The Orioles want DL Hall to be a starter, and DL Hall himself wants to be a starter. But there have long been doubts about the young lefty’s ability to fit into a rotation role as a big leaguer. Further evidence mounted in 2023 to suggest that he may instead have to settle into the back of the bullpen if he wants to carve out a job in Baltimore at all.
Prior to spring training, the Orioles said that Hall would be part of the starter competition. It was no surprise. After all, he was a top prospect that had just started 18 games with Triple-A Norfolk in 2022 and also made his major league debut. This was the next logical step.
But his hopes of breaking camp with the team took an immediate hit when it was revealed that Hall entered spring with an existing back injury. It was said that he remained in the mix for a roster spot, but it took until March 20 for him to get into a Grapefruit League game and ultimately he threw just four total innings over two spring appearances.
Hall was optioned to Norfolk in late March, where he could stretch himself back out to handle a starter’s workload. It didn’t take long. By late April he had made it through five innings in a start. The O’s deemed he was ready for some big league action, calling him up as the extra man for a double-header against the Tigers in late April. He allowed two runs over three innings while striking out seven in an O’s loss that day and was sent right back to Norfolk afterwards.
Given how the Orioles had talked about him in the spring it seemed like just a matter of time before he was up for good. But that’s where Hall’s season got weird. It would end up taking four months for Hall to get back to Baltimore, and it wouldn’t be as a starter.
Back to Hall’s late-April outing. The results were somewhat mixed, but you could see the promise that Hall has always had. He got a 30% whiff rate overall, and his changeup was particularly good (six whiffs on 11 swings). But his velocity was down. His fastball averaged 93.2 mph and topped out at 95.6 mph, both well below what the southpaw typically shows. In 2022 he averaged 96.2 mph on his fastball.
Hall returned to Norfolk, where he made two more normal starts in which he threw 95 and 98 pitches, respectively. But then he saw his pitch counts shrink. From late May through mid-June he went through what the Orioles called a “deloading” process. That pulled his pitch count back to 45 in the first start of this exercise and progressively jumped up each start from there, maxing out at 61. His velocity, in general, creeped up as well. From an average of 92.7 mph on May 10 up to an average of 94 mph in a later outing, but then leveled out. At the time, Hall said he enjoyed the experience as it allowed him to further hone his off-speed offerings.
But it seems the Orioles weren’t entirely satisfied with the progress to that point. The decision was made in mid June that Hall would go down to Sarasota. There he could focus on rebuilding his strength, which would in turn help his velocity bounce back to the heights he was accustomed to. Hall remained in Sarasota for nearly two months, even appearing in two FCL games, before heading back to Norfolk in early August.
When Hall was back in the mix with the Tides the intention was clear. For 2023 at least, he would no longer be starting games. The big league squad needed relief help, and Hall was an obvious in-house candidate to provide it. He came out of Norfolk’s bullpen six times in August. O’s closer Félix Bautista got hurt on August 25, and Hall was recalled the very next day.
Hall became one of manager Brandon Hyde’s most dependable options in the season’s final month of action. He appeared in 17 games and pitched to a 2.76 ERA and .210 batting average against. Over 16.1 innings he struck out 16, walked four, and that premium velocity was back.
Back in April he had averaged 93.2 mph on his fastball. In his first big league appearance in August an amped up Hall averaged 97.8 mph on the gun, and his average fastball would never dip below 95.4 mph for the remainder of the season. Although it was a long and winding road, the decisions that Hall and the Orioles had made to get him to this point worked. It was as a reliever rather than a starter, but the 25-year-old was nasty nonetheless, getting goofy swings from some of the league’s elite hitters.
Hall appeared twice in the Orioles’ brief playoff stay. Over 3.1 scoreless innings he allowed just one hit, one walk, and struck out six. A small sample size to be sure, but still an impressive showing against a Texas Rangers offense that has battered just about every other arm they have faced in October.
The Orioles continue to say that Hall’s immediate future will be a starter. Hyde even said in September that the team has not “closed the door on what his future looks like,” explaining that the team needed a reliever this season, so that’s where he filled in. That probably is true. Hall stuff is just so good. It would be ideal to see him hone it for 150+ innings a season rather 70-ish frames out of the bullpen.
But there needs to be evidence from Hall that he can handle the job. He has been a boom or bust type of prospect ever since getting to Double-A Bowie in 2021. He’ll twirl a a gem and then implode the next time to the mound. He’ll rack up strikeouts but also lose all command.
The Orioles are no longer in a position where they can afford to let a young pitcher learn on the job for too long. This team should have World Series ambitions in 2024. That should mean a rotation upgrade of some kind is coming this winter to join up with Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez. That could leave Hall competing with the likes of Tyler Wells, John Means, and Dean Kremer—along with any other potential additions—for two spots. It’s tough (although not impossible) to see Hall gaining the inside track in that group even if he provides the most upside.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has plenty of question marks. We know Bautista will miss the entire season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. It’s unclear what the plan will be for Dillon Tate, who was out all year with the always-ominious elbow and forearm injury combo. You would expect the Orioles to add a veteran of some significance to the mix, and that Yennier Cano returns to the closer role. But nothing is set in stone.
Hall has shown in two consecutive seasons that he can thrive as a big league reliever. Plus, he is a hard-throwing lefty capable of going multiple innings. That is the Golden Goose of major league bullpen weapons.
It may all depend on what business the Orioles get done this winter. In their wildest dreams, they would love for Hall to be a homegrown success story in their rotation. But they will have to be realistic. Regardless, the southpaw is in position to play a crucial role for the 2024 squad.
Tomorrow: Jordan Westburg