The making of Sean Manaea: How A's ace has found the confidence to match his talent

Credit: Ken Lambert

Credit: Ken Lambert

From brushing off an early-inning home run to no-hitting the hottest lineup on earth, Sean Manaea carries himself with quiet confidence.

But that wasn't always the case.

In the small town of Wanatah, Ind., (population 1,017), the A's left-hander stood out as the best young pitching prospect in the middle of hoops country — but how much stock was he supposed to put into that?

He had hardly even garnered a sniff from Division I college programs, and even when he got his D-I chance at second-tier Indiana State he hadn't exactly blown the doors off that opportunity and flourished.

So what got into Manaea that summer on the eastern-most shore of Massachusetts, pitching in one of baseball's mythical proving grounds, the Cape Cod League?

He hadn't been feeling great about his stuff heading there. It was hard for Manaea to see how his fastball, which sat around 88-92 mph at the time, would find success against the likes of players like Aaron Judge, Kyle Schwarber and the other top collegians who assemble in Cape Cod each summer.

"For me it was like, don't embarrass yourself and be one of those guys who comes here for two weeks and gets cut," Manaea said. "I didn't want to be one of those guys."

But on June 14, 2012, when he took the mound for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks for the first time that summer, Manaea underwent a transformation.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "(But) I saw like 95-96 on the radar gun and thought, 'Where the hell did that come from?' "

He immediately put that heat to good use, striking out eight batters and everything began to flow.

Not only did he last well beyond the two weeks, he dominated the Cape Cod League for two full months — setting a new strikeout record (85 in 57 1/3 innings) en route to being named the league's top prospect over the Judges and the Schwarbers.

In case he needed confirmation that his velocity was up in a big way, Manaea hit 98 on the radar gun while in Cape Cod.

Up too was his confidence. No longer just a big fish in a small pond dominating hitters around Indiana and the Missouri Valley.

Suddenly he was legit MLB prospect with endless potential.

And he was starting to believe it.


So how did a Samoan even end up in small-town Indiana anyway? Manaea's American Samoa-born father, Faaloloi, was stationed there after serving in the Vietnam War as a member of the United States Army.

Faaloloi met his wife, Opal, in another nearby small town of Knox. The two raised Sean and his older brother, Dane, in Wanatah. Faaloloi worked in a steel mill for 35 years and Opal worked in a can factory before they both retired in 2006.

"It's where the teenagers go for fun on Friday nights," Manaea joked.

From little league through high school, Manaea dominated as a pitcher. The lefty attended South Central High School for three years before transferring to Andrean High, where he led the 59ers to a state championship his senior year. He was named to the All-Indiana team at both, but even with the impressive numbers he put up, Manaea went undrafted in 2010.

Not only did Manaea go undrafted, there wasn't even much interest from colleges outside of a couple of Division II schools.

Manaea had trouble keeping his grades up in school. But Rick Heller, who was the coach at Indiana State at the time, along with pitching coach Tyler Herbst saw something in Manaea.

"Sean had the physical attributes. Long arms, tall, left-handed," said Heller, who is now the head coach at Iowa University. "He wasn't a hard thrower coming out of high school, maybe 84-85 mph. He didn't have great command of any of his pitches.

"I just remember saying if this kid comes in and has a good attitude and great work ethic with aptitude, he can pitch in the big leagues. But if he doesn't, he might not even pitch for us."

The work ethic was there. A skinny, 6-foot-5 Manaea showed up his freshman year around 180 pounds and put on 20 pounds of solid muscle by the end of fall.

Manaea was also a sponge, willing to soak up as much knowledge as he could from his coaches. He was open to an idea from Herbst to change the way his body moves on his delivery on order to repeat the angle on his fastball more fluidly.

These changes upped Manaea's fastball to 90 mph, which enabled him to earn playing time his freshman season as opposed to redshirting. He went 5-5 with a 4.32 ERA and team-high 82 strikeouts in 15 starts as a freshman. Then 5-3 with a 3.34 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 17 starts as a sophomore.

It was his junior year when he returned from conquering the Cape Cod League and left scouts raving about him.

But with that increased profile also came immense pressure.

A flood of agents hounded Manaea upon his return to Indiana State. Scouts began comparing Manaea to now-Red Sox ace Chris Sale and penciling him in as a future No. 1 pick in the draft. He signed with Scott Boras.

For a 20-year-old kid coming from a town of about 1,000 people where everyone knows each other, this was all uncharted waters.

"All of a sudden there's all this added pressure and stress," Heller said. "Sean is a happy-go-lucky kid. He had to learn to deal with all that and be accountable in a way he never had to before. Sean had to turn into an adult."

Manaea admitted the extra pressure got to him at times on the mound. This was a guy who before the Cape Cod fame had bullpen sessions where he'd throw three straight strikes right down the middle, followed by a couple of pitches that sailed several feet over the catcher's head. He was an overthinker.

With the slew of scouts and agents constantly in his ear, Manaea found himself thinking too much again. But this time, he had Heller around to help deal with the adversity.

"It was more about just eliminating mental mistakes and things we can control," Manaea said of Heller. "He taught me a lot about becoming more of a stronger pitcher mentally."


After battling a hip issue that dropped his velocity, Manaea went No. 34 overall to the Kansas City Royals in the 2013 draft. Then he made his way to Oakland in a 2015 trade that nabbed the A's Manaea and right-hander Aaron Brooks in exchange for Ben Zobrist.

Manaea was solid, but up and down in his first two seasons in the big leagues.

"He had stretches," said Curt Young, who was the A's pitching coach at the time. "He ran some starts together where he was very good."

The stuff of a potential "ace of the staff" was there, but Manaea still struggled with the mental side of things that he ran into in his younger days in Indiana. A home run would send him to a dark place on the mound. He would start trying to fix his mechanics in between pitches. He was thinking too much again.

If Manaea was ever going to evolve into that top-tier pitcher he was projected to be, he could no longer rely on just the stuff. He had to conquer that mental side.

Following a 2017 season that saw him go 12-10 with a 4.37 ERA, Manaea entered the offseason no longer just trying to work out all the time. The muscle was there. He now had to get stronger in the mind.

"It was really an eye-opening moment," Manaea said. "I realized I wasn't really preparing myself. I was going out doing my thing and hoping skills would help me out. Something had to change and I started doing video work."

Along with studying video, Manaea also did a lot of visualizing. He started picturing himself pitching well in front of thousands of people. He even imagined himself in specific scenarios.

"It was mostly for when that moment does come, you're not surprised," Manaea said.

It's why he remained so calm in the ninth inning of his no-hitter earlier this season against the Boston Red Sox. Last year's Manaea would have panicked in such a situation, but that visualization made sure he wasn't surprised to find himself in that spot.

"I was just super relaxed the entire time," he recalled.

Manaea is now sure of how great he could be. This isn't just a one-year wonder you are watching in 2018. At only age 26, Heller wouldn't put past his former pitcher from throwing another no-hitter down the line.

And Manaea now knows, in the wake of that first big league no-no, what the next level of confidence looks like.

"Mike Trout sent me a DM on Twitter congratulating me,' he said. "That was pretty cool."

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