By CHRIS COOK
For GoDuke The Magazine
The first time he saw it, Al Morris thought the radar gun was wrong. Then it happened again. And again. Charting Duke’s pitchers during a fall scrimmage one cool day in October, Morris had just witnessed consecutive readings of 97 miles per hour.
“I had to do a double take on the gun,” he said.
It wasn’t the readings that threw Morris off, but rather the pitcher responsible for generating them. Morris, in his first year as Duke’s assistant to the head coach after a three-year playing career with the Blue Devils, watched from his seat at the backstop as a tall, lanky sophomore once again began his windup. The right-hander on the mound started his motion, a leisurely contortion of arms and legs that culminated in the powerful release of a fastball that popped the catcher’s mitt so loud the sound echoed in the empty stands of Duke’s home stadium.
Morris checked the radar again: 98.
Just over 12 months prior, Michael Matuella stepped onto campus as a relatively unknown college freshman. A member of Duke’s 2012 signing class, he was coming off a successful career at Georgetown Prep High School in Great Falls, Va., where he earned all-region honors as a senior. His arsenal was solid but not flashy, consisting of a mid to high-80s fastball and an average breaking ball.
What Matuella did have that caught the eye of Duke’s coaching staff was a 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame that had plenty of projectability. However, when Matuella got to Duke, he lacked bulk and muscle to the point that head coach Chris Pollard compared him to a baby giraffe, all arms and legs. Still, Pollard saw something that gave him a glimpse of what the long right-hander could become.
“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 (he’d) 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 (Andrew) See, there is a lot more in the tank.”
Fast forward to that cool autumn day in October of 2013, and Morris’ radar gun made Pollard look like a prophet. When Morris told Matuella after practice that day that he clocked his fastball consistently in the high-90s, Matuella was equally as stunned.
“I had to make sure he wasn’t joking,” Matuella said. “I asked a few times and said, ‘Please don’t be messing with me.’”
Morris wasn’t joking. Matuella, who at the time was auditioning for a spot in Duke’s weekend rotation, had just showcased to his teammates an arm that would stack up alongside some of the hardest throwers in all of baseball.
In the span of a few minutes, whispers of Matuella’s 98 miles-per-hour fastball circulated among the team. The readings confirmed what they had all suspected after watching their long and lean teammate pitch in the fall: Michael Matuella was bringing some serious heat.
The news was eye-opening to everyone except Pollard. Behind the dark lenses of his trademark Nike sunglasses, Duke’s second-year manager hid a look of tempered excitement.
“Honestly, I thought, ‘Well that’s about right,’” he said.
Two years later, Pollard’s predictions have come true. Matuella is one of the most talked-about college players in the country, lauded by scouts and national baseball outlets for command of a four-pitch arsenal that includes a heavy fastball that regularly touches the high 90s. Still only 20 years old, he has added significant muscle to his frame and is among the top prospects in all of amateur baseball.
“This guy is the real deal,” said Aaron Fitt, national writer at Baseball America. “He looks the part, he’s got a huge arm, great body and power secondary stuff. The whole package really is there.”
In addition to improving his strength and athleticism, Matuella has reinvented himself on the mound. Under the tutelage of See, Matuella dropped his four-seam fastball in favor of an explosive two-seamer with more movement. He has refined his sharp 83-86 mph slider while adding a hard downer curveball and a changeup that has as much velocity as the average college fastball.
The increased velocity and refined repertoire has been dominant in 2014. Despite missing nearly a month with a strained back muscle suffered in his first start of the year, Matuella owns a 2.61 ERA with 65 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 51.2 innings heading into the ACC Tournament, in which Duke is the No. 4 seed. Opponents are hitting just .174 against him, with hitters in the powerhouse ACC faring only slightly better at .182.
