Kyle Manzardo was one of the best hitters in the minors this year. Among players with at least 300 plate appearances, only San Francisco Giants prospect Vaun Brown logged a higher wRC+ (175 compared to 173) or wOBA (.464 compared to .450). A 22-year-old first baseman in the Tampa Bay Rays system, Manzardo put up his numbers over 397 PA, a hamstring injury having kept him out of action from mid-April until mid-May. Playing with High-A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery, he slashed a combined .327/.426/.617 with 22 home runs.
Manzardo began honing his hitting skills in a state that has produced just 32 major leaguers. Born and raised in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound left-handed hitter went on to play college ball at Washington State University, where he did what he does best: square up baseballs. In three years with the Cougars, Manzardo batted .330 with an OPS north of 1.000. That he lasted until the back end of the second round of last year’s draft was both positionally predictable and unexpected.
“I was a little surprised that it was the Rays,” admitted Manzardo, who went 63rd overall. “I hadn’t had a ton of contact with them, although I did do a Zoom meeting right before the draft. I was kind of expecting to go towards the end of the third round. That’s kind of what I’d been hearing.”
Three years earlier, Manzardo heard from exactly one team. An area scout from the San Francisco Giants reached out to him in high school, but nothing came of the conversation. It wasn’t until he’d punished pitchers in the Pac-12 that he began attracting attention, but even then his profile included a caveat. As the sweet-swinging youngster acknowledged, “When you’re drafting a first baseman, you’re kind of just betting on the bat.”
But again, the ability to rake has always been there. Moreover, rest has the confidence. Asked if he thought that he could put up such gaudy numbers in his first full professional season, Manzardo said that he did. He’d done it in college and in a 13-game Florida Complex League cameo last summer, so why not? It’s not a matter of arrogance — Manzardo comes off as humble — but when all you’ve done is hit, well, you expect to hit.
The Lake City High School product pointed to his background when asked about his exemplary bat-to-ball skills.
“A lot of it has been training and repetition,” explained Manzardo, whose travel ball experience included summers with the Spokane Expos and a small number of select tournaments. “Being from North Idaho, there wasn’t any glove work during the winters, it was all just hitting in the cage. At some point in my life I realized that baseball was what I really wanted to do, so I kind of sold out to be as good a hitter as I possibly could be.”
His stroke is designed to drive balls up gaps. Manzardo described his swing as simple and repeatable with a flatter bat path, adding that he likes to get his foot down early to see the ball as long as possible. From there he wants to be “short and direct, working inside the baseball.” And while he does have the ability to clear the fences — his 22 taters were tied for third-most in the Tampa Bay system — he’s not exactly a Statcast darling. When Eric Longenhagen put together our Rays Top Prospects list prior to the start of the season, he wrote that Manzardo “had among the highest average exit velocities in college baseball at a whopping 98 mph, though that came with what would constitute a 40-degree max exit velocities.”
“I’d say it’s the same story now,” acknowledged Manzardo, whose disciplined approach resulted in him walking nearly as many times (59) as he struck out (63) this year. “I didn’t hit any balls over 110 [mph], although I did hit some 105 to 107. I think that’s just the way my swing is set up mechanically; it’s not built for big-time pop or a ton of super high exit velos. I’m mostly just striving to be on time and get the barrel to the ball.”
He’s also striving to join select companies. Harmon Killebrew is by far the greatest Idaho-born player in major league history, and while others have made their mark — Larry Jackson, Vance Law, Vern Law, and Jason Schmidt are notable — only Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming have produced fewer big leaguers. The number of players drafted each year from The Gem State remains anything but large.
“I think there are maybe four or five of us in professional baseball right now, so it’s a pretty small group,” said Manzardo. “A lot of teammates I’ve had since getting to pro ball a year and a half ago have told me they’ve never even met anybody from Idaho. I feel like I’m kind of the representative for the state of Idaho in the Rays organization.”