While there’s no shortage of motivation or desire to be on the field and return to some semblance of normalcy throughout baseball, this season has felt like an especially long time coming for Michigan lefthander Steven Hajjar.
The Wolverines’ Friday night starter spent his freshman season in 2019 watching his squad make a run to the College World Series, sidelined by an offseason knee injury. Looking to help the team return there last season, the coronavirus pandemic quashed those thoughts after just four starts. A year later, the 20-year-old southpaw—and No. 37-ranked draft prospect—is back in action for No.19 Michigan, looking to help the team make another appearance in Omaha.
When Hajjar’s redshirt freshman season was cut short due to the pandemic and he returned home to Massachusetts, like many others he lost access to the resources he would have otherwise had. He lauded the Michigan coaching staff for the workout schedules and throwing plans it built for its players and credits the time away from Ann Arbor for a refresher in the mindset of taking nothing for granted.
“You have a very finite amount of time that you’re going to put on the Michigan jersey, so you’ve got to really cherish every moment that you can in it,” he said. “Just seeing the looks on the guys’ faces when we got shut down in March, some of them were told it would be their last game for Michigan they ever played; some of them their last baseball game ever. It’s a terrible feeling, I saw it right on their faces, so that’s something I want to put off for as long as I possibly can.”
While Hajjar spent significant time last year refining his tools to come into the 2021 season strong, he also took the opportunity to build on his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame. Checking the scale each day for gains, the lefthander overshot his goal to add 15 pounds and ended up reappearing on campus for fall ball at 245.
The 30-pound difference had an undesirable effect on his mechanics and mobility, so Hajjar reversed course to return to where he wanted to be in the first place, at 230, spending a significant amount of the fall getting “back down to earth and cutting back,” landing on a preferable combination of durability, strength and athleticism.
“I got a little bit too tight up top, so the mobility was down in the fall, and my arm slot dropped a little bit,” the lefty said. “I had to go back and focus more on the mobility exercises we do here and regain focus to where I could go back to the natural arm slot I was throwing at last year.
“I had underestimated how big of an effect the weight gain would have on the way I was able to move. That was something we had to work a little bit backwards for, leading into this season and by the end of the fall I turned over a new page and I got back to where I needed to be.”
Once the body was where Hajjar wanted it to be, he was able to focus throughout the winter on getting his repertoire similarly aligned. In the shortened season last year, the lefthander relied heavily on his fastball-slider combination, with a changeup he didn’t go to often.
Throughout the time he spent working with Michigan-turned-Tigers coach Chris Fetter, Hajjar internalized the importance of what adding a curveball to his tool box could do for his success. In December, he got a chance to develop that pitch, and spent time enhancing its separation from his slider, over two weeks in Tampa Bay at Kinetic Pro Performance.
“I throw my fastball from a high arm slot and it has a lot of vertical break on it, so coach Fetter—before he went to the Tigers—would always tell me it would be better to have a true 12-to-6 curveball coming off the fastball and I really wanted to develop that going into this season,” Hajjar said.
Though Hajjar had spent significant time learning and understanding the best pitching technology available through classroom PowerPoint sessions at Michigan, and reviewing his data after each outing and bullpen, the opportunity to use the Edgertronic and Rapsodo feedback pitch by pitch during his time in Tampa made a big difference in a short time.
“Instead of judging how good a pitch was based on the feel coming out of my hand, I could actually get the data right away,” he said. “A problem I was having originally when I was throwing [the curveball] was that some of my hand was on the side of the ball more than I thought it was. I thought I was throwing a curveball with my hand directly on top of the ball, but then I’d look at the Edgertronic camera that’s showing the slow-mo of my hand releasing the ball and it’s actually off to the side.
“So we came up with a cue to drive my thumb over the top half of the ball, based off the Edgertronic camera and what that was showing us, and then it really got to where it was 12-to-6.”
In addition to developing the new breaking ball, Hajjar took the slurve-like offering he was throwing last year and made some modifications to increase the separation between the two even further.
“I would have called it a slider last year,” he said. “So I kept that same pitch but now it’s a little harder, it’s a little more gyro than it was last year. It’s a little more cutter-ish than it is a true slider. So I changed the pitch that I was throwing last year and then I added on a curveball.”
Estimating that his curveball sits around 78 or 79 mph, with his slider coming in anywhere from 80 to 83, the enhanced repertoire has already paid dividends early for Hajjar, with more options and an increased level of confidence in each of them.
“In my start against Purdue, I went out there and didn’t really have a good feel for the slider or the curveball,” he said. “I actually hit two guys with the curveball and the slider, so I was pretty much pitching off my fastball and changeup. Last year I would have had a lot harder time because I didn’t have as many options to go to. Now, if one or two pitches aren’t working it’s not a big deal because I have more to rely on.”
Hajjar opened his season with a win over Iowa, allowing two runs on six hits over 6.2 innings with one walk and eight strikeouts. Against Purdue, he threw six frames of one-run ball with five Ks, and in his most recent outing versus Illinois, Hajjar allowed three runs on four hits over five innings, walking three and fanning four.
“I’ve spent so much time watching and in the training room while everyone else was going out there to play, I feel like this is finally my chance to get out there and be with the guys on the field and compete with them,” Hajjar said. “That’s what motivates me. It’s super fun that I’m finally able to get out there and be with the team and I get to wear the Michigan jersey and compete for Michigan.”