Matt Toke checks every box in the evaluation process. He’s a highly productive hitter. He is a defensive wizard. He makes everyone around him better. And he has excellent leadership skills.
Those qualities have been front-and-center during Toke’s three years at Seton Hall University and four seasons at Hunterdon Central High School. Toke, today, begins his final college season at Seton Hall and it’s a season that will go a long way in determining where the left-hitting first baseman will be come June.
“Matt’s in a really good spot,” says Seton Hall University head coach Rob Sheppard. “He’s a plus defender. He’s been unbelievable at first base. That doesn’t go unnoticed by the scouts. He’s strong offensively and capable of hitting for power as a corner infielder. I think he has the opportunity to get drafted but, of course, that’s dependent on how he performs.”
Seton Hall opens preseason workouts today at newly refurbished Owen T. Carroll Stadium on the school’s South Orange, N.J. campus.
“Coach Shep and I have been talking,” said Toke. “He’s says your senior year should be your best. You should always want to get better. I don’t want to get caught up in what lies ahead. At the end of the day, I just have to produce and that stuff will sort itself out.”
Toke knows the drill and he has passed every test at every turn since his earliest days as a baseball player. He begins his final college baseball exam, the 2020 season, with a .303 career batting average for the Pirates and some even more impressive numbers. Always an excellent hitter the opposite way, Toke also has a keen eye and an ability to put the ball in play consistently. He has drawn 70 walks in his career while striking out just 67 times. It’s a rare player, at any level, who has fewer strikeouts than walks.
On the defensive side, Toke has committed just three errors in 125 career college games. That’s three errors by a first baseman, the infielder that touches the ball the most frequently.
“For me, it’s not only what he does as a fielder, but how he saves the other guys,” said Sheppard. “His ability to help his teammates and make them better is unbelievable. For me, that even outweighs what he can do offensively.
The scouting file on Toke may have a few pages left uncharted but it’s already a thick file. He gained attention as an excellent high school player and on the travel circuit with the Diamond Jacks out of Diamond Nation, where he began playing as a 14 year-old. He capped one of the more impressive careers at his high school by hitting a clutch opposite field two-run home run that ensured a 4-2 victory over Morristown in the 2016 NJSIAA Group 4 final.
“I’m not at all surprised by the success Matt has enjoyed at Seton Hall,” said Toke’s high school coach Mike Raymond. “Early in his high school career he exhibited the work ethic, leadership and resiliency needed to be successful at the collegiate level. He had always had the unique ability to not only make himself better on a daily basis but also all of the players around him.”
Sheppard picked up on much of the same about Toke on the recruiting trail.
“One of the things in recruiting Matt,” says Sheppard, “you saw what an integral part of his team he was, on the field and as a leader. We anticipated him having a very similar career here and he has. He’s one of the more vocal guys on our team. He sets the tone in how he goes about his work.”
The 2019 season ended with two straight disappointing losses in the Big East Tournament for Toke and his teammates as the Pirates concluded the 2019 season at 25-28. Toke committed his only error of the season in a tournament loss to Creighton, leaving a bigger stain on his memory of the season.
“It was horrible timing for my only error,” said Toke. “We practice bouncing back the next play and I know my teammates are always there to pick me up.” Toke’s attention, of course, has turned to the 2020 season after a summer and fall of working on his game.
“I want to go out with a ring, like I went out with a state championship in high school,” he said. He prepared for achieving that goal by playing all summer for the Mystic Schooners of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. The league runs from early June through early August and boasts a busy schedule of five-to-six games a week.
“I think I accomplished what I wanted to,” said the 6-0, 215-pound Toke. “I’m in better baseball shape. I did what I had to do to get stronger. It was a good experience. The pitching was really good. You see some top arms from a lot of big schools, SEC guys, ACC guys, a lot of the top guys in the Northeast.”
Toke was at Diamond Nation last week getting in some swings. Now it’s back to school and baseball.
“As a team we have more to accomplish. We fell short last year. But we all have the same goals. We’re all on the same page as teammates.”
Seton Hall has a solid nucleus returning, including seven starting position players, and Toke has been impressed by the freshmen the team greeted during fall camp, including a former Diamond Jack.
“A lot of freshmen will have pretty big roles,” said Toke. “Some proved themselves in the fall. Devin Hack is one of them.” Hack, a Somerville grad, is a speedy center fielder with a well-rounded game.
“Making the (Big East) tournament isn’t a big enough goal this year,” said Toke. “We know what it takes to get there but we fell short when we did the past three years. Now we have to take the next step.”
Toke was a Second Team All-Big East selection last spring and has earned a Pre-Season First Team Big East nod. Also a member of the All-Big East Academic team, Toke, a finance major, is taking nothing for granted on that end.
“I’m graduating on time,” said Toke. “Our academic advisor really keeps us in line and holds us accountable. He’s not easy on us. You don’t know what’s going to happen on the baseball end so I you have to prepare yourself for a job.”
While we don’t see Toke’s baseball career ending anytime soon, we are not surprised he has prepared himself for whatever life throws at him next.
Matt Toke’s Career Numbers at Seton Hall University
125 Games: .303 BA, 127 H, 30 XBH, 7 HR, 74 RBI, .404 On-Base, .413 Slug.