances. I was really looking forward to following your first full season in pro ball, especially after how you performed in Vancouver last year.

Speaking of which, I was curious how you found the level of competition in Vancouver (Class A- Short Season) after you had pitched in college last year. How did you find that experience?

Alek Manoah: I really enjoyed it, and it was definitely a positive experience. It wasn’t a long stay there, but I learned about myself and focusing on what will help me succeed. I feel like if I execute my pitches, stay within myself, and stick to routines, I’ll be able to succeed at any level as I go.

CH: What kind of goals did you have coming into the 2020 season before all of this? Obviously there has been a wrench thrown into things, but are there still goals on your list that are achievable, or have you had to completely adjust?

AM: I had some pretty high expectations for myself, but I just try to strive for little goals, and kind of let the big goals, or the success at the end take care of itself.

My biggest goal this year was to make every start. I think that’s extremely important, you know, coming out of college, especially when I made 18 starts last year, and didn’t miss a start. It’s extremely important, it’s a longer season, it’s almost triple the amount of games that I played in college. So the biggest thing is to be able to show how durable I am, to be able to show that I’m a workhorse and go out there every day and work my butt off, and be able to go out there every five days and give a good start to the manager and to the team.

That’s my number one goal, just to make every start and be a consistent horse in the rotation. My number two goal was to throw over 130 innings and have over 160 strikeouts, which gives me a little bit over a strikeout per inning, and just proves my dominance at the level that I’m at.

CH: With baseball being on pause these days, how are you preparing? We’re seeing some stuff on Instagram, but I’m curious how you’re staying in shape, especially if you’re finding restrictions in the world right now, and more importantly, how are you preparing mentally these days? I’m curious if it’s become a bit of a day to day thing with waiting around, or if you’re starting to think a little more long-term.

AM: I think the best part about this whole thing is there are so many ways to advance even though the world is on pause. There are a lot of things that you’re able to do, and there’s a lot of things that athletes might not normally have had time for in an off-season, in a spring training, or during a season.

I think focusing on the little things is really big. I also have a gym and I’m able to work out there, we just opened a gym, and I have my portable pitching mound there and I just try to find ways to challenge myself, and not really back off from those challenges. There are plenty of days where it might be raining outside, or the floor is wet and you’ve gotta go throw from a wooden mound on a concrete wet floor, which starts to slide around a little bit, you know, stuff like that.

I was actually talking with my brother the other day, and one of the main things we were talking about was, you have to find a way to compete a lot harder trying to throw strikes, trying to stay within yourself, trying to not mentally screw yourself up, while throwing out here in the middle of a street, than you do while you’re competing against a regular hitter in a beautiful environment, in a beautiful ballpark, with just crazy fans rooting you on. So, I think being able to challenge myself and throw a baseball on a turf mound, on a wet concrete floor, there are just ways that are going to help me get better obviously.

The resources are still there, it’s just not as comfortable, but finding a way to be comfortable when I’m uncomfortable is something that’s going to help me when I’m back on the mound and it’s dirt again, and there’s a beautiful atmosphere and stadium. So those are just ways I’m trying to find a way to challenge myself.

And you know, mentally it’s the same thing. Usually you wake up every morning in the off-season and you know when you’re reporting to spring training, and you try to meet that deadline and do everything you can to be ready when you get there. But right now it’s just kinda day to day, there is no report date, nobody really knows the next time that we’re going to play baseball, so it’s just kinda just go out and work as hard as you can every day, and just let everything else fall in place.

I think that’s something that helps a lot of athletes during this time as well, not having to worry about when we’re showing up, what we’re doing, if the plan that they’re doing is correct, it’s just go out and work as hard as you can every day, and if they call you the next day, just be ready. I think staying in the moment, staying in the routine and not thinking too far ahead is helping me stay positive during this time.

CH: I love that answer, and that you’re doing your best to find the silver linings right now. You also gave me a great segue because I wanted to ask you a bit about this new gym that I’m seeing on Instagram. I followed a new IG account with your name on it yesterday, and I was hoping you could tell me a little more about this new venture.

