After Circuitous Road Through Pro Baseball, PU Alum Hale Finding Home with Yankees
BRONX TALE: Former Princeton University standout David Hale fires a pitch in recent action for the New York Yankees. Hale has emerged as a key middle relief pitcher this summer for the Yankees, going 3-0 with a 2.89 ERA in 19 games through July 29. (Photo provided courtesy of the New York Yankees, all rights reserved).
By Justin Feil
David Hale expected there would be some travel in his baseball career, but he could never had imagined the extent of it.
The Princeton University graduate has been around the world for baseball.
“It’s all more than I would have expected,” said Hale, who went on to graduate from Princeton in 2011 after being drafted in 2009.
“It was always a dream. I think that’s why I chose Princeton. I had the ability to go there and they were looking at me. Going to that school gave me a plan. Baseball was a back-up plan. I know how fast baseball can end so I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself to just be a baseball player. I’m glad I got my degree from Princeton. It’s something I hope to use someday.”
Hale finished 2018 playing in Korea, one of four stops in an up and down professional year. This year, he has again been overseas, but it was for a series with the New York Yankees in London in late June.
“If I go year-by-year, I can tell you where I was,” said Hale. “It takes some thought. Particularly last year, I was all over.”
Last year’s travels coupled with being a 31-year-old with an inconsistent history in the majors had raised some questions about where Hale would be this year, but he never doubted himself. He accepted the Yankees’ minor league contract with incentives if he made the big league club, and impressed from the outset with a good spring training that has carried into what has turned into a solid major league season, emerging as a key middle reliever for the club.
“I’ve always felt confident I could,” said the 6’2, 210-pound Hale. “I proved it last year. It’s more so them needing a spot and the velo (velocity) increase (up to 93-95 mph) turned a few heads. They were asking me what happened, and what’d they feed you in Korea. Once my velo held for all of spring training, I thought this might be a special year.”
Through July 29, Hale was 3-0 with a 2.89 ERA in 19 games for the Yankees. He had struck out 22 while walking just six batters in 37.1 innings. He also has one hold and has picked up his first two career saves.
“I’m definitely happy with the way it’s been going. Last year was a very different season being up four times, being sent down four times because of numbers and the situation they were in. It’s nice to be able to come in here and throw well and be able to stick.”
Hale went through plenty to prove he belonged in the major leagues after being drafted in 2009 in the wake of a solid, if not spectacular, career at Princeton. Hale pitched and played in the outfield for the Tigers. Hale, though, wasn’t Mike Ford, the former Princeton player who joined him on the Yankees this year and was the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year and Player of the Year in 2013 while balancing pitching and playing the field.
“I was never anything,” joked Hale. “I never won a championship, I never got any of those accolades either. I guess it’s turned out all right.”
Going into his junior year, Hale was ranked the top prospect in the Ivy League by Baseball America going, but the Marietta, Ga. product never earned All-Ivy acclaim.
Hale’s hometown Atlanta Braves believed enough in him to take him in the third round of the draft, higher at the time than all but two previous Princeton selections.
Getting to the majors was a climb, not a leap, for Hale. He moved up one level each year until he debuted for the Braves in 2013 in glowing fashion with a franchise record nine strikeouts for a major-league debut. He finished the year on a high with an appearance in the National League Division Series. The next year, he was up for good with Atlanta and enjoyed his most successful season with a 4-5 record and 3.30 ERA in 45 appearances in 2014.
He was traded to Colorado and spent 2015 and 2016 in the Rockies organization, where he was 5-5 with a 6.09 ERA in 12 starts and a total of 17 appearances his first year. He appeared in just two major league games in 2016.
He wound up in the Baltimore organization and played in the minors for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 before getting moved back and forth between the Yankees, Twins and their AAA clubs before finally settling in Korea last year. Hale kept notes on approximately 25 things that were different about Korea, and that was just the baseball side of it. “It was a really good experience,” said Hale. “It was interesting.”
When the 2018 season ended, Hale wasn’t sure where he would end up.
“Every bit of it was a question mark,” said Hale. “I was coming back from Korea, and I didn’t know if Korea was going to renew my contract and ask me to come back. I didn’t know honestly which team I’d be with if they didn’t. When they did not (renew his contract), I started looking around the U.S. teams and the Yankees said we’d want you back if you’re willing to come back. I knew they liked me and I liked the fit here. I felt comfortable. It’s the first time in four years I’ve actually gone back to the same team, so I think the comfort level also helped me do what I’ve done this year.”
Hale has been steady and reliable for New York. He fits in usually as a middle reliever, but he has closed games and from prior experience knows that he could start a game in a pinch.
“Traditionally I’ve always been a starter,” said Hale. “The only time I’ve relieved has been in the big leagues in 2014 with the Braves most of the season and last year and this year. I’ve been in a few more high level situations than I’m used to. I’m glad they’ve gone well and I’ve been able to pull through in those situations.”
Being successful has come with Hale adjusting his mindset to the pressures that come with being a reliever. The mental side of it is bigger than the physical differences from starting.
“It’s definitely a different animal,” said Hale. “Starting is very planned and routine. You throw every five days, you know exactly when you’re going to throw and the adrenaline builds in the last few days. Relief, I’m down there stretching as soon as the starter gets in trouble or gets toward his pitch count. I might stretch for six innings because the way our offense can hit they could take a six-run lead or put me in a situation where it’s my game at any moment. It’s quicker adrenaline. As soon as that phone rings, it could be you, and your heart drops and your heart flutters. It’s a different mentality and thinking for sure.”
While Hale has been up in the majors before, he has not been this effective since his 2014 stint. His arsenal is better than ever with a good sinker and a fastball hitting 93-95 miles per hour after being around 92 for years.
“I really have no idea why,” said Hale. “The best thing I can attribute it to is dad strength now that I have a little baby. Also my sinker is back that I had in 2014. It’s what got me up in ’13 and what helped me have a successful ’14. And then in ’15 and ’16 I kind of lost it with the Rockies. That was my bread and butter. It’s what I relied on. When I was behind in the count, I felt confident in throwing. And finally that’s back. That’s the biggest attribute.”
Hale can’t fully explain even how his sinker came back so well. It’s helped give him an out pitch when he’s needed it and been something he can rely on at all times.
“It’s amazing how stuff like that happens,” said Hale. “You pick up the ball one year and it feels good. I’ve messed with some different grips, and I think that also helps. I’ve talked to (Adam) Ottavino. He’s big into slo-mo cameras. He’s got a whole set-up at his home where he watches different stuff. He throws a sinker too and he gave me a few pointers too. It’s little things here and there.”
Better yet, Hale’s success has helped the Yankees get off to a terrific start as New York was 67-38 and led the American League East by 8.5 games as of July 29.
“It’s so much fun to play for a team that wins,” said Hale. “After 162 games in a year, by the end of the year it gets kind of draining. By July, August, September, if you know you’re in the hunt for the playoffs, it keeps the energy up. Playing on a bad team can really be draining. It’s pretty cool to be on a team that’s this special.”