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Indiana State junior lefthanded pitcher Sean Manaea has made the full transformation from a little known freshman a couple of seasons ago into one of college baseball's elite starting pitchers and MLB draft prospects.
Perhaps we should've seen this coming. Manaea wasn't a highly recruited lefty out of high school, only ranked as one of the top 1,000 national prospects to watch. But he made a huge statement the summer of 2011 when he was the top prospect at the Prospect League, a rising summer collegiate league. There, he topped out at 93 to earn some recognition, while also attracting much attention with ISU this past spring.
Once again, Manaea has used a fabulous summer to improve his stock as a pitcher and overall draft prospect. He was named the Cape Cod League's most valuable player, and also is Perfect Game's Summer Player of the Year recipient.
"The thing you see with him is a 6-foot-6 guy with the wing span of someone that's 6-foot-10. He's so loose and effortless out there," Indiana State coach Rick Heller said. "When he does stay on track, he's on you at 94. You don't see a lot of guys like that, especially in an effortless fashion. It's easy to see why there are scouts drooling over him. I've not seen a guy quite like Sean."
That opinion about Manaea is universal throughout the Cape Cod League. Ask a coach in the league, and they struggle to find a comparison. Some say he has the stuff and drive a lot like New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia, while others compare him to former Florida Gulf Coast star and now Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale, a very loose, and effortless, lefthanded pitcher.
Though Hyannis Harbor Hawks coach Chad Gassman obviously had the pleasure of coaching Manaea throughout the summer, he's a strong believer there hasn't been a pitcher at the Cape in the last five years quite on Manaea's level, perhaps not even Sale, though, Gassman admits Sale had better breaking stuff.
Manaea's summer statistics were video-game like. He went 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA in 51 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 85, walked seven and allowed just 21 hits, all against a crop of hitters that performed better than usual this summer.
"He knew what he had to work on this summer. His confidence got better with each start it seemed like. I can remember telling our coaches from the beginning of the summer he was going to be pretty special," Gassman said. "From the third start on this summer, he was the Manaea everyone raved about. It was almost like you put him into cruise control, like plugging him into a machine or something."
While Manaea's summer statistics would lead some to believe he didn't have much to work on at the Cape Cod League, that wasn't the case at all. He had a lot to work on, including improving his delivery, getting hitters out early in counts, and improving his secondary stuff, particularly the little-used changeup.
During his sophomore campaign for the Sycamores, Manaea had a 3.34 ERA in 105 innings. He also struck out 115 and walked 37, while teams hit him at a .248 clip. That 3.34 ERA and some rather high pitch counts, such as 156 thrown against Creighton in April, were due in part because of his inability to close out hitters.
He didn't have that issue this summer.
"He shocked us this summer with the way he was finishing guys off at 1-2 and 0-2 counts. That was the thing the Indiana State coaches were so impressed with," Gassman said. "In the past he'd go 2-2, 3-2 and let the hitter foul a bunch of pitches off. Not this summer. He only was getting to 85-90 pitches in the eighth inning at times. He did a tremendous job of improving that aspect of his game."
Manaea also improved his changeup, showing more tilt. However, Gassman admits the lefty did so well with the slider and fastball, he very seldom had to resort to the change.
"I think when he gets up in advance pro ball someday, he'll have to develop that changeup a bit more. He'll need it," Gassman said. "Right now, though, I'm not real sure he needs it that much."
From a sheer stuff standpoint, Manaea had observers and professional scouts abuzz about his fastball and slider. Manaea's fastball was consistently 93-96 throughout the summer, with some reports indicating velocities higher than that. In addition, Manaea had near pinpoint command with the hard, yet, deceptive fastball that many hitters had trouble picking up out of his hand.
The slider was an especially dominant pitch. It was 80-83 with hard, downward action, and with great depth. Meanwhile, his changeup was consistently 79-81 with improvement, though, still a developing part of his repertoire.
"I think the biggest thing is his slider was a really dirty pitch this summer. It had very, very good depth to it, and it missed a lot of bats," Gassman said. "Typically, in terms of pitch sequence, he'd go fastball, fastball away, fastball up and then go to the slider. Most of the time, if he didn't get a hitter on that slider, he'd just go right back to the fastball."
With his imposing frame and elite stuff, Manaea undoubtedly will be one of the top picks in the 2013 MLB draft. In addition to his success at Indiana State, the last two summers -- especially this year at the Cape -- has helped him develop into an elite prospect.
"He's a big, strong, and durable kid. Whatever team drafts him, he could be ready for the big leagues in a year or two," he said. "He's in great shape, and has a great idea of what he wants to do out there."
Interestingly, the outlook with Manaea wasn't always rosy red.
A TRUE COLLEGE SUCCESS STORY
Indiana State wasn't real sure what to expect when it welcomed Manaea to campus as a freshman two years ago.
Out of high school in Wanatah, Ind. (South Central), he was a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, who topped out at 86 and certainly wasn't advanced from a physical standpoint.
His first few weeks as a freshman, Indiana State coach Rick Heller remembers Manaea struggling in the weight room, particularly with his surprisingly weak core.
At that point, Heller had no choice but to break the truth to Manaea. Though the Sycamores thought the lefty had the potential to be a top-round draft pick someday, they also knew that if he wasn't completely dedicated to making some significant physical changes both from a physical and delivery standpoint, his career at ISU could be very limited.
"He couldn't repeat his delivery right off the bat, but we knew he was a good worker with good aptitude. We told him if he comes in like a sponge, he could be a first-rounder in three years," Heller said. "However, if he didn't, and didn't want to make any changes, he'd have a tough time pitching for us."
Heller considered redshirting Manaea after fall workouts as a freshman. Manaea, though, took it upon himself to make some significant strides between the end of all workouts and Christmas break.
"By December, he was a different guy out there," he said. "He touched 90 after that, and especially in the spring, and he did a great job of getting his body into shape."
As a freshman, Manaea had his fair share of ups down downs, tallying a 4.32 ERA in 83 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 82 and walked 48, while teams hit him at a .241 clip. Still, his earned-run average was a little higher than what the Sycamores were looking for.
"He had some things to clean up mechanically out of high school. Once he got to the point where he didn't have to focus on which direction the ball was going, he was fine," Heller said. "He just started to throw and let it loose without thinking about his mechanics too much."
Manaea certainly wasn't perfect as a sophomore for the Sycamores this past spring, but improved in every facet of his game and put together an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio (115:37). He also finished the spring with a bang, striking out nine and allowing just one run in 7 1/3 innings against Austin Peay in the Eugene, Ore., Regional.
This summer at the Cape, Manaea added yet another chapter to what already is an impressive college baseball success story.
And he's likely not done.
"I think there's another bump in there for him," Heller said. "His strength has come a long way since he was a freshman, and he really has a great chance to be even more special than he already has become."