Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Matt Hall.
The Question: Will Matt Hall be able to develop a third pitch?
The Red Sox, as you may have heard, recently traded Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers. Of the many implications of that deal is that the Red Sox lost Price from their rotation with no logical replacement in-house. They do have a large number of mediocre swing men who could potentially battle for that role, but there isn’t a clear answer as camp just gets ramped up. In my estimation, Ryan Weber is the favorite, but that is far from a sure thing.
In fact, if you go to FanGraphs’ Roster Resource Red Sox page, they have Matt Hall listed as the fifth starter. The former Tiger, who was acquired last month for minor-league catcher Jhon Nuñez, is probably more of a reliever but, as I said, there is not a lot of top-level competition for this spot. If you are on the 40-man roster and have started in your life, you are part of this competition.
For Hall specifically, he has been shifting between starting and relieving going all the way back to college. He spent all three years at Missouri State filling both roles before being drafted by the Tigers in the sixth round. Once in Detroit’s organization, Hall started out starting basically all of the time, though by the time he got up to the high minors he started preparing for more of a swing man role. In his two relatively short stints in the majors, he has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen. It is worth pointing out that his numbers have actually generally been better as a starter, but most of that was spent in the low minors as a relatively polished college pitcher.
Looking at things from more of a scouting position, it doesn’t really seem like Hall is a guy who is suited to start in the majors. He has two pitches that he’s used with any significance in the majors, only one of which is really that impressive of an offering. Honestly, it’s unclear whether or not this repertoire can even work as a major-league reliever. Over his 31 1⁄3 innings in the majors, all as a reliever, he has pitched to a 9.48 ERA, a 5.18 FIP and a 5.78 DRA. Regardless of whether or not he is a realistic option to fill that fifth starter role at any point this year or if he just sticks as a reliever, I think Hall needs to develop a third pitch to be anything.
We’ll start with the positive here, because Hall has a good curveball that is presumably the biggest reason the Red Sox acquired him in the first place. According to Baseball Savant, the pitch had the 19th highest average spin rate among the 610 pitchers who threw at least 250 pitches. Obviously we have a small sample size here given how few innings he’s thrown in the majors, but last season he did get a whiff rate of nearly 40 percent on the pitch while allowing an expected wOBA of .300 and an actual wOBA of .285. Scouts have generally regarded the pitch as a good one, too. It’s the kind of offering that he should be able to build around, and it fits on a pitching staff that features guys like Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes and Austin Brice.
The main issue is that he doesn’t really have an even average fastball to pair it with. I’ve made a lot over the last year or so about how Workman’s curveball has been able to make his average fastball play up, and I think that’s a possibility for Brice as well. Barnes has a better fastball than either of them. The problem for Hall is that his fastball is not even average. The pitch averaged just 90 mph last season in the majors while generating a whiff rate below 20 percent. In the minors, it has sat in the 88-91 range. It also doesn’t have a significant amount of spin or movement, and he threw it nearly two-thirds of the time. I suspect we’ll see a shift in that usage even if he sticks with this two-pitch mix with the curveball being much more of a focus, but unless a new pitch is added the fastball will need to play a big role, and that spells trouble in the majors.
So, that brings us to the need for a third pitch, which would not only take some of the heat (no pun intended) off the fastball but also help to keep batters a little off-balance. He has thrown two others pitches in the majors, albeit very infrequently, with a slider and a changeup. Of those, I think the slider is probably most likely to succeed in the majors. It has good movement and spin, and it did generate some whiffs in its very limited usage in the majors as well.
I’d also think he could consider adding a cutter to the mix. Hall did throw five of them in the majors last year, though it’s always worth noting that pitch classification systems like Baseball Savant can often confuse sliders and cutters given the similar movement patterns. Whether it’s brand new or not, though, it could make sense here. For one thing, cutters are generally an easier pitch to command than a true breaking ball since they move a little less and are more crisp. Plus, it’s a pitch that has been added for other Red Sox pitchers and a guy like Workman does already throw one.
At the end of the day, Hall was a bottom-of-the-roster addition this winter and expectations shouldn’t be that high. His inclusion in the battle for the fifth rotation spot says much more about that battle than it does about him, and he’s a much better fit in the bullpen than the rotation. Either way, though, his fastball just doesn’t seem good enough in either role even with how good his curveball can be. Look for him to possibly feature a third pitch a little more this spring as the Red Sox look to make the most of this buy-low addition.