Shortly after DL Hall’s pro debut, his curveball, the one that had plenty to do with the previous Orioles front office using its 2017 first-round draft pick on the high school left-hander, vanished.
His grip with the pitch was inconsistent. The curve’s break turned loopy, and when he tried to eliminate that, he overcorrected and spiked it into the dirt. Maybe the seams were different than the balls Hall grew used to in Georgia prep games, he thought.
“I couldn't really figure it out,” Hall said. “I just kind of started having trouble getting the spin and stuff that I had on it when I was in high school.”
He was forced to adjust his repertoire. As a high schooler, he rarely used his changeup, capable of blowing his mid-90s mph fastball past opposing batters or stifling them with the curveball. Without the latter, he began to rely on the changeup. As the off-speed pitch came along, so did his results.
In the second half of last season with Low-A Delmarva, Hall, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect, posted an 0.82 ERA across 53 2/3 innings while allowing only 32 hits. The changeup played a vital role in his success, as he neutralized right-handed hitters and held them to a .180 batting average on the season.
“It’s a weapon for him,” pitching coach Justin Lord said. “It’s not just a fourth pitch.”
Like Hall, Lord spent last season in Delmarva, serving as the Shorebirds pitching coach. This year, he’s in the same role for High-A Frederick, where he’ll again get the chance to work with Hall.
At 20, Hall is the youngest player on the Keys roster. Frederick manager Ryan Minor figures Hall is among the youngest players in the Carolina League, yet Hall’s maturity is the trait that stands out most to his new manager. Lord echoed that stance.
“Sometimes young kids, they kind of rest on their talent, but I don't see that with DL,” Lord said. “He's pretty deliberate about his preparation between starts. He takes that into his game. He doesn't just rely on his God-given ability. He's taking it and doing something with it.”
The Orioles’ new front office has put an emphasis on advanced analytics, and the trend has dripped into the minor league system. Minor said new pitching coordinator Chris Holt has stressed the Orioles’ budding arms “develop weapons” out of their secondary pitches.
Hall’s changeup improvement last season shows he might be ahead of the curve. During spring training, he found the developmental advancement to be beneficial.
“I think it's definitely changed for the better,” Hall said. “Some of the things that we all got to see during spring training, it's just like the work and the intensity just seem to be picked up. The camaraderie was better. It's been great, honestly. We all believe and trust in this new system that they've put in, so I think that's huge in order to get your guys to produce numbers. If they believe in it and if they buy into it, then I think that's half the battle. Getting us to be able to do that is gonna really help us out this year."
Spring training also brought the return of Hall’s curveball. During one session, the pitch’s break suddenly had that familiar high school look. It remains a work in progress, but Hall said it’s a clear improvement on last season.
After Hall struggled to find consistency with his breaking pitches last year — he also throws a slider, primarily to lefties — both he and Lord are excited to see what the 20-year-old can do with his full repertoire in 2019. He did not throw more than 90 pitches in a start last year, finishing with 94 1/3 innings, but he believes he’ll approach 125 this season.
“This year, he's got a full season under his belt,” Lord said. “We've got an idea where we want him to be workload-wise, but right now, we're gonna give him the opportunity to go out there and let ’er eat."
Hall figures the full four-pitch repertoire will boost his strikeout numbers, already strong at 9.54 per nine innings, while reducing his walk rate as well. He has his lost curveball — and maturity — to thank for it.
“The comfort of having my curveball that I loved so much in high school, not having that last year was tough,” Hall said. “To have all four of them working this year, I'm excited about it.
“It was definitely a blessing. It was a blessing in disguise.”