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Why is DL Hall still in the minors?

The hard-throwing lefty has had an outstanding July, and yet he remains with the Norfolk Tides...for now.

Reading Fightin Phils v Bowie Baysox Photo by 2021 Rodger Wood/Diamond Images via Getty Images

It’s uncommon to see a left-handed pitcher with the kind of “stuff” that the Orioles’ D.L. Hall possesses. FanGraphs points out in their scouting report of the prospect that only two big league southpaws had an average fastball velocity higher than Hall’s 95 mph in 2019. They go on to compare him to Blake Snell, who has struggled since being dealt to the Padres but still has a Cy Young under his belt and racks up the strikeouts.

Hall’s performance down on the farm this season only strengthens that outlook. He is mowing down hitters, striking out 113 across 67.2 total innings, 60 of which have come with Triple-A Norfolk. Meanwhile, the O’s big league starting staff has struggled to go deep into games, has a subpar 4.68 ERA on the season, and has the second-lowest strikeout rate (6.89 K/9) in the league. It’s easy enough to understand why some members of the fanbase are eager to get Hall to Baltimore with a quickness.

But the front office has different ideas, at least in the immediate future. Hall remains in Norfolk, even after a seemingly odd, one-inning start in his most recent outing had fans pondering. According to the team, this was not an indication of anything afoot but rather an intentional setup to ramp players back up after the all-star break.

Hopes that this would allow Hall to make his major league debut in the upcoming series against the Tampa Bay Rays were also quickly dashed when the team announced their starters for the series with no mention of the former first-round pick.

Frustrations of the fanbase are understandable. After a lengthy rebuild, the Orioles are finally fielding a fun team, albeit with clear weaknesses. An injury has delayed the debut of top prospect Grayson Rodriguez, and with no expectation of a significant trade coming, promotions of prospects will be the only viable avenue of improvement for a roster with several holes that finds itself in the playoff hunt. Considering how amped up many in Birdland (myself included) were for Jahmai Jones to replace Pat Valaika last summer on an especially bad team, this sort of clamor is valid.

It’s also disappointing when considering the way in which O’s GM Mike Elias was talking about Hall during spring training. In mid-March, Elias said “We may see [Hall] in the big leagues this year, and we may see him quick.” With August right around the corner it is fair to say that Hall has not been “quick” to the big leagues, but instead painfully slow.

It should be said, however, that taking things slow with a coveted pitching prospect is not a bad idea, particularly one with an injury history.

Hall’s 2021 season ended in mid-June after throwing 31.2 total innings for Double-A Bowie, a stress reaction in his elbow the culprit for the early shutdown. So far this year, he has tossed the aforementioned 67.2 innings in addition to the work he did in extended spring training. The most he has ever thrown in a single season as a professional was 94.1 in 2018 as a 19-year-old. The lefty’s development has not been particularly linear as a result, so we could expect the Orioles to be cautious with his workload.

What sort of inning total the team deems appropriate for this season remains to be seen. He has thrown exactly 21.2 innings in both June and July. Perhaps he replicates that in August and September between Norfolk and Baltimore, which would put him on pace for just over 110 frames on the season.

The other number to keep an eye on for Hall are walks. Control has been an issue for him throughout his trek up the professional ladder, but it is something that has trended in the right direction for a while now. However, he is currently walking 5.40 per nine innings with Norfolk this season. It’s the sort of thing he can get away with in Triple-A, where he is able to blow away most hitters and escape jams. That won’t happen as frequently in the majors, so he needs to rein things in.

After a tough June, where he walked 17 across 21.1 innings, Hall has issued just eight free passes over 21.1 innings in July, four of which came in one start. The big shift, according to Hall, was a delivery tweak that removed a tell on what type of pitch was coming. The ability to successfully switch up something like that mid-season shows impressive maturity and awareness, perhaps another box checked en route to the big leagues.

One thing that should be noted in Hall’s case is that the Orioles are not engaging in service time manipulation, at least not yet. Hall entered the year having never pitched above Double-A and rehabbing from an elbow injury. It always made sense for him to spend a significant amount of time in the minors this year, which would take him out contention to both earn an entire year of service time or qualify as a Super Two candidate. That said, he is clearly good enough to pitch in the big leagues once the Orioles feel he has met the criteria for doing so. What would be fishy is if he stays in Norfolk for the remainder of the summer.

To boil this all down, Hall has not remained in the minors because the Orioles are “cheap” or because Elias is “trying to lose.” In this instance, the team is prioritizing his development, and likely looking to manage his innings. That is easier to do in Norfolk than in Baltimore, where there is a sudden level of ambition with a whole bunch of in-division games coming up.

The 2022 season has just about two months left. With his walks down, an effective tweak to his delivery completed, and a reasonable inning goal in sight, it does make sense for Hall to get the call to Baltimore in the very near future.

My personal prediction for a Hall call-up: just after the August 2 trade deadline. The deadline to sign draft picks is the day before. There will be an influx of young talent into the organization, which could mean promotions for others. Hall should be at the top of that list to make his way to Baltimore.