Riley Pint, Michael Matuella Make Progress

HICKORY, N.C.—On paper, Friday night’s matchup between Hickory’s Michael Matuella and Asheville’s Riley Pint was was one of the more intriguing the minor leagues had to offer.

Both pitchers are talented, but each faces significant hurdles on the road to achieving their overall ceiling. Pint, BA’s No. 77 prospect in the latest iteration of the Top 100 prospects, has some of the best stuff in the sport, but has produced inconsistent results in his first full season as a pro.

And on Friday, each righthander showed hints of why his club values him so highly.

Pint’s arsenal is explosive. His fastball, which can sit in the mid-90s and touched as high as 99 mph on Friday, at times shows devastating sink and cut. And his curveball, a powerful pitch thrown in the low 80s, can be a true wipeout pitch. He also mixes in a developing changeup and a slider.

He’s tweaked the grip on the slider this year, and the result is a pitch that behaves like a cutter hybrid in the low 90s.

Despite his stuff, though, the results haven’t been there. Part of the reason of that is simple: He needs to command his fastball better. To do so, he and Asheville pitching coach Ryan Kibler have been working to tweak his mechanics.

“He’s really done a lot of work with his delivery,” Kibler said. “He’s really tightened up his delivery. It’s had a nice effect on his fastball command, getting fastballs down in the strike zone and then of course (he has) the breaking ball to finish guys.”

Kibler said he’s helped Pint stay back over the rubber longer and get to the point where he can separate over the rubber more often. When he does that, he gives his arm a chance to finish out front when he releases the ball. When he gets himself in sync, his fastball stays down in the zone and allows his velocity and movement to work to the peak of its effectiveness.

Pint has also worked hard on learning to attack hitters more aggressively and let his defense work for him. Like most high schoolers with premium stuff, he racked up a ton of strikeouts and didn’t really need to worry about pitching to contact. Pure stuff got him all the results he needed.

In pro ball, where the hitters are much more advanced, that’s not always the case.

“I just think I didn’t really have a good mentality when I was going out there on the mound. I didn’t really have an ‘I’m going to get after these guys’ type of mentality,” Pint said. “I kind of fixed that around the all-star break, and now I’ve just got to go out there and have a good mentality and don’t let anything faze me”

Pint showed flashes of the stuff that led the Rockies to select him in 2016 with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft and award him a $4.8 million signing bonus out of St. Thomas Aquinas High in Overland Park, Kan.

He was particularly dominant in the second inning, when got each of the first three hitters to strike out swinging. The last hitter, Rangers top prospect Leody Taveras, reached when a breaking ball got past catcher Brian Serven, but Pint got the next man to ground out to end the inning.

When everything is clicking for Pint like it did in that inning, he can be absolutely dominant and look like a pitcher with a future high atop a rotation. With a month and change left in the season, he’s going to do everything he can to make sure those results keep coming.

“The first half of the season obviously wasn’t what we wanted to have,” Pint said, “but I think I’m coming along pretty strong in the second half and am only going to come on even better with my last six or seven starts of the season.”

For Matuella, success has been partially defined by simply being on the mound at all.

His stuff at Duke pointed to a first-round pedigree, but a lengthy injury history that includes a battle with a back condition called spondylolysis as well as Tommy John surgery gave teams pause and he fell to the third round, where the Rangers pounced on him as a high-risk, high-reward pick.

The injury issues continued as a pro, and he pitched just three innings during the 2016 season after being shut down with right elbow soreness. He’s fully healthy now, though, and like Pint is showing flashes of why he had scouts flocking to each of his starts in Durham, N.C.

“It’s good to be back pitching. Obviously tonight didn’t go quite the way I wanted it to, but I’m making progress and my arm feels great,” he said. “That’s obviously first and foremost. I’m still getting the reps in and trying to make improvements from outing to outing.”

Matuella struggled a bit with fastball command on Friday and lasted just 3.1 innings before hitting his pitch limit. His best inning was the first, when he showed a 92-94 mph fastball with hard cutting life as well.

He struck out two around a home run and got swings and misses on three consecutive pitches at one point in the frame. He also showed a changeup and curveball, though neither pitch appeared at its best.

Now that he’s back and taking the ball every fifth day, it’s time to kick off some of the accumulated rust. The first step is re-harnessing his fastball.

“A big thing with the Rangers this year is fastball command,” he said. “Really establishing the fastball and trying to get it down in the zone or up in the zone when I need it, in and out, and being able to really set the tone with the fastball so the other pitches can play off of that when I need it.”

To achieve that goal, the Rangers raised where Matuella sets his hands to begin his delivery. Instead of starting lower and lifting his hands as he starts his motion, he begins with hands set high. That cuts a step out of his delivery and gets him in a good position from the get-go.

“It’s something I worked a lot with in the offseason and basically just repped it out in my throwing program,” he said. “It was a pretty quick transition.”

Rehabbing from injuries obviously limits what a player can do on the ballfield, so he has to find other ways to better himself. Matuella spent part of his time studying pitchers in the playoffs and trying to gain a better appreciation for what makes them elite.

In particular, he was taken by the way Indians ace Corey Kluber performed during the World Series.

“He was really dominant. Just seeing what he was able to do with his two-seam fastball (was impressive),” Matuella said. “I don’t think the average baseball fan can really appreciate how he was locating that two-seam fastball to his glove side, freezing lefthanded hitters all the time and freezing righthanded hitters too. That pitch moves a lot. So I think seeing how he located his fastball was really cool, when obviously I’m trying to get to that point.”

The road to Kluber-like dominance might be a long way down the road, but for Matuella being healthy enough to take the ball every fifth day is good first step in the right direction.

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