The Atlanta Braves' starting rotation, before the start of the season, was thought to be a major question mark for Atlanta. David Hale was one of those primary question marks, as he was asked to start for the team to begin the season following Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy's UCL tears.
Hale was a relatively unheralded prospect who began to burst onto the radars of Braves fans after his stellar debut as a spot starter late in the 2013 season, in which he dominated the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies in two starts, striking out 14 batters in 11 innings of work with impeccable control and a mid-90's fastball with a quality slider and changeup.
Despite his fantastic debut, questions lingered about Hale's potential efficacy in the rotation due to his limited experienced and relatively unimpressive pedigree. The results for Hale in his four April starts ended up being quite good on the surface--he started four games, pitching 23.1 innings and posting a more than acceptable 2.31 ERA in those starts. However, a look past the surface reveals that Hale was likely the beneficiary of a good deal of luck in his appearances up to this point in the 2014 season. His high walk rate of 11.5% suggests that he struggled with control, and a 4.46 xFIP shows that Hale very likely did not truly perform as well as his stellar ERA would suggest.
Peripheral results aside, Hale's four starts were acceptable for Atlanta in Mike Minor's stead, but Hale is headed back to the bullpen as a result of Minor's return, per Fredi González in a radio interview with ESPN's Jim Bowden.
Fredi Gonzalez just told us that David Hale will be moving to the bullpen when Mike Minor is reinstated from the DL Sirius 209 XM 89— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) April 30, 2014
Although he's been demoted from the starting rotation, Hale will become an asset for the Braves' bullpen (likely sending Gus Schlosser back to AAA) instead of going down to Gwinnett himself to stay stretched out in case he is needed in the rotation again due to an injury.
So, what should we expect from Hale in the bullpen? Hale actually began his professional career after being drafted out of Princeton University as a reliever, only becoming a full-time starter during the second half of the 2011 season as a member of the high-A Lynchburg Hillcats. His results as a reliever in the minors aren't too important in my eyes, as we're 3 years of development and improvement removed from that version of Hale as a pitcher. Hale actually pitched significantly better as a starter than a reliever during the 2011 season, ceding fewer walks on a rate basis. His only real improvement as a reliever was his strikeout rate, which is to be expected, as pitchers can throw harder and "let loose" more in a relief role due to the decreased workload of a relief appearance versus a start.
For my money, it seems that Hale will be the next-to-last righty on the bullpen totem pole, behind Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter and Jordan Walden, but ahead of Anthony Varvaro. He'll likely work as a pitcher with the capability of going two or three innings in an outing when necessary, perhaps in a tight game after a starter has departed early due to ineffectiveness. In addition, he could see some late-inning work as a 7th or 8th inning reliever if the other set-up men are dealing with rest due to increased workloads.
In terms of what to expect statistically from Hale, I'd bank on both a strikeout and walk rate improvement from what we've seen thus far in the 2014 campaign. As I mentioned previously, the nature of relief work lends itself to pitchers throwing harder and flashing improved "stuff," and Hale has the ability to strike out batters with a fastball with plus velocity, especially as a reliever, and a pair of quality secondary offerings in his slider and changeup. Hale's a good bet to induce ground balls, which is always helpful in a situation in which a double play is needed, as his fastball produces a good amount of sink (his career ground ball percentage as a major leaguer is 52.5%).
In summary, it'll be nice to be able to deploy Hale as a quality fourth righty out of the bullpen, and he should serve an important role for the Braves, albeit in a diminished capacity. Hale could make a spot start for the Braves in case of a minor injury or weird scheduling, which is always nice, and he's a better option than Anthony Varvaro as a long reliever. Hale may not be in the rotation any more, but the Braves are still fortunate to have him in the majors, and we'll see plenty of him going forward. He may not have the pure stuff of a Kimbrel or Walden, but his pitchability and three quality offerings should lend itself to bullpen success.