DL Hall, the crown jewel of the Orioles' pitching stocks in the minor leagues and the club’s first-round draft pick in 2017, has thrown every pitch of his professional career since he got out of the complex leagues in Florida and came to the full-season affiliates in Maryland under the tutelage of pitching coach Justin Lord.
So when Lord, who moved to High-A Frederick this season from Low-A Delmarva along with Hall and a host of other promising Orioles arms, stands outside the Keys clubhouse on a day when Hall struggled and lays out how much the 20-year-old pitcher has progressed over the past year, you listen.
"This year, he has better command of all four pitches than he did at this time," Lord said. "Last year, you saw a good arm. You saw the stuff. But this year, he's got more command of that stuff. We kind of say that on the heels of a game that didn't quite go his way, but it's true. He's a little bit more polished than he was this time last year, and you see a guy that's got better preparation habits than he had this time last year, so you see some of the maturity, some of the growth, some of the development that you're looking for.
“There's just a lot of positive things to like about him, that's for sure."
Hall, who pitches again for the Keys on Friday in Winston-Salem, is coming off an outing in which his premium stuff didn't exactly match his results. He struck out two in a tidy first inning Saturday against Winston-Salem and ran his fastball up to 97 mph, sitting 95-96, before things went awry.
He loaded the bases in the second inning on a pair of singles and a walk and allowed just one run on a fielder's choice before two more strikeouts on 96 mph fastballs, then loaded the bases again in the third and surrendered three runs. He left with a 6.30 ERA and a 2.10 WHIP, albeit with 15 strikeouts in 10 innings.
Hall said that he hasn't "quite found the settle-in moment" that he's looking for — a particular frustration on a day when he carried a great bullpen session into an electric first inning.
"It's definitely hard, but I think going through those situations like that early in the year definitely makes you bear down and work a little bit harder," Hall said. "You try and stay even-keeled and not get too low and not get too high either, in the good moments. When it's tough to find good moments, kind of like it was today, I think it just kind of wakes you up and shows you that you've got to get back to work — always."
Lord looks at the moments Hall’s pitches come in, as well as the pitches themselves, in such situations. When Hall loaded the bases in the second inning, he settled in with strike one and got weak contact to limit the damage to one run.
He got a first-pitch pop-up with the bases loaded in the third, but faced a long at-bat as he tried to incorporate his secondary pitches and the inning got away from him.
"You see a guy that always competes, no matter what," Lord said. "I think sometimes, young guys, they have to learn when to put their foot on the gas a little bit and when to take it off a little bit, and stay within themselves, stay in the moment. It's a lot of the clichés, but they're true. Not attempting to do too much at one time. The kid has got four plus-pitches, and being able to pitch with that is something that he's continually learning how to do."
That assessment of four plus-pitches is an important distinction, although his previous assessment of having three would certainly be enough for most. As an amateur, Hall had an easy plus-fastball and the premier curveball in the 2017 draft, which could grow into more and a changeup. The curveball wasn't as consistent, but came along enough last year to impress scouts.
Many evaluators saw harder versions of that curveball in the 80-81 mph range and still called it a curve, but Hall and Lord said that he was throwing a slider more often than not in 2018. There was more separation between the two pitches Saturday, with the slider at 84 mph early and 81-82 late, and his curveball still in the high-70s. With a big break on his curveball, having a true slider that can get later break and look more like his fastball will only be beneficial.
"It came along a lot more last year because I struggled with my curveball last year, so I think having that slider this year is definitely going to help me out — especially on the days that my curveball is struggling, just to be able to have three pitches when one of them is not working versus having two if one is not working," Hall said. "I think it's huge to have that extra pitch."
So far this season, Hall hasn't been happy with the execution of any of his secondary pitches. He's hopeful those pitches come along as he gets into a routine, as they did last season when he had a 0.84 ERA with 64 strikeouts and a 0.97 WHIP in the second half for the Shorebirds.
But while he's waiting, he's showing how much progress he’s made with the way he uses his fastball. He was aggressive inside to left-handers in a way that is vital to a 20-year-old pitcher's progress, and also showed that the major league edict of working with a fastball up in the zone has trickled down to the minors.
"I think as far as my velocity and stuff, it's been better this year," Hall said. "I threw a lot of strikes with my fastball today, it's just a matter of finding that happy medium of being able to throw my fastball for strikes, and also being able to throw my off-speed. ...
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"With our new coordinators and things like that, it's definitely something that we're working on, going low and away and also working up and in and just getting guys out with fastballs high in the zone and getting guys to chase. I think it's a big part, or it's going to be a big part, of my season and all of our pitchers."