AM: You know, the biggest thing was just during the off-season just really needing a place to train, and I’ve had a workout facility for the longest time. During the off-season, my brother actually trains athletes, he trains middle-age women, he trains anybody who is looking to get in good shape, and he does really good at that, and it was just something we were talking about a while ago and thinking about if we had our own place we could have a bunch of kids in here, and have a bunch of people in here, and just create a really good family environment,

Unlike a lot of commercial gyms, if you go somewhere else and you can’t afford $50 a month they just don’t like you in. But if you go to Manoah Driven and you can’t afford the monthly price we’re willing to work with people, because we grew up in an environment with a single mother and we saw how hard it was for her to stay not only above ground, but to be able to give us everything that we needed at that time. We found it really inspiring how hard she worked, and everything that she had to do for us.

We know that there are a lot of kids out there that grew up the same way that we grew up, that might not have had money for a pitching coach, might not have had money for a hitting coach, might not have had money for a gym, so we just had to find ways to get it done. We’re helping out a lot of kids that need help and maybe can’t afford the full thing. At the same time, we’re not just going to allow everybody to come in with a problem, but we do understand a lot of people’s situations.

The first thing that me and my brother spoke about was, if we every deny a kid the gym because they can’t afford it, we need to close the doors, because then we’re going against everything we ever grew up knowing, going against all of our ethics, and going against who we are as people. It’s really not about the money, it’s about creating a really fun, positive environment in a really good area in Miami that can really help not only me and my brother, but a lot of people in the area. Hopefully one day we can continue to expand it and turn it into a really big gym with a bunch of kids running around, and bunch of 12 and under teams, and a bunch of high school teams coming in and stuff like that. That’s both of our dreams and that’s what drives us, that’s what Manoah Driven is, it’s helping other people.

CH: Bless you for that attitude, I think that’s fantastic. Are you finding challenges with that right now with the state of the world? Are you able to let people through the doors, or have you found challenges even rounding up equipment to get started?

AM: Yeah, things are still mostly closed down here so we’ve only been able to work with certain kids at a time, or certain athletes at certain times, and just keep things really clean and stuff like that. But yeah, we’ve already spoken to my high school coach and told him we need the whole team in there and we’re willing to do arm care programs and conditioning programs for them, so that way he knows that when they leave practice that they’re still getting better.

I’ve spoken to another high school, the head coach there was my hitting coach at South Dade, and I just called him and told him the same thing and he was really excited about the idea as well and is willing to do it as well once this stuff opens up. I think the biggest thing is not necessarily letting everybody in, because it’s not the biggest gym, it’s a little warehouse. But it has everything you need to get better, and everything you need to challenge yourself instead of going to a state-of-the-art gym with A/C and nice brand-new, non-rusty equipment and all of that, it kinda brings the grit out of you a little bit.

CH: Love it. You mentioned your Mom, and of course I was looking at your Instagram account this morning again, and saw a video again from a while back of you presenting a car to her. How special was it to be do that for her, especially with the way that you described her.

AM: Yeah, it was extremely special to me. The car was just something that, you know, I feel like she really needed and me being able to help her with that was just, I don’t even know how to explain it. My Mom is just literally my biggest blessing. Through my ups she is there to keep me humble, and through my downs she’s there to keep me confident. She truly helps me through the hardest things in life, and you know, she’s gone through the hardest things in life to help us, so just being able to show one little token of love by buying her a car, and buying her a house, those are just things that I can’t explain why I did it. It’s just, that’s my Mom, and I’ve seen her go to the end of the world and back for me and my brother and I’m willing to do the same thing for her.

CH: Love that answer too, and I love it when people don’t forget who has helped them. I know it’s your Mom, but still, that’s a pretty amazing gesture.

I always like to ask prospects or minor league guys this question before they hit the big leagues. Is there one hitter that you dream about facing some day, or is there one guy that you’re losing sleep over already?

