Comstock Park, Mich. — To look at him on a Thursday night in May, standing on a mound at a ballpark that rests in a lovely wooded hollow outside of Grand Rapids, is to not be overly impressed.
Physically, that is.
Matt Hall is supposedly 6-feet tall and the tape measure hopes you don’t call its bluff on that one.
He has a fastball that, with a wisp of wind behind it, might touch 90 mph.
But check those other numbers: 4-0 record, 0.83 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 21 hits in 322/3 innings, 36 strikeouts, eight walks.
Remember, too, that Hall led the NCAA in strikeouts in 2015, as a junior at Missouri State, when he put away 171 batters ahead of the Tigers picking him in the sixth round of last June’s draft.
Suddenly, that “6-foot,” 200-pound frame, and his pitching repertoire, highlighted by a jewel of a curveball, take on more aura.
“He can bury hitters with his curve,” said Andrew Graham, the manager at Single A West Michigan, where Hall is pitching in his first full season of professional baseball.
“It’ll be interesting to see, when the weather warms up, what his fastball will be.
“But he can pitch inside, and outside, and he can do it against a left-handed batter, which is unusual for a lefty. Most lefties stay on the outside.”
Last Thursday’s game against Fort Wayne pretty much could have doubled as Hall’s resume. He threw five innings (88 pitches), allowed a pair of hits and no runs, struck out eight and walked none.
He threw his curveball often, and just as often Ft. Wayne did nothing against it. Nor did they overly bruise his fastball, which cruised at 88, 89, and every now and then pushed 90.
Nor were the Fort Wayne batters having much fun against Hall’s change-up. Of course, it is like this virtually every night, as it was at Missouri State. Hall’s pitches miss bats or make batters mis-hit pitches.
“A plus curveball is his strikeout pitch, he pitches to contact, and he’s very aggressive,” said Tigers assistant general manager David Chadd, emphasizing the word “aggressive,” as well as Hall’s NCAA strikeouts crown in 2015.
Eleven months ago, when Chadd was heading the Tigers draft, he gave the go-ahead on Hall. There were no regrets then, or now.
Hall signed for a slotted sum of $239,400 and reported for work, where he had a combined 2.91 ERA in 11 starts, most of which came during his stint at Single A Connecticut.
“He has a good feel for his pitches,” said Mark Johnson, the Whitecaps’ pitching coach. “He’s not a real hard thrower, but he pitches inside well. He mixes speeds well.”
Hall is a pleasant Missourian with a smile that flashes as effortlessly as his curveball seems to spin.
“The curve has always been my go-to pitch,” he said last week, during a break in the Whitecaps clubhouse. “I’m not always going for a strikeout. I’m just trying to make good pitches and get them to swing at my pitch.
“With our outfield, the ball doesn’t drop much out there.”
Hall grinned, wryly. He was understating matters a bit and knew anyone familiar with West Michigan’s outfield stallions would get it.
Cam Gibson, Derek Hill, Jose Azocar — even in an outfield as vast as Fifth Third Field’s acreage, Gibson, Hill, and Azocar are like a trio of thoroughbred horses. They can sprint to where a ball is hit and snag it in what ranks as one of the land’s most athletic minor-league outfields, at least defensively.
And so, Hall, 22, will continue to buff and polish his change-up, do what he can with a four-seam and two-seam fastball that won’t break any land speed records, all while letting fly with that pristine curveball.
The margins for error grow smaller as a pitcher noses his way higher in the minor-league ranks. But if he coaxes strikeouts and slippery contact from hitters who find his particular pitching package to be uniquely vexing, Hall would not be the first pitcher who won minus radar-gun drama.
The Tigers will wait and see how it goes. For now, they rather like that sixth-round grab.