Some call it magic. Some call it a mystery.
Matt Imhof calls it a fastball, and it’s helped take he and Cal Poly to the upper echelon of college baseball, all but assuring himself a lucrative selection in the upcoming MLB Draft in the process.
The No. 6 Mustangs head to Cal State Northridge today for their final regular-season series hoping to secure their first Big West Conference baseball title. They might need to sweep the Matadors (18-32, 6-12 Big West) to keep that dream alive, and UC Irvine will have to drop at least two of its final six conference games, too.
Today, Cal Poly (42-10, 16-5 Big West) will hand the ball to its junior ace, one of the most dominant hurlers in the nation.
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The 6-foot-5, 220-pound lefty has struck out 116 batters, the second-most in the nation, in 84 2⁄3 innings. It’s a strikeout rate (12.3 K per nine innings) that leads Division I.
Imhof also sports an 8-4 record and 2.44 ERA, numbers that have helped make him one of 35 semifinalists for the Dick Howser Trophy, an award given to the top collegiate player voted on by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
Teammates Mark Mathias and Casey Bloomquist also made the list released Thursday, and Cal Poly is the lone team with more than two semifinalists.
For Imhof, success starts with a low 90s fastball that he can run up to 94 mph that also has a knack for avoiding bat barrels with an extreme downward angle and late cutting action.
This season, batters are hitting just .195 against him.
“When he pounds that low and away location with his fastball,” Mustangs head coach Larry Lee said, “that’s the initial part of him being successful. Then if he could mix in the slider, he’s very good, and the change is still a work in progress.”
Imhof himself was very much a work in progress when he arrived at Cal Poly.
He didn’t fashion himself a pitcher in earnest until his sophomore year at Fremont Mission San Jose High.
Prior to that, from the ages of 12 to 15, Imhof was primarily a slugging first baseman, but when pitchers’ velocity advanced with age, his batting skills stayed the same.
If he wanted to get to the next level, it had to be as a pitcher.
“I was always tall and had good command,” Imhof said. “I decided to give pitching a try, got up there and found a real passion for it.”
The late start meant he came to San Luis Obispo raw, but one thing was clear: It sure was hard figuring out his four-seam fastball.
Then pitching coach Jason Kelly, who’s since moved on to Washington, dubbed it the magic fastball.
Part velocity, part deception, part movement, Imhof’s fastball was pretty much his only pitch during a freshman year where he pitched 47 1⁄3 innings with a 3.04 ERA.
“It wasn’t until maybe my sophomore year that I got my first hit off him in intrasquad,” junior right fielder Nick Torres said. “I don’t think I got a hit off him freshman year, and it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, shoot. I’ve got to face Imhof again.’ I was always excited to, and he just always beat me.”
Back then, Imhof was topping out at 87 to 88 mph, a more than respectable velocity, certainly, but not overwhelming.
Yet, in a late April relief appearance against Cal State Fullerton, Imhof blew through 4 1⁄3 innings while allowing one run and one hit and throwing 47 consecutive fastballs.
While many pitchers have a smooth delivery to the plate, Imhof’s is sudden and unpredictable, a little herky-jerky.
“He has kind of a weird arm angle,” Torres said. “It almost looks like a righty who taught himself how to throw lefty. So, the way the ball comes out, it’s not very easy to pick up because of that funky arm angle. When it comes out, you have trouble picking it up, and by that time, it’s already on you.”
Now that he’s added a reliable slurve to the mix and a developing change-up, which might have been at its best in a dazzling outing against UC Irvine last weekend, Imhof has the eyes of scouts.
Baseball America, a leading publication on all things baseball, updated its top 100 high school and college draft prospects list this week, ranking Imhof 42nd.
That evaluation places Imhof in serious consideration to become a first-round pick.
There are 27 picks in the first round of the upcoming draft with a seven-pick compensatory round and seven pick competitive balance round before the second round opens with the 42nd.
Centerfielder Mitch Haniger is the highest-selected Cal Poly player in Division I program history after he went 38th overall to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012. Catcher John Orton was taken 25th overall by the California Angels in 1987.
And left-handed pitcher Garrett Olson was taken 48th overall by the Baltimore Orioles in a compensatory round in 2005.
Lee said Olson was a bit more polished than Imhof during a breakout junior season, when Olson went 12-4 with a 2.71 ERA.
To that point, Olson had a quick ascent through the minor leagues, spending parts of seven MLB seasons with the Orioles, Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets from 2007 to 2012.
Imhof, however, might be a better long-term prospect than Olson, who was listed at 6-1.
“He might have most upside just because he’s 6-5, and his better days are ahead of him,” Lee said. “He’ll figure out a lot of things and get better in pro ball. That’s where the changeup will continue to develop.
“Garrett had a great junior year, and Garrett threw also at a time when there were a lot of good Friday night pitchers on the West Coast, and he went head-to-head, and he was very good. Garrett was maybe a little bit more refined, but Matt has the higher upside just because of his stature.”
Imhof matched up favorably with some of the best college pitchers in the nation during a stint with Team USA last summer.
Going 3-0 with a 0.53 ERA in six appearances, Imhof struck out 18 hitters in 17 innings and limited opposing hitters to a .175 average.
All signs point toward Imhof being Cal Poly’s latest early selection in the MLB Draft, but he’s doing his best to ignore them for a while to keep throwing that fastball.
“We don’t look ahead,” Imhof said. “Our focus right now is on Northridge and getting that win.”