AM: I really don’t think I lose sleep over anybody or any hitter, because if I give up a home run, I just think it would be fun, you know? I think baseball is really fun. My dream hitter to face, who I’m never going to get a chance to face is Barry Bonds, he’s always been my favourite hitter growing up, and I’m still probably his biggest fan. Even though I’m a pitcher now, I would still say that he’s my favourite baseball player to this day.

But realistically, the best in the game is Mike Trout right now. It’s hard to pick his swing and find holes in his swing, but I just wanna face him as many times until I can find that hole, even if I give up nine home runs and the tenth time I find that hole, I just wanna find that hole and then attack it as many times as I can after that. I just think that it would be extremely fun going at it with him, and definitely I know that I’m probably going to give up a couple of hits when I face him, and I definitely know that I’m going to get him out a few times, and punch him out a few times as well.

CH: Well, that’s pretty much the perfect answer I’d be looking for if I were a scout. You chose arguably the greatest hitter of all-time, and since you can’t do that, how about the greatest hitter in the world right now?

AM: Yeah absolutely. There’s only one way to be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best.

CH: Absolutely. What do you feel you need to improve on the most at this point in your career, and have you set a goal for when you’d like to try and make the big leagues? Obviously the world has thrown a wrench in that for you right now.

AM: I think the biggest thing is right now my fastball is my bread and butter, I can throw it anywhere in any count, and I really feel the same with my slider with the confidence to be able to throw it in any count, and wherever I have to throw it. The biggest thing I’ve been working on is a change-up. There’s a lot of confidence in it, but right now I’m not as confident with it as I am the fastball and the slider, and that’s my biggest thing. I’m trying to perfect that pitch in the same way that I feel confident with my fastball and my slider.

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I think being able to get the change-up to the point where I’m throwing it in any count, at any point to righties or lefties, with runners in scoring position, or not being scared to use it or be telling myself it’s my third-best pitch, I feel like that’s going to really push me to the next level, to just not have any holes in my arsenal. So that when hitters go to face me, they know that there’s four pitches that can absolutely destroy them, not two or three and they can just eliminate one. I don’t want anything to be eliminated, I want everything in my arsenal to be dominant. So that’s the biggest thing right now, just focusing on the change-up.

Time will tell when I get to the big leagues. As I told you earlier, I don’t make big goals like that, I try to make little goals that will add up, that will equate to that big goal. Little goals for me this year were trying to finish out the year in Double-A, go to the Arizona Fall League and dominate there, and get my invite to big league camp for next year and just play my best cards from there. Hopefully be able to start that next year in Double or Triple-A and be able to debut that next year.

I’m really not worried about the timetable, I’m just trying to take the small steps, trying to get from one level and dominate as much as I can and prove I don’t belong there anymore, and just dominate the next until I get to the highest level.

CH: Last but not least, I have a fun one for you. I’ve been playing more video games than usual over the last few months and I’m wondering if you’re doing the same. I’ve been playing Franchise Mode on MLB the Show and I’ve already called you up to make a few starts, which have gone well I might add. I’m curious, do you play the game at all, and how do you feel about getting a chance to play the game as yourself without having to create the character?

AM: Man, I will tell you it’s probably the craziest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life. All of my brothers, my step brothers, my step Dad, and even my Mom, we all like to play MLB the Show. And they kinda get sick and tired of it because when the big guy gets on the mound, I always win. Literally, every time I play, I’ve already updated the Blue Jays roster to me being on the big league club, and every time I log in, whoever wants to smoke, I play with the Blue Jays and honestly I go nine innings and I’ll throw 145 pitches if I have to, but I haven’t lost a game with him yet, and I don’t plan on starting now. I haven’t gone to the bullpen once, not once. Haha, it’s pretty amazing.

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As I said at the beginning, I not only loved most of the answers that Manoah provided in this interview, but it was easy to tell that I was speaking with an excited, sincere young man. It’s not always easy to find impressive talent paired with a fantastic attitude, but that’s exactly what the Blue Jays have in Manoah. I look forward to the day that he can get back on the field, and something tells me he’ll be ready.