You wouldn't be wrong to think of the development of David Hale, starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, as an equation to solve.
Hale didn't disagree with this characterization, when I put it to him that way last Friday afternoon. That he was at home with such an idea makes sense, given his degree in economics from Princeton University.
Hale was already 21 years old when the Braves took him in the third round of the 2009 draft, nearly 22. He'd played more center field than pitcher at Princeton, too. So it's been more or less a race for Hale ever since, trying to catch up to his competition for a major league job.
And the Braves, in drafting and developing Hale, are betting that the lack of wear and tear on his arm will be more beneficial than his lack of experience will hurt him.
It probably helps when the person asked to learn quickly to make up the gap is the remarkably bright Hale. So far, the bet seems to be paying off.
"I think it's both a drawback and a plus," Hale said to me as we talked in front of his locker prior to Friday's game between the Mets and the Braves. "Yes, I have less mileage on my arm, but at the same time, I had to learn more, and I was on a slower plan through the minor leagues, spending a year at each level. So that's a little bit of a drawback. And I still had to learn things that guys who had already pitched for longer already knew."
Still, Hale acknowledges that who he is helps to make up the gap, or at least bend the learning curve a bit.
"I'm pretty dedicated to what I do," Hale said. "I studied video a lot. I find comfort in knowledge, and comfort in seeing people in video and seeing them step in the box and feel like I've seen them before. I do think that is a product of my education and just the way I've been brought up. Yeah, I think they value it."
That's not to say Hale minimizes the challenge he faced. The Braves added Hale, a Georgia product who grew up rooting for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, at a time he was a self-described thrower.
"Essentially, I had a slider and a four-seam fastball," Hale said. "Pretty basic. I threw hard, so I was able to get away with some mistakes at that level, stuff that you can't get away with at a higher level."
Hale was a bit older than his competition in each of his first four seasons in the Braves' system. He suffered through intermittent control problems, added a changeup, but found himself with an unorthodox problem: the righty had significantly more success against lefties than he did against his own kind.
"I added the sinker last year," Hale said. "I think that's been helping me out with both sides of the plate. At Double-A, I was way better against lefties. So it's getting closer. It's just that I have confidence in my changeup, and that helps me out against lefties."
So it was essentially the perfect marriage of pitcher and coach when Roger McDowell, the Braves' major league pitching coach, got ahold of Hale in January 2013, during the team's early throwing camp in Atlanta prior to spring training. Hale, a hard worker spending the offseason at his Georgia home, jumped at the chance to attend.
"Watching David throw, and talking to him, it was the first time I'd really laid eyes on him," McDowell told me Friday as we talked in the Braves' dugout. "So we talked about his pitches, and what his percentage of four-seam to two-seam was. Because he did throw a two-seam fastball, but he didn't have a whole lot of confidence in it, and he didn't have a whole lot of command of it. So that's when we started talking about the sinker, just playing with it, working with the grip, and understanding what the pitch does, what we're trying to accomplish with the pitch, making sure the pitch looks strike-to-ball, rather than ball-to-ball."
McDowell is no one-trick pony with pitches, and has succeeded with Braves hurlers that feature varied repertoires. In this case, though, Hale was learning a sinker from a guy whose 12-year career featured a ton of ground balls and no significant platoon split thanks to, yes, the sinker.
But teaching a guy another pitch, and not just a complementary one, but what became his primary pitch in 2013, is anything but simple. Again, that's where Hale's intelligence served as an important equalizer.
"Well, I know he attended and apparently graduated from Princeton," McDowell said. "As pitching coaches, we're always trying to help, not hinder, and understanding if a player has that aptitude. And the only way we find that out is by suggestions, and seeing if he's able to put that into work.
"I wasn't surprised [by his success]. And maybe it goes back to that Princeton degree, that he was able to get through the process, and understand what we had talked about, and what he could become, and that is a ground ball pitcher."
Hale's strikeout rate dipped a bit at Triple-A in 2013, playing at a level where he was younger than the league average for the first time in his career. But his walk rate went way down. And he really seemed to figure things out in August and September. Over his final nine minor league starts, he struck out 43, walked 11, and pitched to a 3.20 ERA in 53 1/3 innings.
That success with his four-pitch repertoire continued in a pair of Atlanta starts. Hale walked just one and struck out 14 with the Braves last September.
"I was feeling it at Triple-A, prior to coming up," Hale recalled. "The second half of my Triple-A season was really good. I felt like I carried it over well, and I'm sure the adrenaline of being up and playing with the Braves helped that. I'm actually pretty sure it did," Hale said with a chuckle.
It's been tougher for Hale early on this season, particularly in the control department. He's walked nine in 15 1/3 innings so far over three starts, though he's managed to avoid trouble overall, pitching to a 2.93 ERA. Still, Hale knows this is no recipe for long-term success, and that he needs to make adjustments.
"You're always tweaking things here and there," Hale said. "Sometimes I get rotational, and you want to be more down through the plate," and Hale gestured with the straight-ahead body movement he preferred. "There's just a few little drills that Roger's been showing me. It's something I've struggled with for a long time, and it's getting better and better. I'll probably be tweaking it for the rest of my career."
McDowell diagnosed this particular issue prior to Hale's most recent start, and Hale walked only two in six innings on Sunday against the Mets.
"David was playing catch a couple of weeks ago," McDowell said. "And I noticed he was off, going a bit to his arm side, throwing across his body. That's one of the problems he has, getting rotational. With the thought of -- some of these ballparks have terrific outfield cutlines, where we can kind of envision a hallway. And when we envision staying in that hallway, we can kind of envision the direction we need to be throwing the baseball."
Plenty of people are hoping that Hale's brain can outrun his experience going forward, with ample help from McDowell. There's Hale, of course, who just bought a house in Marietta this past offseason, and would love to stay with his boyhood team forever. There's the Braves, who badly need Hale after the injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.
And there's his teammates, who get the benefit of a Princeton grad with an Economics degree in their clubhouse whenever they need investment advice.
"Some people ask me what I've done with my bonus," Hale said. "I'll give them the general knowledge of what I have. It's been a while since I've messed around with it. It's a little rusty for me."
Understandable. Hale's impressive mind has been on other things.