To Matt Hobgood, it is a matter of when, not if.
When he regains the fastball velocity that endeared him to scouts and persuaded the Orioles to make him the fourth overall selection in last year’s draft, he will start striking hitters out. When he loses the weight that evokes Sidney Ponson comparisons among Orioles fans, and probably contributed to the nagging injuries that have plagued him the entire season, he will be as dominant as ever. When he learns to command the strike zone, grind through an entire season, and throw his change-up for strikes, well, you get the idea.
Despite a pedestrian 4.84 era. and striking out just 5.72 batters while walking 3.89 per nine innings, Hobgood is convinced it’s all going to come together at some point. If anything positive can be gleamed from a season that even Delmarva’s pitching coach, Troy Mattes, characterized as “disappointing,” the 20 year-old’s foundation has hardly been shaken.
“I know I was drafted where I was drafted,” he says. “People say I was an overdraft, blah blah, blah. Joe Jordan gets a lot of heat for drafting me. People are going to realize why I was drafted where I was drafted. Sometimes it takes a little longer for people to figure things out.
“Everyone is making their assumptions now, but I think it’s a little bit early. You look at Ubaldo Jimenez right now, he’s got what, 17, 18 wins? I heard he was like 4-11, or something terrible when he was in A-Ball.”
Hobgood has certainly prevailed through far worse. In eighth grade, his dad died of colon cancer. Before his freshman year, Hobgood, his mom, and three younger sisters, now 18, 16 and 14, moved to a different part of Norco, Calif.
“It was rough. But I think everything happens for a reason. It’s helped make me stronger as a person. It’s a pretty bad loss, but I think he would want me to move on. God’s taken something away from me, but he’s also blessed me.”
He soon became best friends with his new neighbor, D.J. Wood, who got Hobgood to start playing football. Wood’s dad, a former college baseball player, as well his high school baseball coach, Gary Parcell, reinforced the straight and narrow path Hobgood was set on, serving as immediate mentors.
Four years later, after leading Norco on the mound and as a power hitting first baseman to the state semifinals his junior year, and the quarterfinals his senior year, Hobgood was a projected first-round talent. The Royals (12th overall), Rangers (14th), and the Blue Jays (20th), all displayed strong interest, with the Angels promising he would not get past their 25th pick. Less than an hour before the draft, the Orioles informed Hobgood that if Dustin Ackley—who went second overall to the Mariners—was not available, they would select him, which they did. Analysts derided the selection as a reach, and Hobgood set out to prove the naysayers wrong.
He signed in time to make eight starts for Bluefield in the Appalachian League, with middling results: 4.73 ERA. 26.2 innings pitched, 16 strikeouts and eight walks. His velocity dipped, his curveball lacked bite, his command suffered, and lacking even a show-me caliber change-up, he proved vulnerable versus lefties.
Most people gave him a mulligan. Following a long high school season, and after making the adjustment from pitching once a week to every five days, Hobgood was understandably tired.
Yet the same problems have mostly persisted into 2010. Hobgood throws both a four-seamer and two-seamer, his two-seamer usually a tad slower. In high school, he was typically clocked in the 91-94 mph range, topping 95-96 at times. On a good day now, both pitches sit around 89-91.
Meanwhile, his feel for his change-up, a non-existent weapon in high school, has improved markedly throughout the season, sitting at 81-84 mph, running away from lefties and running in on righties. Some scouts characterize it as akin to a split-change, although no one is quite sure what he is throwing. “We spent a lot of time last year and this year trying to find a grip that’s comfortable for him, finding some confidence and knowing how and when to use it,” Mattes says. “It’s got a bit of an awkward grip, but it works well for him.”
“Once I get the velocity back, there will be a 10-mile-per-hour difference,” Hobgood contends. “It will only get better. It’s pretty good right now. It’s got good movement. It looks like a fastball. That’s all you really need. You don’t need a Johan Santana change-up or something nasty. It’s just about keeping the hitter off balance.”
His high 70s curve continues to flash plus-potential, but like his change-up, lacks consistency from start to start. Hobgood uses his four-seamer to set up his curveball, working up and down in the zone by elevating his four-seamer at times. As his professional career has progressed, however, he has developed an affinity for his sinker, which tends to bore down and in on right handers.
Hobgood’s struggles largely stem from underlying mechanical issues. He routinely fails to repeat his delivery, and his front side has a tendency to fly open early. Consistency with his release point is also a recurring issue. The Orioles have worked with Hobgood on throwing more over-the-top consistently, but he is prone to dropping his arm slot, particularly on his fastball. Hitters at this level usually are not good enough to detect this, but Hobgood’s velocity and command have likely suffered as a result.
“It depends if his arm is catching up to his body or if he’s trying to do much with his lower half or his front side, then his arm tends to drag and have a little lower arm slot,” Mattes says. “When he does a good job catching up with his body everything stays high three quarters and has good life to it.”
Watching Hobgood throw, people see glimpses of what scouts saw in high school. They see the life in his arm. When his velocity is not hibernating under some mechanical kink, it has touched 94 mph this season. Both of his fastballs have natural movement that makes scouts drool.
Hobgood is not the first high school pitcher used to pitching off pure stuff despite unrefined mechanics. Most 19-year-old pitchers have trouble locating their pitches and issue too many walks. They work down the middle or on the inner third of the plate, before they earn the right to touch the corners. Their arm and body is not yet equipped for the duration of a six-month season.
Yet a $2.42 million dollar signing bonus, coupled with the Orioles bypassing the likes of Tyler Matzek, Shelby Miller, Zach Wheeler and Mike Leake, warrants a different set of expectations. To add insult to injury, the 6-foot-4 Hobgood, who weighed 245-250 pounds when he was drafted, ballooned to 270 by spring training. The increase was partly in muscle, but also in fat. He declined to say how much he weighs at the moment, but added that he was not where he “needed to be.”
The typical pre- and post-game spread does not help matters, particularly on the road (In Lakewood, for instance, hot dogs, oatmeal creme pies, and potato chips highlight the typical entree). Hobgood’s main focus is educating himself on nutrition, even when dealing with limited choices.
“I’m not trying to lose five pounds a week or something ridiculous,” he says. “That’s lame. It’s all about eating good. I can go run, but if I eat bad there’s no point. I do the same as every other pitcher. I try not to do much extra, because your body gets broken down enough. Things are different this year, and they’ll continue to be different as I get older.
“All you’re trying to do is train your body and letting your talent and work ethic take you as far as you can. It takes getting used to. Everyone’s got their problems, whether it’s drinking too much or overeating. I’m not a party guy, at least.”
Hobgood’s weight has become the first resort of criticism for some. It’s a gross oversimplification, but Hobgood has been sidelined for short stints at a time, including missing three weeks in June, in addition to having extra days between starts on numerous occasions, dealing with small, nagging injuries, most recently a back issue. Thus, it’s hard not to point to his conditioning as the culprit.
“I expect more than what he’s given right now,” Mattes admits. “I think next year, with a full season under his belt, he’ll know what to expect. He’ll know what he needs to do to be prepared mentally and physically for the season. That’s typical of young guys. A lot of guys have a hard time addressing the throwing program or the lifting program, until they know exactly what their season entails. You trust your strength department and pitching department to have the proper throwing and workout program.”