Thanks to the "everything must go!" fire sale going on in Atlanta, there isn't much left for us fantasy players there. With the departure of Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis, the list of fantasy-relevant players is very short. Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis (maybe), Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, and...a bunch of question marks. Finding a sleeper among what's left isn't easy. You have to dig a little deeper. That's why I'm here talking about David Hale. You may not be familiar with him. You may not know how he did last season. I'm going to tell you all about him and hopefully, convince you to keep an eye on him this year since he has the tools to take a step forward.
A disclaimer: since we are in deep sleeper territory, keep in mind that there is a lot of risk here, so don't get too excited and don't expect too much.
David Hale is an unassuming, 27-year-old, right-handed 5th starter that posted a 4.31 FIP last year with only 4.53 K/9 and 4.02 BB/9. Not great numbers. No one will be fighting you for him. So why is he a sleeper?
If you've been reading my posts or those of Eno Sarris at Fangraphs, you know about pitch type peripherals. These are things like ground ball percentage and swinging strike percentage for each pitch type a pitcher throws. Here is an intro to the concept and here is some more recent info. In that second article, you will see Mr. Hale, sandwiched between Garrets (Cole and Richards) on the pitch arsenal score at #17. I know, technically Cole spells his first name differently, but just give me that one.
So, what makes David Hale's arsenal so good? Why do I expect his strikeout rate to surge this year? The table below tells the story of his skills. In one row, you see the 2014 league average for the stat and in the other row are Hale's 2014 stats.
Every one of his pitch-type peripherals that is above league average is an arrow in his quiver, so to speak. The more a pitcher has, the easier it is for him to get a hitter out through strikeouts and ground outs. A quick note: this method does not account for quality of contact, popups, flyball pitchers, etc., so guys that specialize in limiting damage from batted balls instead of striking guys out or getting grounders will not be high on this list. That does not mean they aren't successful pitchers, just that they do it a different way. I think Dallas Keuchel is a good comp for Hale, and represents the best case scenario for his skillset, but that gives you an idea of the potential here.
Back to Hale, his velocity is slightly below average for a righty at 91, so that isn't his weapon. He gets above average groundball rates on four different pitches, which is unusual. His curve and changeup both get swings and misses above the average and his changeup is 11 mph slower than his fastball (10 or more is considered excellent separation). That's six arrows in his quiver (plus the changeup speed difference), which is a good start. He needs to improve his control to even have a chance to tap into those skills, though, with that 4 BB/9 rate. He had sub-3 walk rates in both A and AAA, so he has had control before. He's only pitched 98 innings in the majors so far, so we don't really have a big sample yet.
I've included his heat maps (from Fangraphs) for situations when he is ahead in the count and then behind. First, he clearly likes to work down in the zone and get hitters to chase low or hit low fastballs for groundballs. When he falls behind, he loses some command and covers too much of the zone in an attempt to get back in the count. He isn't able to use his low balls to play to his strengths. If he can improve his control and get ahead in counts more, he can keep the ball down and use his bread-and-butter stuff. That's why the walk rate is especially important for Hale.
Let's look at some more pretty graphs! These three point out two more issues Hale needs to improve on this season. First, his release point kept moving up and up as the season went on and down as he moved through the order, further complicating his control issues (first two charts). Second, his changeup struggled to fool hitters the third time through the order, as you can see on the third chart. These are two more things to keep an eye on with Hale this year. If he can get these issues under control early, he could be in for a breakout season. Note: Brooks classifies his breaking ball as a slider, but Pitch F/X calls it a curve, so pick your favorite, I guess.
Now, Hale is not guaranteed a rotation spot with the Braves, but will have every chance to win the 5th spot out of spring training. This last table shows Steamer's projection for Hale in 2015, followed by my own, more optimistic projection. Steamer looks at his relief appearances last year and thinks he will be a reliever for most of the year, if not all. Also, Steamer isn't sure he has a rotation spot, because it may still believe that Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd are in Atlanta. I'm buying him as a last round flyer or early season waiver pickup whenever I can this year. Don't be afraid to cut him if that walk rate or strikeout rate aren't showing improvement though.
Now, for your viewing pleasure, here is a video of Hale's changeup striking out Michael Choice.
Here is a video of Hale's two-seamer inducing a grounder right to CJ at third base.
Finally, here is a video of Hale's first start of the season, when he threw 5 scoreless innings and looked good. This is the Hale I am banking on more this season. Tschus!