Tuesday, July 29, 2008

To Hawk or not to Hawk?
There was a time at the beginning of the Millennium when Latroy Hawkins was a bullpen stalwart. After a disgusting 10-14 season as a starter in 1999 nearly ran him out of baseball, Hawkins began receiving his mail down the third base line in the Twins bullpen. It turned out to be a career saver. Between 2000 and 2003, Hawkins made 267 appearances in relief, tossing 296.6 innings and sported a 3.09 era. Hawkins struck out 18.8% of the 1,238 batters faced in that duration. While a shaky closer in 2001, Latroy did save 28 games in spite of a 5.96 era, but it was his stint as the right-handed set-up man for Eddie Guardado in 2002 and 2003 where he pitched 177.3 innings with a 22.2% strikeout rate and a minuscule 4.8% walk rate that guaranteed him a hefty raise as his contract with the Twins expired. Deciding that paying Hawkins and the recently free agented Everyday Eddie Guardado the market rate for a closer and premium set-up man was not within a mid-market budget, the Twins opted to use recently acquired Joe Nathan to finish games and inserted 25 year old Juan Rincon into the set-up role allowing Hawkins to persue other suitors.
One such suitor were the Chicago Cubs, just up Lake Michigan from his hometown of Gary, Indiana, who locked him to a two-year, $8-million dollar contract with a third year option. As the Cubs closer in his inital season under the new contract, Hawkins saved 25 game out of 34 opportunities (73.5% save rate) with a 2.63 era. In the final month of that season, Hawkins reassured the North Siders that he could still finish games as he threw 16.2 innings with 17 strikeouts, keeping opponents baffled as they hit just .197/.222/.328 off of him. Unfortunately for Latroy, the Cubs would only require a year and a half of that three year deal. After a particularly bad stretch in 2005 where in April and May he failed to secure 4 of 8 save opportunities and was knocked around by opponents (.250/.316/.444). Hawkins was run out of Chicago, shipped to San Francisco for Jerome Williams and David Aardsma, where he continued his Midwest performance in the Bay Area. Hawkins exercised his player option for the 2006 season, inciting the Giants to trade him across the country to Baltimore for Steve Kline. Once back in the American League Hawkins stabilized a bit, throwing 60.2 innings with a 4.48 era. His peripheral numbers plummeted though. In 2005 with the Cubs and the Giants Hawkins maintained a 17.4% strikeout rate. One year later in Baltimore his strikeout rate bottomed out at 10.3% - a significant decrease suggesting that he floated through the 2006 season on a wing and a prayer.
Desperate for bullpen assistance the Colorado Rockies signed Latroy prior to the 2007 season to a 1-year, $3.5-million dollar contract with a 2008 option. Hawkins responded by being a valuable piece of the National League champions' relief corp. He threw 55.2 innings with a 3.82 era. Once again his strikeout peripherals were low (12.8% k%) suggesting that he is nearly a rapid decline as he ages to the mid-30s, but a surprising spike in groundball rates (from 44% in 2006 to 63% in 2007) with one of the National League's best defense behind him (.700 DER, .989 fielding percentage) lead to a freakishly low .267 batting average on balls in play (.298 National League reliever babip average).
"I am not going to be a Rockie. It just didn't work out. I wanted to come back. I loved those guys. It's nothing but positive memories." Hawkins told the Denver Post when he opted to sign with the New York Yankees rather than Colorado. "We signed Hawkins to help us in the sixth and seventh inning, and to provide useful relief innings. He can take the ball and pitch a lot." Said Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman responding to how Latroy was going to be deployed in the Bronx. True to their word, the Yankees have limited Hawkins use to low leverage situation (0.93 pLI) in his 53 innings of work. Unlike his 2007 season in Denver, Hawkins could not produce the same groundball rate, dropping from 63% to 48%, and watched the average on balls in play increase (from .267 to .296).

fb% | mph

crv% | mph

sld% | mph

chgn | mph

opp. avg

opp. slg


2002 (Twins)

76% | x

8% | x

4% | x

5% | x




2003 (Twins)

70% | x

8% | x

2% | x

9% | x




2004 (Cubs)

75% | x

7% | x

8% | x

2% | x




2005 (Cubs/Giants)

76% | 93.6

1% | 77.4

14% | 86.6

5% | 83.3




2006 (Orioles)

75% | 94.0

8% | 81.3

12% | 87.4

2% | 84.9




2007 (Rockies)

69% | 93.5

6% | 79.0

14% | 87.1

10% | 83.8




2008 (Yankees)

62% | 92.5

4% | 79.9

20% | 86.9

11% | 84.4




As you can deduce from the pitch type usage chart above, Hawkins had a different approach when he was playing for the Twins and in his first season with the Cubs. He peppered the strike zone with an above-average fastball and interspersed the occasional curveball, slider and changeup. As he distanced himself from the Twins organization, Hawkins developed a reliance on a slider. His 2005 season when he started to favor that offspeed pitch was the same season that ran him out of the Windy City and wore out his welcome in the Golden Gate State. The following year at Camden, Latroy resurrected his curveball that he all but dropped in 2005 but still used the slider more so than the other breaking pitches as a result opponents average and slugging percentage increased once again. In 2007 at Coors Field Hawkins started to throttle down on his fastball usage and began implementing a changeup which is the possible explanation behind the increase in groundballs - batters were out on their front-foot as 31% of pitches thrown were off-speed. This season Hawkins eased up even more on his fastball as the velocity dropped an entire mile per hour on average while throwing the slider now 20% of the time. Interestingly enough, opponents are reaching base more frequently (possibly because of the decreased defense in New York) but are not hitting him as hard as his slugging percentage against is down as low as it is for the first time since leaving the Twin Cities. One of the biggest detrimental correlations between the added reliance on the slider and changeup is that he is susceptible to left-handed batters. This season against right-handed batters, Hawkins has been strictly a fastball (61%) and slider (27%) guy - limiting them to a .227/.266/.261 in 95 match-ups. The lefties are getting doses of the fastball (64%) but are getting the changeup (19%) over the slider (11%) which has led to left-handed hitters batting .338/.429/.554 in 77 match-ups. This has transformed him into a less valuable cousin of the Lefty-One-Out-Guy, a ROOGY. A small adjustment to his pitch repertoire could reap dividends for whatever team obtains him.
La Velle E Neal suggested that Hawkins under the guidance of Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson could have been the explanation why success has been at a premium outside of the Minnesota organization. True, working with Rick Anderson once again could give Hawkins the injection his career needs but Hawkins is far from the 8th inning guy they have been in need of. While with the Yankees he was used in low leverage situations, opting instead to use Kyle Farnsworth to bridge the game to Mariano Rivera. At best Hawkins would wind up as a facsimile to Jesse Crain or Matt Guerrier, with even fewer strikeouts. While his fastball is no longer as quick as it once was five years ago, it still has plenty of zip to be considered a hard ball. The secondary pitches are what have been leading to the high batting lines. At times Latroy Hawkins has had a career that has been lights out (2002-2004) but has also been as ineffective as an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist at other times (2005-2006) and then has had two in recent years that have been serviceable (2007-2008). In the midst of the pennant race, the Twins do not have the luxury to try to take on a project, especially if they assume he will be an 8th inning guy.