“The secondary stuff is very exciting,” Fitt said. “If you can throw a power curveball in the low 80s like he can with that kind of downer break and depth, that’s special. Then you have the hard slider that he still has, and the changeup sounds like it’s coming along pretty well. He’s got a chance to be a legit four-pitch guy. You don’t see too many guys that have a well-defined curveball and slider that both have a chance to be plus pitches, and this guy has a chance to have both of those.”
The transformation from lanky freshman to physical specimen did not happen overnight. Pollard notes that despite his physical talents, Matuella’s best trait is his work ethic. He has worked diligently with See and Duke Sports Performance coach Dan Perlmutter to change his body into what now resembles the prototypical starting pitcher.
“Michael, physically, is the most talented baseball player I’ve ever coached,” Pollard said. “His combination of size, arm strength, movement on his fastball and electricity on his fastball, all those things...he’s one of the most special physical talents that I’ve ever encountered in my 20-plus years of college baseball. But as good of a player he is, he’s a better person. Very humble, very focused, very diligent. He’s at Duke for the right reasons.
“He’s what I would call a grinder. He likes to work. He likes the day-to-day grind. He likes getting in the weight room, he likes the throwing regimen, he likes the pre- and post-work that goes into our routine. He’s a guy who really embraces the work ethic.”
With the ACC Tournament approaching Wednesday, Matuella is no longer an unknown. Fitt says if Matuella were eligible for the 2014 MLB Draft — he won’t be eligible until 2015 due to NCAA rules — that he would be a top-10 overall pick. With continued success this year and next, Matuella could climb into the top five in the 2015 draft, possibly going as the No. 1 overall pick.
“When you look up ‘pitcher’s frame’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of him,” Pollard said. “That’s how you draw it up. He’s long, he’s loose, but he’s strong and he’s athletic. And a lot of that goes into the job he’s done in the weight room and the job that Coach Perlmutter’s done. Coach See and Coach Perlmutter have done an unbelievable job of developing him.”
Matuella’s potential was on full display on April 6 against Georgia Tech when he held the traditionally power-laden Yellow Jackets to one unearned run and four hits over 8.0 innings in his first career complete game. Two weeks later, he combined with closer Robert Huber to blank Virginia Tech, throwing 8.2 shutout frames with seven strikeouts for his first win of the season.
“You’ve seen this coming,” Pollard said. “(Matuella’s velocity) has gone from 88 to 90 to 92 to 95. There’s been a steady progression. Michael didn’t just wake up one morning, get struck by lightning and throw 98. He’s really worked to develop this over the last 18 months.”
For a Duke team on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1961, Matuella’s development couldn’t come to fruition at a better time. It’s not often that a team can put a potential No. 1 overall draft pick at the back end of its rotation, but the Blue Devils have such a luxury with senior Drew Van Orden (5-5, 3.56 ERA) and junior Trent Swart (5-2, 1.49 ERA) fronting the three-man rotation.
That trio, along with closer Huber and a host of dependable bullpen arms, has anchored a Duke team that has reached 30 wins for the first time since 2009 and matched a school record with 16 ACC victories.
Of course with Matuella’s success — and by extension, that of the Blue Devils as a whole — comes more attention. Scouts line the backstop three rows deep when Matuella is on the mound, all with radar guns and notepads in hand.
“I really try not to pay any attention to that,” he said. “Once I’m in the game, I really don’t notice anything that’s going on up there. I’m really just looking at the catcher’s mitt. It’s funny, when I’m off the mound I’m kind of joking around, but I’m very serious when I’m working. Once I get on the mound, everything just goes away and I focus on the pitch I’m about to make.”
Everyone else in the stands focuses on that pitch too, or at least as well as a person can focus on an object moving close to 100 miles an hour. As Pollard notes, Matuella still has room to develop and it may get even harder to see those fastballs in the future.
“He’s not what you’d call a max-effort guy,” Pollard said. “It’s a very free and easy delivery. I’d venture to say there’s more there. There’s room for more growth...as scary as that is.”