The Yankees took a five-run lead into the bottom of the 10th inning on Thursday night against the Rays, but Luis Cessa was struggling to close the door. Tampa Bay had one run across already, and the bases were loaded for Yandy Diaz. With the tying run at the plate, the Yankees called upon David Hale as their last resort.
The 31-year-old right-hander jammed Diaz with a 3-1 two-seamer and ended the game on a weak grounder to Didi Gergorius. Hale was called upon again to pitch the 9th and 10th innings in a tie game on Friday, picking up the win after tossing 2.1 scoreless innings. Hale might not have the most tantalizing stuff in the Yankees bullpen, but he’s having legitimate MLB success for the first time since 2014 and has become an important piece for the Yankees bullpen.
Inducing weak contact is the name of the game for Hale, who has had trouble putting batters away via the strikeout in 26.1 innings this season. In fact, his 5.47 K/9 is among the lowest in the league. However, Hale’s been elite when it comes to pitching to contact. Among pitchers with 30 or more batted ball events, Hale ranks number one in all of baseball with a 20.2% opponent hard hit rate. Among 84 batted balls against Hale, only 17 have been hit 95 mph+.
So what makes Hale different than the pitcher who’s struggled to stay on a big league roster over the past four seasons? First, his velocity has reached another level this season. His 93.3 mph average four-seam fastball velocity is much improved over his previous career high of 91.6 back in 2014. He’s also throwing more of a power sinker this season with a 92.9 mph average sinker velocity, compared to 90.8 mph last season with the Yankees.
“I feel like ever since spring training he’s been throwing the ball really well. We’ve seen a little uptick in the velocity. He’s fearless out there and he’s got pitches to get guys out with,” Aaron Boone said on Friday. Those pitches Boone’s talking about are Hale’s sinker, changeup, and curveball, all of which are producing an expected batting average under .242, in addition to a good four-seam fastball.
Hale relied heavily on his changeup and sinker last season, throwing them at 37.6% and 30.1%, respectively. He only utilized his fastball on 18.1% of pitches, and opponents pummeled his changeup to the tune of a .628 expected slugging percentage. This season, Hale has been a completely different pitcher depending on his matchup, a testament to his ability to make adjustments. Against lefties, Hale’s pitch mix is 40.1% changeups, 30.9% four-seamers, and 23.7% sinkers. Against righties, he’s throwing 32% sinkers, 32% four-seam fastballs, and only 9.9% changeups. This new approach has been the key to Hale’s success, as lefties own a .134 xBA against his changeup and righties own a .171 xBA against his sinker, according to Statcast. Hale’s groundball rate of 52.4% is also his highest since 2014 and a major improvement over the 41.7% he registered in 2018.
There’s no guarantee Hale will continue to have the same level of success in the second half of the season, but the Princeton alum has recently become a reliable weapon for the Yankees in the absence of Jonathan Holder and his uptick in velocity offers hope that he’s unlocked some untapped potential. The sample is too small to anoint Hale a mainstay in the Yankees bullpen, but he’s becoming more than a passenger on the Scranton Shuttle.