ASU left-handed pitcher Justin Fall took questions from the media on Friday afternoon, towering over most with his 6-foot-6, 237-pound frame. He was very calm, composed and a little bit on the quiet side.
But one thing was clear: he was focused. And he has been since the day he stepped on campus.
“He’s a worker man,” Sun Devils first-year pitching coach Jason Kelly reiterated a couple of different times, adding in that Fall “really wants to be great.”
In fact, he was so dialed in that it took head coach Tracy Smith a little time to comprehend the New Jersey native’s demeanor.
“It was funny because he kind of walked around and didn’t say anything to anybody, and I’m kind of like ‘what is this dude man’, didn’t know a lot about him,” Smith said of Fall when he arrived at school.
Fast forward to now, and Smith’s take on him pretty much mirrors Kelly’s.
“Very focused, very determined on what he wants to be,” Smith said. “Personality wise I like it, he’s very focused and then you see the stuff wise on what he possesses, just physically it’s pretty good.”
Both what Fall wants to be, and what Arizona State needs him to be, is a dominant front-line starting pitcher. The Devils have not had a team Earned Run Average that ranks in the top half of the conference since 2012, featuring a 4.93 ERA last season, a 4.72 ERA in 2018, and a 5.59 ERA in 2017.
And the coaching staff believes that Fall, along with Saint Mary’s transfer and 2019 National Freshman of the Year, Tyler Thornton, can fit that prototype.
“We all have those two guys in the rotation at this point. Whether or not Friday, Saturday, Sunday, kind of how that matches up is going to be how that affects our team the best,” Kelly said. “Those are two pretty talented kids. I think you’re talking about two kids at the end of the day that have a chance to pitch in the big leagues.”
Fall is entering his junior season after two years at Brookdale Community College, where he overpowered opposing hitters, throwing up a 1.80 ERA and 68 punchouts in 64.1 innings during his sophomore year. That success along with the eyebrows he raised in the fall led to him being ranked by Baseball America as the No. 67 overall prospect for the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft. It’s a lot more than just his coaches who think highly of him.
But he doesn’t focus on that stuff at all. He does not care to talk about personal goals, solely zoned in on team accolades and helping his third ranked Sun Devils reach the promise land of the College World Series in Omaha.
“I just kind of like to get to work,” Fall said.
A lot of work has gone into this offseason between the southpaw and Kelly. The two have been on the same page right from the get-go with similar philosophies and personalities.
“Me and (Jason Kelly) clicked right away,” Fall said. “He’s a lefty so being able to see things the way he’s able to do it, I throw from the same side, kind of clicked right away, and his personality, laid back but likes to be aggressive at times is kind of my approach as well.”
Fall garnered a three-pitch repertoire, including a four-seam fastball, changeup and slider. But once the two started operating alongside one another, a fourth has been in the works.
“For me it was developing my two-seam fastball, something I implemented, my coaches implemented for me late in the fall,” Fall said.
Kelly explained that the two-seamer basically serves as a sinker for Fall. Additionally, the lefty mentioned he is also trying to shore up his breaking ball a little bit as well.
Kelly, meanwhile, wants to see Fall simply tighten up everything, making sure he’s ready to prevail in Division I baseball, not just pitch at it.
“It’s been kind of getting acclimated to this level,” Kelly said. “When you’re at that junior college level, you kind of get away with a little bit more, so it’s kind of fine-tuning the stuff and being a little bit more, not fine with his stuff, but being a little more dynamic with his stuff.”
A long offseason agenda for a new man on campus. But that’s exactly how Fall likes it.
“There’s been a lot of things that he’s worked on and he’s a worker, he wants to work on everything, so the laundry list with him is long because those are things that he wants to do,” Kelly said.
Having a mentality this driven does not come with every ballplayer, especially ones that are forced have a significant change in lifestyle. For Fall, it was moving over 2,100 miles from his hometown of Beachwood, New Jersey to a completely new area. But each time those questions were asked, he always shifted the focus right back to getting ready to work.
“Nothing really caught me off guard, I haven’t really thought about where I am being in Arizona, across the country,” Fall said. “We’re just so busy and kind of laser focused on what we’ve got to do that I can’t think about how many miles I am away from home and being away from family and that kind of stuff. Nothing has really changed, it’s just baseball.”
Fall did mention that he certainly has no complaints about the weather in the valley and getting accustomed to consistent sunny days. Additionally, having the rest of the team welcome him in with open arms made the transition that much easier.
One guy he was quickly drawn to? Another junior college transfer, who has already had success in the maroon and gold.
“Me and (right-handed pitcher) RJ (Dabovich), he’s probably my closest friend on the team,” Fall said. “Throwing partners, do everything together in the weight room, stuff like that so him and I have clicked right away so that’s helped me a lot.”
Dabovich began last season as the Sunday starter for the Devils, piecing together four straight quality starts to begin the year, three of them giving up just one run. He also put up a 3.31 ERA and struck out 29 in 19.1 innings in the Cape Cod League this past summer.
“We talked a little bit about what’s expected of everyone,” Dabovich said. “I felt like I was a leader in that role anyway.”
Fall met a few of the players when he came on his visit last October, including catcher Sam Ferri, the redshirt junior who is expected to complete Fall’s battery come game time. Since returning, he’s only built on that chemistry.
“I knew he was probably going to start for us and my goal is to start as well, so clicking with him right away was big and his personality kind of matched his mind.”
But maybe the most important connection he’s made of all? The relationship with Kelly.
“(Kelly) has been one of the most influential people, just in five months, on my baseball career already,” Fall said. “He is way more knowledgeable than anyone I’ve been surrounded with. I’ve been surrounded by great guys but he knows ins and outs and things that I’d never heard of that have really helped me. The transition has been really well.”
What are some of those things, you ask?
“Secret stuff,” Fall said with a smile.
Those ins-and-outs may forever be kept a secret. But once he starts toeing the rubber of Phoenix Municipal Stadium on weekends, the impact that Fall is set to carry on this ASU ballclub will be anything but.