As the scouting world descended upon North Carolina to see many of the top prospects in the 2014 draft (Carlos Rodon, Jeff Hoffman and Touki Toussaint), the state also offered a glimpse at one of the top arms for the 2015 draft, Duke sophomore righthander Michael Matuella, who ran his fastball up to 97 mph with a wide assortment of offspeed stuff in the final game of a sweep against rival North Carolina.
After suffering a lat strain during his first start of the season on the opening weekend, Matuella missed a full month and his pitch count was monitored closely upon his return, throwing 65 pitches combined between two mid-March starts. He had his longest start of the season since the first weekend, throwing four innings against the Tar Heels.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Matuella came out with premium velocity in the first inning. His first 13 fastballs to start the game were 96-97 mph, with a pair of 95 mph heaters to end the first inning. Matuella pitched up with his fastball in the opening frame, with only one low, glove-side miss.
“Between innings I talked to my pitching coach, coach (Andrew) See, and needed to speed up my delivery a little bit to force my arm to get the ball down in the zone,” Matuella said. “Speeding up my delivery really helped and I was able to keep more balanced and locate down better.”
Matuella then was 94-96 in the second inning before holding 93-96 the rest of the way through 74 pitches, despite it being only his fourth outing of the spring. He showed the ability to locate down in the zone and to both sides of the plate, primarily to his glove side. He is a power pitcher who pitches off his fastball, as 77 percent of his pitches were fastballs.
He threw a 79-82 mph curve with 12-6 shape, sharp tilt and substantial depth at its best, flashing at least plus. His 83-86 mph slider showed above-average potential. Although he threw less than five changeups on the day, Matuella showed aptitude and feel for the offering that was mostly 87-88 mph, touching 90 in the first inning. It showed the makings of at least an average offering.
Despite feel for three offspeed pitches and strike-throwing ability with his fastball, Matuella’s entire repertoire underwent a transformation heading into this year, as the curveball and changeup are relatively new offerings.
“He was basically a two-pitch pitcher last year with the cutter/slider and a pretty flat fastball,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “Now you have a guy that can sink it, cut it and spin it. He is really going to be a four-pitch guy.”
Matuella, who threw almost exclusively four-seam fastballs last year, has a heavy two-seam fastball with late life, arm-side run and sink when down in the zone. He generated seven groundouts against a lone flyout against North Carolina and has a 2.8 groundout-flyout ratio on the year.
“I exclusively throw my two-seam now,” Matuella said. “I talked to coaches about the transition from a four-seamer to a two-seamer in the fall. I thought there is no reason for me to throw a four-seam if I can get the movement and locate the two-seamer to both sides of the plate. My two-seamer allows me to get away with more misses and I can keep the ball off the barrel.”
Beyond his fastball velocity and life, Matuella’s heater plays up because of his long stride (measured at six and a half feet) and incredible fastball extension out front, as the ball really jumps out of his hand from an arm slot a tick above three-quarters.
“One of the points in my delivery that I try to emphasize is my follow-through and extension,” Matuella said. “I am almost trying to stick the ball in the catcher’s mitt.”
“Obviously you can’t throw the baseball that hard without having a lot of quick-twitch muscle fiber, but he combines it with a loose extension,” Pollard said. “He gets tremendous extension, moreso than any kid I have ever coached.”
Matuella has very long levers and his arm action is loose and easy, creating downhill plane while working from the first-base side of the rubber.
Although Matuella has thrown very few innings (14), those frames have been dominant as he has struck out 47.9 percent of the hitters he has faced on the year with a 5.8 strikeout-walk ratio. Small sample size caveats strongly apply to his numbers.
The pitcher Matuella currently is, let alone the pitcher he will become, is a far cry from what he was just two years ago as a high school senior at Great Falls High (Fairfax, Va.).
“I have no idea what I was in high school but it wasn't very hard. It was probably in that 83-86 mph range,” Matuella said. “I don't think I had a single scout at any of my games my senior year.”
Unlike many hurlers who improved dramatically once they reach campus after going undrafted out of high school, Matuella was not a multi-sport athlete his final three years in high school after playing basketball as a freshman.
Duke’s coaching staff changed as Matuella entered his freshman year. Pollard had almost no experience with Matuella before he reached campus but was impressed early on.
“Watching him long toss I thought ‘Wow, there is a lot of leverage in that arm,’ ” Pollard said. “The first time I watched him long toss I said ‘Michael, how hard do you throw the baseball?’ He said I have been in the upper 80s, 86-88. But he really looked like he could throw the baseball hard. I remember telling our pitching coach, coach See, there is a lot more in the tank.”
His velocity has steadily progressed since reaching campus after following a Jaeger long toss routine, sitting in the low 90s as a starter last year before reaching the mid-90s in relief appearances. He touched 98 in the fall.
Matuella’s strength, body control and athleticism have also improved.
“He was long and had a little bit of that baby giraffe thing going on but now he is 6-foot-6 and is very proportional,” Pollard said. “He is very lean and long and also very athletic. He has gotten a lot stronger. He is so broad through the shoulders and that helps him get that leverage with those long levers.”
Although his present stuff is immense, he has significant upside as he further refines his newly learned repertoire. He is very intelligent and also young for the class, turning 21 the same week the draft is typically held in June.
Matuella is scheduled to pitch on the Cape this summer for Cotuit.