LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — At first blush, it reeks of blasphemy that David Hale and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera could share the same career trajectory, relative to age.
But both right-handers didn’t make their major league debuts until 25 years old (Rivera in 1995, Hale in 2013); and heading into their age-26 campaigns (with the Yankees and Braves, respectively), neither was a lock for big-league success … or even a regular spot on an MLB roster in Year 2.
Yes, time has confirmed Rivera — 652 career saves, 11 seasons of a sub-2.00 ERA — to be the most prolific reliever in baseball history, thanks to the nastiest cut fastball you’ll ever see from a righty. But in 1996, particularly in spring training, Rivera was still smarting from a middling run as a starter (allowed four-plus runs in five of 10 starts the year before) and adjusting to a new role in the Yankees’ bullpen (non-closer).
At that time, no one could have guessed Rivera would become an unstoppable force for the better part of three decades. But the seeds of change were sown during that ’95 campaign (mid-September), when Rivera modestly blanked the opposition in five of his final seven regular-season appearances.
Fast forward to last year: In his final three minor league starts (spanning Aug. 23-Sept. 2), Hale surrendered 11 earned runs over 18.1 innings at the Triple-A level — the kind of mini-run that typically doesn’t portend excellence at the next level.
But it’s amazing how things can change for the better, when given a clean slate.
In his MLB debut on Sept. 13, Hale stymied the Padres at Turner Field, allowing zero runs and four hits over five near-flawless innings, while striking out a season-high nine batters. (His highest 2013 tally in the minors was six.)
"I had no idea I had nine (strikeouts)" during the start, recalled Hale last week at the Braves’ spring training complex at Walt Disney World. "I’ve had more than nine before" — fanning 11 hitters at Double-A ball in 2012 — "so, it’s not like it was completely strange. … It was a nice surprise, and I guess that’s the adrenaline working at its max in Atlanta."
Thirteen days later, with no official mound appearances between outings, Hale raised the bar of home expectations once more, yielding just one run over six innings, whiffing five batters and coercing the free-swinging Phillies into 12 ground balls.
"When it comes to preparation, I try do the same exact thing every time," says Hale, a native of nearby Marietta, Ga. "Last year, I added a sinker (to my repertoire), and that accounted for a lot of ground balls" at the MLB level.
Hale’s two-game domination of San Diego and Philly resulted in the following line: 1-0, 0.82 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 14/1 K-BB rate. It bore a strong resemblance to fellow Braves hurler Mike Minor’s breakout from September 2012 — 4-0, 0.87 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 28/9 K-BB rate.
Bottom line: If Hale (480 career innings as a pro) belonged to maybe 10 other franchises, perhaps he would have been penciled in as a No. 3 or 4 starter for 2014 — based on that September flurry.
But with the pitching-rich Braves, the Princeton alum and young Ray Romano doppelganger will have to sing for his proverbial supper in 2014, battling Alex Wood (3.13 ERA as a rookie last year), Freddy Garcia (0.00 ERA/0.00 WHIP in five Grapefruit innings this spring) and eventually Gavin Floyd (rehabbing elbow injury, due back in mid-May) for the coveted No. 5 slot in Atlanta’s rotation.
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It’s an interesting cross to bear, carrying on the Ivy League’s richer-than-you think legacy of major leaguers — a list that starts with Lou Gehrig (Columbia), Hall of Famer Eddie Collins (Columbia), Bill Almon (the first Ivy Leaguer taken No. 1 overall in the MLB draft — 1974) … and wraps up the modern era with Ron Darling (Yale), Doug Glanville (Penn), Brad Ausmus (Dartmouth) and 1991 World Series hero Gene Larkin (Columbia), to name a few.
(For good measure, former U.S. President George H. W. Bush captained the Yale baseball team in the 1940s.)
And Hale might have felt even more pressure to succeed in the bigs, after the Braves selected him in the third round of the 2009 MLB Draft — ahead of future luminaries like Wil Myers (last year’s AL Rookie of the Year), Jake Marisnick (stud prospect with the Marlins), Brandon Belt (a burgeoning star with the Giants), Khris Davis (11 homers, .353 OBP in 56 MLB games last year) and Round 8 gem Paul Goldschmidt, who absurdly amassed 36 homers, 125 RBI, 103 runs, 15 steals, a .302 batting average and .401 OBP with the Diamondbacks last season (second in NL MVP chase).
After all, Hale was merely average, numbers-wise, in three collegiate seasons with Princeton (2007-09), posting cumulative marks of 7-9, a 4.74 ERA, 1.53 WHIP and 120/64 K-BB rate over 26 appearances and 127.1 innings.
(For the record, Hale cites Red Sox catcher and Yale alum Ryan Lavarnway as his toughest out among Ivy League hitters: "He was a pest to us.")
But the Braves obviously focused more on Hale’s long-term skill set — possessing a sublime array of diverse pitches, getting consistent movement on the ball and boasting a fastball that occasionally touches the mid-90s on the radar.
One month later, Hale was drafted by the Braves, giving him the perfect excuse to delay a potential career at Google, Microsoft or Wall Street — wherever Ivy Leaguers with majors in operations research and financial engineering (according to Bloomberg) go after leaving college — to pursue his big-league dream.
From there, Hale had been a model of consistency in the minors, showing ERA improvement over four consecutive seasons (2010-13) — at four different levels of the Braves’ system.
"I think it’s one of those slow and steady kinds of things," says Hale, while admitting to being "pretty raw" upon getting drafted. "It was nice having that consistency of being at one level at one time."