This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each of the 38 players currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.
It’s been eight years now since Orioles fans have seen the starting rotation be anything other than one of the worst in all of MLB. Dan Duquette’s persistent inability to solve this problem eventually made the current rebuilding period inevitable. He did, at least, leave his successor with a pair of first round picks who might be able to start to turn this long-ingrained problem around. The first of the two to hit the 40-man roster is D.L. Hall.
Hall, heading into his age 23 season in 2022, was picked by the Orioles from Valdosta High School with the #21 selection in the 2017 draft. Hall was an interesting pick pretty much right away because he was a player who’d been seen as potentially going a lot higher in the draft than that. At the time, MLB Pipeline had him as the #14 prospect in the class. Keith Law, then with ESPN, had Hall in his top ten. The O’s got the chance and pounced.
This has worked out well so far. Hall has been a prospect of league-wide note ever since he posted a strong season in his first full pro year, dropping a 2.10 ERA and 1.116 WHIP for Low-A Delmarva as a 19-year-old. One part of that excellence was Hall striking out more than a batter per inning. The prospect rankers noticed and he’s been on top 100 lists from then on. How high depends on how each outlet assesses some of the risks he faces.
If you cherry pick a few of the most incredible things about his 2021 performance, it looks like a surprise that Hall is not rated even higher than that. He absolutely blew through hitters at Double-A last season, racking up strikeouts of a whopping 43.8% of all hitters he faced.
That might be because Hall is one of the hardest-throwing lefty starting pitchers anywhere in the American professional baseball ranks. He was already interesting for this when he was drafted. One reason he was #8 in Law’s 2017 draft ranking was his being a lefty already sitting at 93-94mph on his fastball. In its 2022 ranking of the O’s system, FanGraphs noted that Hall was up to 95mph in 2019 and in 2021 had kicked that up even higher to 97. Let’s all take a Keanu Reeves moment: Whoa.
Had Hall done this for the entirety of the 2021 minor league campaign, the hype would be close to limitless. The reason it’s not is that Hall was limited to just seven starts before getting shut down with an initial diagnosis of elbow tendinitis that turned out to be a stress fracture in his elbow. Only last month was Hall able to get back to throwing from a mound. That’s a long layoff.
There’s a certain amount of injury risk baked into every pitching prospect’s profile. The risk stands out more once they’ve already missed some time. This wasn’t an injury where ligament damage appeared to be a concern. Hopefully it stays that way.
Still, the result is that Hall only threw 31.2 innings last year. That was following up on the pandemic-canceled minor league season of 2020 where Hall had no formal innings pitched. The 94.1 innings he threw for Delmarva in 2019 are his highest total as a professional. He hasn’t been able to do much to answer questions about how he’d hold up under a 160+ inning workload of a major league starting pitcher.
One other thing holding back Hall’s prospect stock is that even when he has pitched, he’s been wild. Across his four minor league seasons, Hall has issued 5.1 walks per nine innings. Even in his shortened 2021, he walked a batter every other inning on average for the Baysox. The FG duo of Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein attribute this to Hall having an inconsistent release resulting from a long arm action. Orioles fans have heard this story before.
Put it all together and there’s a lot to be excited about with Hall and some things to wonder about as well. The prospect list-makers of the world have to consider whether Hall is going to be able to stick as a starter or whether he might have the brightest possible future as a reliever.
Law, who has Hall as his #81 prospect in the game heading into this season, sums it up nicely: “It’s top of the rotation stuff if he stays healthy.” FG’s pair considers that even if Hall is a reliever, “then we’re talking about an elite reliever, as close as you can get to karmic retribution for the Josh Hader trade.”
If Hall did end up as a reliever, I think that would initially be disappointing for Orioles fans who were imagining him and Grayson Rodriguez as the one-two punch in the rotation. On the other hand, getting a Hader-level reliever would be nice. The guy has a 0.854 WHIP and 15,4 K/9 over his five big league seasons. It’s absurd. The next good Orioles team will need a good back end of the bullpen too and if they can get that from a prospect rather than having to sign some free agent save compiler, that’s a plus for the team’s eventual success.
Whether an evaluator wants to see progress with health, command, or both, that’s going to be on hold as long as the lockout continues. Hall’s situation being what it is might be the most unfortunate one for the Orioles organization as the league has locked out the players. They couldn’t more actively oversee his return to the mound. He needs the reps to shake off the rust and to put a bit more polish on his arsenal if possible, or even just to demonstrate that he can maintain the level of talent he currently has and apply it consistently.
End-of-season prediction: I think you can make a reasonable case for a scenario where the Orioles decide to be aggressive with Hall and assign him to Norfolk, Hall responds to this challenge by dominating hitters, and as a result he closes out the season with the big league club, bringing those Rodriguez-Hall rotation dreams into reality. This requires a number of optimistic outcomes to all occur.
Yesterday’s brief meeting between owners and players doesn’t seem to presage a swift end to the lockout. In a roundabout way, this might increase Hall’s chances to debut in 2022. If the season is delayed, he will throw fewer innings in April and have more breathing room by season’s end before reaching whatever innings cap the Orioles have in mind for him. Let’s optimistically say the O’s will be able to break Hall in the big league bullpen as a September swingman so he can end the season in the majors. As with all predictions I make on this site, I won’t be surprised to be wrong.
Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra
Monday: Jahmai Jones